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North Dakota crime bureau adds dog for fire investigations

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Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and K-9 Lee, a black Lab accelerant detection dog with the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation. Lee's handler is Agent Luke Kapella.

North Dakota's state crime bureau has its latest agent's nose to the grindstone.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem on Tuesday introduced K-9 Lee, a nearly 2-year-old black Lab who detects accelerants, or ignitable liquids such as gasoline, citronella and lighter fluid. 

Lee began his duties last month after graduating from training school in Front Royal, Virginia. He will work with local law enforcement and fire services statewide.

Lee is partnered with Bureau of Criminal Investigation Agent Luke Kapella for detecting accelerants in suspected arson and suspicious fires.

"I'm basically a tour guide for the dog," Kapella said. "I make sure he stays safe because he gets so into working he's not looking if he's going to fall through a floor or step on glass, so when we go into a scene, I just make sure he's safe doing his job."

Lee also can track people with accelerants on their clothing.

He is trained daily and has been used twice already, most recently at the site of a fatal house fire he returned from on Monday. 

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives paid for the dog's training, costing about $50,000, Kapella said.

Lee is available to the state crime bureau free of charge for law enforcement purposes as part of an agreement with the feds, Stenehjem said. The dog's jurisdiction allows him to go nationwide.

Lee is one of 63 accelerant-detecting dogs across the country, the closest others being in Seattle, South Dakota and Wisconsin, according to Kapella.

"They're mostly in the South and the Southeast, so there's not a lot out here, so it's a great honor to have a dog out here and to be chosen," he said.

North Dakota's climate could be conducive for Lee; 32 degrees Fahrenheit "is about the optimum temperature for these dogs to process," Kapella said.

The crime bureau has two other K-9s, Jib and Jab, both Labs trained on the odor of the chemical in the solder of electronic devices' memory, leading investigators to items containing child pornography.

Stenehjem said Jib and Jab have proved their worth. They have helped in numerous arrests and the rescues of three sexually abused children since May 2020. Bureau Director Lonnie Grabowska said the two dogs are used about every week, for both narcotics and the bureau's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force search warrants.

Stenehjem's office thought another dog could help with fire investigations.

Kapella demonstrated Lee's abilities by leading him around the attorney general's office, where the dog found hidden discs containing different accelerants.

North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation Agent Luke Kapella leads K-9 Lee on a demonstration of his accelerant detection abilities in Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's office.

"What he'll do if he finds it, he'll sit and then he'll wait to get paid (with a treat) and then I'll ask him to show me exactly where it is, and that's where he kinda hones in on his craft and shows me exactly where he indicated," Kapella said. 

Lee must be recertified every year, according to Stenehjem.

"He has to be 100%," the attorney general said.

The state fire marshal's office, which is under the attorney general, conducted 105 requested fire investigations in 2020. North Dakota had 88 arson crimes reported that year.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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