How is it a dog who was afraid of his own water bowl made inmates run in fear? A dog who was so gentle with children be so fierce when he descended into the drug-infested bowels of prisons? A dog who came to be nicknamed Knucklehead because he uprooted garbage cans could sniff out 75 pounds of deadly narcotics then die by inhaling what is believed to be synthetic marijuana?
A crowd gathered under the shade of a sprawling oak tree at Staton Prison shed tears and listened to “Taps” because the answers to those perplexing questions had come at a tremendous cost — the death of K9 Jake, a five-year-old Belgian Malinois who was considered perhaps the best drug-detecting dog in the state.
Jake died two days after helping conduct a search for contraband at Staton Prison. The dog’s handler and partner, Alabama Department of Corrections Sgt. Quintin Jones, said Jake alerted on a substance initially identified as synthetic marijuana then became unresponsive.
During a memorial service July 30, Jones struggled to stifle his welling emotions as he stood next to a small box containing Jake’s ashes under the tree where his remains would be buried.
“I don’t want this to be a sad occasion,” Jones said. “We didn’t lose anything — they didn’t win. We’re going to work harder and train harder and move in a direction where we’re going to remove narcotics from these prisons. His death was not in vain. He taught me about courage. These four-legged friends of ours have no fear.”
From a nearby kennel, young beagles and bloodhounds being trained as tracking dogs barked as ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn tried to put Jake’s death into perspective.
“Jake was doing what he was created to do and he did it with abandon,” Dunn said. “I think that’s a worthy aspiration for me. You hear those puppies over there yelping, dying to get into the fight.”
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Justice condemned Alabama’s overcrowded and understaffed prisons in a lurid report, saying, among other things, officials are unable to staunch the flow of contraband being smuggled into the prisons by corrections officers, family, friends and inmates.
Staton, which was designed for 508 prisoners, held 1,385 inmates in November 2018, the DOJ report said.
Many of those inmates quaked at the thought of Jake entering their cell block and not because of his penchant for turning over trash cans earlier in his K9 career.
“We called him Knucklehead because he’d do dumb things like that when he was younger,” Jones said. “Even the inmates knew him as Knucklehead. When he would come into the prison the inmates would run in fear. They’d say, ‘Knucklehead is coming.’”
Chaplain Thomas Woodfin said the inmates’ dread of Jake carried practical results.
“They’d say, ‘Is Jake coming? If Jake is here, I better flush this now,’” Woodfin said.
ADOC Investigations and Intelligence director Arnaldo Mercado said Jake was precise and persistent in his quest to uncover contraband.
“He was the best narcotics K9 officer the Alabama Department of Corrections had in its ranks,” Mercado said. “Nothing slipped through the cracks with Jake.”
In his eulogy, Lt. Dion Wasdin recited a list of the illegal drugs and money Jake discovered in five years as if they were career statistics for a hall of fame inductee:
• 211 grams of cocaine
• 150 Ecstasy pills
• 159 grams of Flakka
• 70 grams of heroin
• 2,412 grams of meth
• 25,436 grams of marijuana
• 5,560 grams of Spice
• 335 Suboxone strips
• 1,836 Xanax pills
• 37 grams of hydrocodone
• $1,315 in U.S. currency
“Jake’s journey has ended here and he has crossed the Rainbow Bridge to the dog kennels in heaven,” Mercado said. “For us the journey continues and we will honor Jake’s memory every day by continuing to press the fight.
“Some say K9s are only animals trained to do a job,” Mercado continued as he choked back tears. “But he enjoyed what he did. … I enjoyed Jake coming in to my office and playing with him but he was quick to let you know he was done playing and he was ready to find drugs. When he meant business, he meant business.”
But more than the business end of the dog attracted Jones when he first saw Jake.
“When I first saw him, he fit my personality,” Jones said. “He had his chest stuck out and he was strutting around. He had a lot of personality. He was full of arrogance. He was a dog looking for a handler. I think he selected me.”
Jake became a member of Jones’ family and stayed with them at their home.
“Our relationship was very deep,” Jones said. “We were like Batman and Robin. I’d leave home and he’d get in my truck and I spent more time talking about my problems with him than I did with my wife. We morphed into one.”
They were so good together they won a narcotics competition hosted by CAPK9 and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, beating multiple K9 teams from agencies throughout the state.
Jake wasn’t a perfect dog but it made him all the more lovable. In fact, Jones said one of his favorite memories resulted from a mistake he made while Jake was training.
“It was a handler error,” Jones said. “He trained on a toy and it was supposed to look like it was popping out at him. But I was too slow putting it down there. He’d look back at me like, ‘What are you doing? You’re too slow.’ When he alerted on narcotics, he’d look back.”
Looking back on the memories now is both delightful and painful.
“He hated his water bowl and I don’t know why,” Jones said. “I’d fill it and he’d take two or three drinks and then it was a fight. He’d take that bowl and sling it.”
Jones often took Jake to local schools to teach children about the dangers of drugs and let them play with the big, tender dog. During the memorial service, Kendall McDaniel, 10, whose father, Lt. Adam McDaniel, works at Staton Prison, sobbed as she recalled Jake visiting her school.
“He never had a bad side,” McDaniel said as she wiped away her tears. “He was always friendly. I remember in second grade he jumped on me. He came in and we’d hide stuff so he could find it and he would jump on everybody.”
“She is heartbroken,” Jones said. “He’d love the kids but in the prison he was a different guy.”
Regardless of where he was, Jake was reliable.
“As I went to sleep last night, all I could think about was six footprints,” Jones said. “He was my best friend. As Jake would have put it, ‘Your two and my four.’ That’s six footprints.”
Those four footprints will be difficult to fill but Jones said he will move forward with a new partner.
“The K9 division will give me the opportunity to search for another partner but it’s more for me right now to get my mental part back,” he said. “Once that gets back, we’ll go back to work. It’s going in a different direction now. It’s so important for me to be ready to receive my next partner and for my next partner to receive me.”
The ADOC has 11 K9 tracking and drug-detection teams and the K9 unit is used internally for tracking and drug detection operations as well as supporting local, county, state and federal law enforcement.
“They stand on that thin blue line between chaos and civility so we can go home at night and think about college football is coming and whatever else we do,” Dunn said.
The effort to remove drugs from state prisons will continue for Jones and a new dog by his side but he’ll always remember his devoted friend who died doing his duty.
“The thing I’m going to miss most is the look back,” Jones said. “I’ll always be looking back for you brother. I love you.”