A Dash of Pepper?
On the Run for Three Weeks, Richard Matt and David Sweat Eluded Capture. Were Dogs on Their Trail Stymied by Pepper?
On June 6, 2015, in daring fashion straight out of the movies, convicted murderers Richard Matt and David Sweat escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Dannemora, NY. Using hacksaw blades smuggled into their cells inside frozen hamburger meat, they broke through steel and brick walls, crawled through a steam pipe, and emerged from a manhole outside the prison walls.
Discovered missing, a massive manhunt ensued, comprised of more than one thousand law enforcement officials. Yet the pair eluded authorities for three weeks. In separate incidents both were eventually apprehended. Matt was fatally shot by a U.S. Border Patrol member on June 26, 2015, in Elephant’s Head, NY. Sweat was shot twice by a state trooper on June 28, 2015, in Constable, NY, and was taken into police custody.
As search teams were aided by bloodhounds trained to follow scents, questions abound as to how exactly the two evaded arrest for such a lengthy period of time. Media outlets reported that pepper shakers with Sweat’s DNA were found by authorities. Consistent with the overall Hollywood-esque theme associated with the brazen breakout from jail, it has been speculated that the convicts sprinkled pepper on the ground, throwing the dogs off their scents. The ruse initially surfaced in the 1967 film “Cool Hand Luke”, in which an escaped convict covered his tracks with pepper as he left town. State Police Superintendent Joseph D’Amico appears to have subscribed to this theory, responding to reporters during a press conference regarding the impact that pepper had on the investigation, “We did have difficulty tracking, so it was fairly effective in that respect.”
There is a historical precedent to this concept, albeit with another substance. Danish Jews escaping Nazi deportation to concentration camps in 1943 were smuggled out of Denmark on fishing boats heading towards Sweden. To fend off the Nazi maritime patrols equipped with bloodhounds, scientists developed a concoction of rabbit’s blood and cocaine, distributing it to the captains of the boats. Dogs attracted to the blood were incapable of tracking anything, as their sensory ability was disabled after sniffing the cocaine. The precious cargo aboard the boats remained undetected, enabling them to survive.
Did D’Amico truly acknowledge the role that pepper played in the escape or did he perhaps cleverly deflect a question which may have otherwise opened up a discussion regarding tactics used by law enforcement officials conducting the manhunt? Either way, can we legitimately attribute the escapees’ success in eluding capture to a dash of pepper? According to a June 29, 2015, New York Times article written by Andy Newman, we can not.
Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, Director of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, explains that as people walk, they shed dead skin cells that emit a scent that permeates the air and the ground. Even if pepper did present some sort of a roadblock to the dog on the ground, the lingering airborne scent would enable the tracking to continue undeterred. Additionally, Paul Waggoner, Associate Director of Auburn University’s Canine Research Detection Institute, is quoted in a June 29, 2015, Business Insider article by Cody Sullivan as saying, that dogs have an incredibly sophisticated sense of smell, which operates thousands of times more acutely than human noses. In fact, their noses are divided into two compartments, one for breathing and the other dedicated to the 300 million receptors that sort through odors and aromas. A trained dog is provided with the “technical knowhow” to work through a temporary difficulty such as a strong smell. Pepper is not an impenetrable barrier, according to Waggoner.
The real proof in the pudding (or should we say in the pepper?) may lie with two episodes of Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel that aired in 2007 and 2010 respectively, where a dog was able to trace its target consistently throughout the show, despite pepper being used as a potential impediment. While any show can be staged and pictures can be doctored (Dr. Pepper anyone?), the experts appear to agree that pepper does not inhibit a dog’s ability to follow a scent. Which of course leads to the $64,000 question-how then did Matt and Sweat elude authorities for such a long time?
Reports have recently come to light of an alleged drug trafficking ring that operated within the Clinton Correctional Facility. The FBI is investigating any possible link that Matt and Sweat may have had to the ring.
Drug trafficking ring. Cocaine. Ineffective bloodhounds. Just a thought…
Abe Lerner is a member of the pack at NutralifePet, a division of Nutralife Health Products, Inc., which has been selling high quality dietary supplements since 1996. NutralifePet, the manufacturer of Ultra Joint & Liver Support with SAM-e for dogs and cats, caters to the individual needs of each pet. NutralifePet…caring about animals, one pet at a time…