It began, like so many good ideas begin, to fill a need.
It was around 1990, and Springfield had an arson problem. Massachusetts State Police Trooper Bob Corry, working out of Hampden County, was trying to stop the fires. Problem was, every time someone burned a tenement or a bodega, he had to call Connecticut State Troopers and ask them to bring one of their ignitable-detection dogs to Massachusetts to sniff through the rubble, to try to sniff out the point of origin and type of accelerant used by the arsonist.
In those days, the Connecticut State Police were pioneers in training police dogs for other states – narcotics detection dogs, bomb dogs, cadaver dogs. As Corry heard the story, CSP Troopers and an ATF agent were shooting the breeze over a few beers one night after training, when one of them said, “I bet’cha dogs could be used for finding accelerants in a fire.”
The idea made sense. “Accelerants are constantly trying to go to vapor,” Corry explained. So Connecticut began training a dog to recognize the vapors caused by ignitable liquids. That dog, Mattie, graduated
and became what is believed to have been the first ignitable liquid-detection dog in the world.
So when Bob Corry needed a dog and handler to respond to a suspected arson, he turned to Connecticut, and a CSP Trooper named Doug Lancelot and Mattie would come up to the Springfield area to help investigate.
It happened so often, that a better way was found. One day Lancelot said to Corry, “I tell you what … We are going to get you a dog.”
And that was how a black, pure-bred Labrador retriever came to be the MSP’s first ignitable-detection dog. His name was Hulk.
“The dog came with the name,” Corry recalled. “He was family pet for a couple who was divorcing. They split up all their assets but they couldn’t agree on who was going to get him. As part of the divorce decree the judge awarded the dog to the state of Connecticut. Or so the story goes.”
So Corry and another MSP arson investigator, Trooper Michael Cherven, began several months of training to become Hulk’s dual handlers.
The drill taught him to move past weaker scent spots (areas where the can with the drop had just passed through the air) and instead find and alert to the point of the strongest scent, the can holding the drop of gasoline, now come to a stop after the spinning ceased. It was training that in the comingThe training was rigorous and ingenious. Corry remembers one drill, the training wheel — made of two 2”x4” pieces of wood, laid out perpendicular to each other to form a cross shape. The cross was then set horizontally atop an axis set into the ground, so it could spin like a merry-go-round. A can was set on the end of each of the cross members. Trainers would place a tiny drop of gasoline (about the half the size of a standard eye drop, Corry remembers) into one of the cans, and then spin the cross. Hulk had to locate the can with the gasoline drop in it.
years would allow Hulk, time and again, to locate points of origin where ignitable liquids had been poured, even when that point had been buried by the charred ruins of the building.
Corry also would take Hulk to a tennis court, put a half a drop of gasoline in a crack on the concrete court, and give the black Lab the command to find it.
“I’d say, Hulk, you want to work?” he recalled. “And the dog would get electric, ready to go. You knew – if he closed his mouth and he’s scenting through his nose – you knew he was ready to go.”
At fire scenes, Hulk would alert to a spot, Corry or Cherven would then pull him away, walk him in a circle, and give the command again: “Seek.” If the dog went back to the same spot, that’s where they would start digging to get down to the point where the accelerant had been poured.
Together, the team of Corry, Cherven and Hulk began to achieve great success in solving arsons. They were a vital part of the MSP fire investigation unit, working in concert with other troopers who canvassed neighborhoods, interviewed witnesses, victims and suspects, and scanned the crowd that gathered to watch fires burning, to see if any of them made eye contact with the trooper — a sign that they might have some information they want to pass along.
Hulk’s talents necessitated the State Police Crime Lab to acquire state-of-the art equipment to analyze the samples of ignitable liquids he was rooting out. Soon, the MSP lab was on par with the FBI in terms of equipment to identify accelerants.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that Hulk revolutionized arson investigations in Massachusetts,” said Corry, who retired in 1997 as a detective lieutenant.
Just as the fire investigation unit had done in Springfield, the unit in the early 1990s went into action in Lawrence. The city was being burned down, sometimes for profit, sometimes for revenge. Fires were being set to collect insurance payouts, or one drug dealer would beat up another in a beef over turf, and the guy who got took the beating would later set the other dealer’s apartment building ablaze.
Corry remembers a building with more than 20 apartments leveled to the ground by a suspicious fire. They ran Hulk through the scene. Amid the rubble, he alerted to a spot at the base of a rear exterior staircase. More specifically, he hit on a narrow seam between a riser and tread on one of the stairs. The troopers dug, and pried out a sample of debris no bigger than a shot glass. It tested positive for gasoline, and helped the squad bring another arsonist to justice.
Off-duty, Hulk was a loyal family pet. When he lived with Corry, he followed him everywhere around the house and slept on the floor next to his bed. After Corry moved to a different assignment, Cherven took Hulk full-time. The two were partners for several years, doing great work in determining origin and
cause of fires and holding arsonists accountable. Within the Cherven household, Hulk became a dearly- loved pet.
“Hulk was a great protector and always alerted us to visitors, before we knew they were there,” remembered Mike Cherven Jr., who followed his father’s footsteps into the Massachusetts State Police and is currently assigned to the Attorney General’s State Police detective unit. “I can recall him riding in the back of my dad’s Crown Vic back in the day, which had grey interior. The black fur made a mess of the back seats.”
Mike Cherven Jr. recalled a time during his dad’s partnership with Hulk, when the dog’s name was tweaked a bit. “I was told they made Hulk a ‘sergeant’ to give dad a hard time because he wasn’t a sergeant,” he remembered. So Hulk became Sgt. Hulk.
By any name, he was a fixture in the Cherven household, even after Cherven Sr. was promoted to sergeant and transferred out of the unit before passing away from a heart attack.
“Dad trained me to train Hulk when he was away,” Mike Cherven Jr. said. “As a food-reward K9, he needed to work to be fed. It was part of my chores as a child, when dad would travel or if he was otherwise tied up.
“Hulk was a great dog, well-trained and loyal to the end. Hulk loved the water, and would chase the ball into the water and swim for hours at our cottage in Rhode Island. We had him for many years after dad was promoted to sergeant and transferred out of the unit.”
The close bond between the dogs their families is a common denominator among the handlers.
“All of our dogs are (part of our families),” said Sgt. Paul Horgan, who partnered in the fire investigation unit with another black Lab, Lucy, for eight years. “They are really family pets with the exception that they go to work with us.”
Horgan got Lucy in the fall of 1994 when she was two and, like Cherven and Corry with Hulk, trained with her in Connecticut. Lucy went on to gain her own measure of fame, being featured for her work on Animal Planet and the news program 20/20, and in the book “Working Dogs.”
Once Lucy got a whiff, Horgan recalled, “she alerted all over Enzo. Gasoline.”“She did a lot of great work,” Horgan said. He recalled an arson in Revere in the late ‘90s, where a house was burned with the parents and three children inside. Fortunately, all of them got out. Police had a description of a suspect vehicle. When the car was stopped a short time later, Horgan and Lucy responded to the stop. The driver was a man named Enzo Rivers.
Then there was a fire in Winchendon where three suspects were identified and brought in for questioning. Horgan deployed Lucy on the car the suspects had been in, and she alerted to the scent of gasoline inside the vehicle.
During questioning at the station, each suspects’ clothing was taken and set aside separately. Horgan ran Lucy over the three separate piles of clothes.
“She alerted all over one of the sets of clothes. So then we knew how the gas was carried to the scene and we knew who did the pouring.” Lucy worked until she was 10, and lived until she was 13. Horgan, who still serves in the Fire and Explosives Investigation Unit, now handles an explosive-detection dog, a 6 ½-year old lab named Flynn.
The time has come, the members of that unit and of the State Fire Marshal’s Office believe, to do something special to recognize dogs like Lucy and Hulk and the many others who have served the State Police with honor and distinction. It is only fitting to do something tangible to highlight their service, and to acknowledge the dangers the animals face to keep humans safe by bringing arsonists to justice and detecting hidden explosives.
“There have been so many great dogs,” Horgan said. “It’s just a wonderful program and the work they do is incredible.”
Members of the unit, which currently includes five accelerant-detection dogs and eight explosive detection dogs and is commanded by Detective Lieutenant Paul Zipper, conceived of building a memorial to the dogs. Made of a stone triangle carved with an image of a handler and dog, and surr
ounded by brick pavers bearing the dog’s names, the memorial will grace the grounds of the state Fire Academy in Stow, where the unit is headquartered. The memorial is coming to fruition with the generous assistance of the State Police Association of Massachusetts and president Dana Pullman. The union has donated the stone and is assisting in raising money to fund the memorial’s construction.
“For over a quarter century, the Massachusetts State Police have relied on our canine partners to help protect the citizens of the Commonwealth,” Zipper said. “These special animals have a singular mission – seek out evidence of an ignitable liquid or explosive and alert their handler.
“They respond to calls for service regardless of the weather, time of day, or day of week. Our animals are exposed to the inherent dangers and hazardous environments that are part of fire and explosion scenes. They train and work every day without complaint. Recognizing these working canines individually for a collective quarter century of service is a fitting end to a career dedicated to public safety and security.”
To donate the Fire and Explosives Investigation Unit K-9 Memorial Fund, please send a check or money order to: State Police Association of Massachusetts, 11 Beacon Street, Suite 700, Boston, MA 02108. The check or money order must specify that the donation is being made to the Fire Marshal K9 Fundraiser.
The department would like to thank all those who donate to this endeavor and the State Police Association of Massachusetts for its assistance.