By midmorning Aug. 16, Greeley police officer John McNerney’s boss ordered both him and his dog, Cairo, to go home.
The two were supposed to leave work at 4:30 a.m. that morning, but multiple drug-related arrests across the city and, finally, a suspicious death coupled with a suspected arson had kept them out hours after that.
McNerney would later call it one of the most eventful nights of his career.
McNerney and Cairo received two awards last week from the National Police Canine Association in recognition of the work they did the night of Aug. 15 into Aug. 16. Each quarter, the organization presents two awards — one to recognize a canine-handler team for finding drugs, and another to acknowledge a team for more general police work. It is rare for the same canine-handler team to earn both awards in a quarter. It is rarer still for the team to win both awards for calls they handled in a single night, as McNerney and Cairo did.
The first incident took place about 12:45 a.m. Aug. 16. An Evans police officer had pulled a driver over and asked McNerney to bring Cairo by to sniff for drugs around the car. Colorado law states the procedure, known as a «free air sniff,» is legal if it doesn’t require the officer to hold the driver on the side of the road any longer than they normally would. For that reason, McNerney and Cairo must always be ready to respond if an officer calls for their help.
In this case, as McNerney walked Cairo around the car, the dog sniffed heavily, licked his nose and, eventually, sat down next to the passenger side door and bumped it with his muzzle, which is what he’s trained to do when he smells drugs. Legally, it meant officers could search the car. They found methamphetamine, cocaine and $10,000 in cash.
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Not long after that, McNerney said, other officers asked him to bring Cairo to a car they stopped in the parking lot of a motel in east Greeley. McNerney knew the business. He’d been making drug-related arrests there almost every night. While police were fairly certain there was a drug dealer operating out of the one the rooms, they were having a difficult time gathering enough evidence to obtain a search warrant.
Officers had stopped a car driven by a person they believed had just bought drugs from the dealer. When McNerney brought Cairo to the scene, the dog once again alerted police to the presence of drugs in the car. When the driver of the car realized he’d been caught, he told police he’d been committing a great deal of small burglaries and bringing the stolen goods to the drug dealer in the motel room, who gave him drugs in exchange. Police were able to solve 55 burglaries because of his confession, and they also obtained a search warrant for the motel room. They arrested the drug dealer not long after that.
McNerney had, by that point, logged about five hours of overtime, since he and Cairo had to stay in the parking lot until the warrant was served, although Cairo slept in the kennel in the back of the police vehicle. By about 9:30 a.m. Aug. 16, McNernely learned he could go home.
He had almost clocked out when he heard about the fire and the suspected homicide at a home in the 1800 block of 11th Street. Detectives had found a trail of blood, and they asked McNerney to bring Cairo out to track it. It was a new skill — one Cairo was only beginning to learn — so McNerney asked for help from a canine-handler team from the Loveland Police Department. Together, they followed the trail of blood for 2 miles, eventually stopping at a home in the 1100 block of 4th Street where Aaron Hoult, 23, lived with his grandparents. Police later arrested him on suspicion of first-degree murder and arson.
«The sergeant on duty pretty much gave me the order to go home,» McNerney said. «He said, ‘we can’t have you working 100-hour weeks.'»
But the workload didn’t bother McNerney. Working with the canine unit, he said, he gets to do everything he wanted to do as a police officer, because he responds to so many different types of calls. A city Greeley’s size, said Greeley Police Chief Jerry Garner, could benefit from as many as five police dogs, but he said the three his department has still are effective. And drug arrests have increased a great deal since the Garner helped create the unit in spring 2010.
Garner believes the canine unit has been instrumental in helping to address the issue of drugs in Greeley through nights like the one McNerney and Cairo had in August.
«That makes (the unit) worthwhile all by itself,» he said.
National Police Canine Association awards
The National Police Canine Association recognizes officers and dogs every quarter for outstanding police work. Officer John McNerney and his dog Cairo are the first team from the Greeley Police Department to win an award from the organization. They submit noteworthy calls to the association, McNerney said, and association members select the ones they feel merit the awards. Ultimately, they also choose an incident to name as the call of the year.