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Buster, the big black Lab, helps to bring home missing Marines

June 7, 2011

You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but retired Mammoth Lakes Police Department officer Paul Dostie’s big, rambunctious Lab, Buster, has become something of an international sensation recently.

Trained as a cadaver dog by Dostie, Buster is one of the few dogs in the world who can not only detect recent human graves, but he can also detect very old graves. This ability is a product of Dostie’s driving passion to bring murderers to justice and peace to victims’ families, even if it’s been decades since the murder was committed.

Verified by some of the top forensic scientists in the country for his accuracy, Buster has already been instrumental in solving long-standing murder mysteries, most notably when he found the decade-old grave of Fullerton State student Lynsie Ekelund, whose accused killer is now in jail.

Solving such a crime and working on several others with nationally recognized experts would seem to be enough for even the most driven law enforcement officer. But in 2009, Dostie got an e-mail that changed his life in ways he could never have anticipated when a forensic scientist he was working with asked him about getting involved in an even older mystery: the fate of hundreds of America’s missing WWII soldiers.

Tarawa Island, 2011
It is February 2011. Buster and Dostie are on the hot, sweltering beach of the tiny Microindonesian island of Tarawa, site of one of America’s most bloody WWII battles. Here, some 1,200 U.S. Marines and some 4,500 Japanese and Koreans died in a 76-hour fight that would forever change the way the U.S deployed its soldiers and Marines.

Buster is hot and panting, but no matter. He’s working, and Buster lives to work. Dostie lines his dog out near a site where previous research indicates dozens of Marines may have been buried in a mass grave. The dog is prancing, whining, practically crying in his eagerness to work.

Dostie gives the word: “Buster, find.”

The dog shoots across the sandy yard, nose to the ground, trying to pick up the chemical signature of human decomposition – volatile oils and chemicals still present in the soil 68 years after that terrible battle. His nose is thousands of times more sensitive than a human’s and he races from site to site until he finds what he is looking for.

Then he lies down on the spot in the sand, practically grinning, watching Dostie with his intense brown eyes.

“Good dog, Buster, good dog,” Dostie says. “Good dog.” He frees Buster from his sit and throws him his favorite toy, a blue rubber bone that travels with them.

Dostie turns to Mark Noah, the man whose e-mail call he answered to come to Tarawa.

“How did he do,” Dostie asked.

Noah shakes his head, amazed. “He nailed it,” he said. “He nailed it.”

What Buster didn’t know was that this was a test. Noah already knew exactly where the Marines were buried, after thousands of hours of research and the use of a technology called “ground penetrating radar,” or GPR. But if you are going to dig up old Marine graves, some in the very backyards of the 20,000 people who now live on the small island, not to mention getting permission from the U.S. military, you had damn well better be right on. Betting wrong on the nose of a dog was a gamble neither Noah nor Dostie could afford to take.

Buster was right on, and over the course of the next few days, he continued to be, in test after test, all corroborated by the GPR. Then Noah and Dostie and the team of researchers with them set out to find new graves.

It wasn’t hard. Of the 1,200 Marines who died on Tarawa on those three days in November 1943, only about 500 were ever returned home to their families, due to the overall confusion and chaos that followed the war years. The rest still lie on Tarawa, covered by sand and rock, backyards and kitchens, airstrips and markets, pigs and dogs.

When Buster and Dostie returned home to Mammoth, and Noah to Florida (where Noah lives, works and runs a non-profit dedicated to finding soldiers missing in action) the real work was still ahead: convincing the U. S. military to follow up on Buster’s nose, and heading to Tarawa to bring back the soldiers.

“It’s the code of the U.S. Marines, to leave no man behind,” Dostie said. “Tarawa is the story they tell all the new Marines about, because they lost so many men, and I personally know of families who are still waiting for their loved ones to come home from there. But we knew it was going to take some work to convince the military to go back again.”

The team of researchers got a break this March, when Mammoth Town councilman John Eastman introduced Dostie to Mono County’s U.S. Congressional representative, Buck McKeon, at an event in Mammoth. McKeon, now head of the powerful Armed Services Committee, was shocked when Dostie showed him photos of the islanders’ pigs (kept for food) urinating and defecating on the graves of the Marines and he pledged to help Dostie and Noah bring the Marines home.

In April, McKeon kept his word, meeting with Dostie and Noah and others in Washington D.C., setting up a meeting with the military, paving the way for movement at the sclerotic Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), the agency charged with finding and returning all of America’s soldiers still missing.
Though nothing is set, Dostie said it’s possible that JPAC could go to Tarawa in the fall.

“Tremendous asset”
Meanwhile, Dostie is back in Mammoth. Not one to wait around, he’s working a few other cases, following leads, poking his nose, and Buster’s, into more mysteries than most of us read about in a lifetime, let alone live through.

It suits the restless, driven man and his equally restless, driven dog. Though Buster is motivated by something totally different than Dostie – the drive to hunt, the drive to play – the two really aren’t that different. Both dark, compact, intense; watching the two together is like watching a single organism.
“Paul has done a remarkable job with the dog,” said Dr. Donald Allen, a veterinarian from Ohio who has written a book on Tarawa and who served as Buster’s personal vet when the dog and researchers went to Tarawa. “They communicate exceedingly well, almost without effort.”

The key is that Dostie grasped early on what motivated Buster: play.

“Buster, like most Labs, has two critical qualities for a working dog, and he has them in great abundance: a strong play drive and a strong hunt drive,” said Allen.

“So Buster was trained on lots of exciting toys, especially his blue bone, which he gets every time he succeeds. Dogs evolved to be right by our side. They basically want to please the alpha male. So what makes the alpha male happy, in this case finding graves, makes the dog happy.”

Another thing that makes Buster such a good cadaver dog is, literally, the size of his nose.

“The dogs with a lot of surface area on their noses and their nasal cavities, like labs and some of the hounds, have more surface area to pick up more odors,” Allen said.

Border collies and other working dogs are smart enough to do the work Buster does, but their noses don’t match up, he said.

Mark Noah (whose lifelong interest in WWII led him to form his non-profit “HistoryFlight” business) said the work Buster did on Tarawa could transform the way both historical forensic research and criminal forensic research is done.

“The dog can cover more ground in 25 minutes than we can cover with our technology in a week,” he said. “That makes him a tremendous asset.”

Cutting edge
Dr. Arpad Vass is a forensic anthropologist and research chemist working at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Vass’s life work, for which he is internationally famous, has been to catalog the some 400 body vapors that are emitted during human decomposition, all in an effort to help law enforcement solve crimes.

He’s worked with Dostie on past and present cases, and said there are a lot of cadaver dogs in the world, but very few are trained like Buster.

“What Paul did with Buster that is unique was to train him on very old graves,” he said. “That made him invaluable to us, since most cadaver dogs are trained on remains where there is still some soft tissue left.
“Another thing that makes Paul unique is that he understands the science behind what we do.

Understanding the science means he understands the limits of his dog, meaning he is more accurate than most.”

Vass said that factors such as temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure and more affect a cadaver dog’s reliability. Humid climates are better for the dog, as the chemical compounds are more likely to be trapped, versus a hot desert environment where the chemicals are more likely to escape.

“Most cadaver dog handlers just assume their dog is always right. Paul pays attention to the site, the topography, and that makes his results more valid.”

“Fierce advocate for victims”
Closer to home, Mammoth Lakes Town councilman John Eastman, a friend and colleague of Dostie’s, said what sets Dostie apart is something indefinable – a certain drive to “do good things in the world.

”I don’t know if it’s his personality or his police experience, but he recognizes that the unique training that his dog has is an asset and he is driven to use that asset however he can, to help solve crimes, to help the military bring home American soldiers,” Eastman said. “And the work he’s doing, it’s very cutting edge. It’s almost never been done before.”

“He’s a person with a strong sense of values, he’s very principled.”

“I’ll tell you one thing about Dostie,” said Mammoth police officer Luke Schwartzkopf, whose relationship with Dostie has not always been smooth. “He’s a fierce advocate for victims. He will do everything he can, turn over every stone, to bring a criminal to justice.”

“Buster and Paul are two of the most important people in my life,” said Nancy Ekelund, whose 10-year search for her missing daughter, Lynsie Ekelund, finally ended when Buster found Lynsie’s remains in a grave in Southern California. “Because of them, I have closure. I know what happened to my daughter. And I’m one of the lucky ones. Only five percent of the people that go missing are ever found.

“Buster and Paul are my heroes.”

What about Dostie himself?

Not one to self-analyze much, Dostie nevertheless will tell you it makes him furious to see someone who has committed a crime go free, or to see pigs urinating on the graves of American Marines, who gave their lives for this country.

And he was visibly moved when he found himself in the Washington, D.C. National Archives a few weeks ago, searching for more information on his own namesake, his uncle Paul Dostie, who died in the Battle of the Bulge.

“I was able to pull information from Battalion records on my uncle’s unit and learned a lot about where he was fighting before he was killed,” he said. “He fought in the Hurtgen Forest and was in the Battle of the Bulge. He died after that battle, on March 21, 1945 during the breakout from the Remagen bridgehead.
Prior to this trip, I had to do all my research in books.”

And all because of that big, black Lab, that Buster.

“He’s a member of the family,” said Dostie. “He’s a typical goofy Lab, but when he’s told to work, it’s like flipping a switch. He’s all business then.”

And Buster?
“We’re looking for a girlfriend for Buster right now,” said Dostie. “There are a lot of people out there who want some Buster puppies.”

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