A police dog from Texas, ended a two-week manhunt for convicted killer Danelo Cavalcante in minutes. That fact sparked outrage among residents who believe the search would’ve ended much sooner if local officials hadn’t “gutted” what was once an esteemed K-9 program at the Chester County Sheriff’s Office.

At a town hall meeting, Howard Holland, acting warden at Chester County Prison, said, “‘If we had dogs, we would have gotten him that day.’”

Republicans are blaming Sheriff Fredda Maddox for the dearth of dogs available to search for the escaped killer and the extensive and expensive manhunt that ensued and kept county residents on edge.

However, Maddox told DVJournal that she inherited six police dogs from her predecessor Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh but the program has been cut in half due to a mixture of death and injuries to the police dogs. She also cited a nationwide shortage of police dog trainers that she says has made it harder for the department to train and replace police dog handlers, especially following the abrupt departure of her K-9 team supervisor who was forced to retire early because of an injury.

The issue came up during a recent prison board meeting as officials discussed improvements that they say will increase the security at the Chester County prison where Cavalcante escaped. The prison board approved a plan that’ll fully enclose exercise yards after video showed Cavalcante crab-walking up two prison walls during recreation time onto the roof. He then pushed past razor wire and evaded a corrections officer who was sitting watch in a tower, eluding authorities for weeks in the dense woodlands of Pennsylvania.

Authorities deployed hundreds of officers, including two dozen CCSO law enforcement officers, helicopters and infrared technology to aid the search.

Despite all the high-end gadgets, in the end it was a “hero” police dog named Yoda from a Border Patrol tactical team out of El Paso, Texas, that captured Cavalcante in five minutes after teams converged on a wooded area behind a tractor trailer store in South Coventry Township, where a DEA aircraft picked up the prisoner’s heat signal.

The prison renovations will cost upwards of $3 million and take several months to complete. Yet that won’t make Sally Mininger of Tredyffrin Township feel safer.

She lamented how the search could’ve ended sooner if the CCSO still had a more robust police dog presence, possibly saving Pennsylvania “millions of dollars.”

“If we had had appropriate security, staffing, and upkeep at the prison, plus oversight of this by the prison board, perhaps this renovation wouldn’t be needed,” she said.

Beyond CCSO’s once “award-winning” police dog unit, Mininger tells DVJ that the prison also had its own K-9 program that “consisted of run dogs who were housed between two fences surrounding the prison.” Any prisoners who tried escaping found themselves in a dog run where they were quickly subdued and apprehended, she says, but that program was disbanded in 1986.

Roy Kofroth, a former CCSO deputy sheriff who is running to replace Maddox, said that the CCSO K-9 program once consisted of as many as 12 police dogs. He says the program – and the sheriff’s office in general – has been diminished because of “inept” leadership, citing dozens of staffing vacancies. Some veterans left because of poor morale, he tells DVJournal.

When asked about the K-9 unit’s struggles, he redirected blame to Maddox.

“That is a question for the person that decimated it,” he said. “I don’t know his thought process.”

Maddox, a Democrat who sits on the prison board and is running for judge in the fall,   claims her department has worked quickly to replace the police dogs that it lost.

Last year, a police dog named Maddie was forced to retire because of hip dysplasia, Maddox says, while another K-9, Don, died. The department also had some police dogs and handlers transfer to other facilities.

In spring 2022, Sgt. Paul Bryant, who oversaw the sheriff’s K-9 team, injured himself and couldn’t train new personnel “for an extensive period of time,” Maddox says. He retired at the end of last year, Maddox said. It’s unclear whether he’s been replaced

Maddox says that the K-9 unit isn’t directly funded by the county and instead receives most of its money through private donations. The unit’s overall budget is less than $11,000, or less than even 4 percent of the department $7 million spending plan. The unit also receives “in-kind sponsorship” from the community that helps cover costs for vet bills, food and bulletproof vests.

While she understands the desire to improve CCSO’s police dog program, Maddox says the unit’s funding is staying flat in 2024.

Without more support, the unit can’t grow.

“It takes experienced, qualified and committed sworn personnel for handlers and trainers, as well as time for dogs and handlers to go through extensive training together,” Maddox says. “We would like to expand the K-9 Unit. … Dogs are a valuable aid for all law enforcement because they have enhanced skills that complement law enforcement personnel’s abilities. That is why we ensure that K-9s and handlers are certified, train on an ongoing basis, receive great care and have been part of the CCSO for a long enough time to fully understand the complexities of the work undertaken here.”

Welsh, the former sheriff, doesn’t buy Maddox’s excuses.

“When I left we had eight K-9s in service,” said Welsh. “All German Shepherds except one Belgium Malinois.” A ninth dog was a courthouse comfort dog. The dogs were trained in scent detecting for bombs, drugs, human remains and people, she said.

“When this Cavalcante character went over the wall, my position is, if we had these dogs engaged before (the trail) was contaminated, because he was on foot, we could have had this guy in a day, even in the sweltering heat. We didn’t have the dogs. The unit was decimated. They were down to two (dogs). Even with six dogs, they could have gotten him.”

While dogs age or die, they can be replaced, she said.  Maddox “can make all the excuses she wants. She did not support the K-9 unit. She did not support the fugitive apprehension unit.  A lot of resources were available.”

“The bottom line is the canine program was never supported or encouraged under her leadership,” said Welsh.

Under Welsh the sheriff’s office also had a fugitive apprehension unit, which is also gone. And some 40 deputies have left the office and the courthouse is reportedly using private security.

Former Deputy Matt Mandenhall posted on social media that he had handled Nero in the K-9 unit. Maddox and her second in command, Kevin Dykes, who is now running for sheriff, took Nero away from him and refused to allow him to take to dog home to say good-bye to his family. Police dogs often stay with their handlers and bond with their families.

“My family was and is still devastated,” Mandenhall wrote.

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