Weird Science

Testimony from forensic experts can be the most persuasive evidence presented at trial, but often juries don’t realize that the analysis of hair, fire, and even fingerprints may not be so scientific. And as the story of deputy Keith Pikett, master of the dog-scent lineup, shows, investigations can sometimes lead to the greatest crime of all: putting innocent people behind bars.
Weird Science
Photographs by Adam Voorhes

Quincy, the amazing bloodhound, sniffed the air around the body of Sally Blackwell, who lay half-naked in a field just outside Victoria. Blackwell, a supervisor for Child Protective Services, had been missing for a day when a county-road crew found her in a brushy field on March 15, 2006. She had been strangled with a rope, which was still on her body. Quincy’s handler, Deputy Keith Pikett, held the leash and surveyed the scene, which was teeming with officers from the Victoria Police Department, the Victoria County Sheriff’s Office, the Department of Public Safety, and the Texas Rangers. It was almost seven o’clock and would be getting dark soon.

A few hours earlier, Sam Eyre, a sergeant with the Victoria police, had called Pikett, who lived in Houston and worked out of the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office, about two hours away. Pikett (pronounced “ Pie-ket”) was something of a star in law enforcement circles. For years he and his dogs—Quincy, James Bond, and Clue—had helped find missing children and escaped convicts, and they had investigated murders all over the state, including one in Victoria in 2003. They had worked with the FBI, the ATF, the Texas Rangers, and the state attorney general’s office, and they had helped solve hundreds of crimes with Pikett’s version of a technique called a scent lineup, in which his dogs matched an odor found at a crime scene to the person who left it. His dogs were so good at sniffing out the bad guys, he said, that they had made only five mistakes in fifteen years.

Standing in the field, Pikett, a lean man of 59, took out a couple of gauze pads. He knelt down and wiped one on Blackwell’s body; the other he wiped on the rope. Then he held the first up to Quincy’s nose. “Seek,” the deputy said.

Quincy took off, with Pikett on the other end of the leash. An excited cry went up from the other investigators, who jumped in their vehicles. Eyre ran alongside Pikett, while Pikett’s wife, Karen, followed in an SUV with James Bond. They cruised down Hanselman Road, a two-lane blacktop, for about half a mile, then took a hard left at Loop 463. Quincy loped along, her head bobbing between the air and the pavement. She crossed under U.S. 59 and led the officers up a wide overpass that went over Business 59. Pikett stopped, put Quincy in the vehicle to rest, and took out James Bond. He pulled the scent pad out of a Ziploc bag and held it to James Bond’s nose. Again they were off.

By this point they were inside the Victoria city limits. James Bond, younger and faster than Quincy, took a left at Airline Road into a suburban neighborhood called Cimarron. The twenty-month-old bloodhound jogged through the quiet streets, finally stopping on Laguna Drive at Blackwell’s house. A truck from a local TV station was parked across the street. It had been a five-and-a-half-mile journey from the victim’s body to her home, but the dogs weren’t finished. There was a killer to catch. So Pikett held one of the scent pads to Quincy’s nose, and she took off again, turning onto the first street, Navajo Drive. At this point, Sheriff T. Michael O’Connor told Eyre that a “person of interest” in the case, Michael Buchanek, lived on the street. Buchanek had gone out on a couple of dates with Blackwell, and he had been questioned that morning. Now Quincy led Pikett and Eyre down Navajo, around a long bend, up a driveway, and to the front door of a brown brick home. It belonged to Buchanek.

He was not your typical suspect. The divorced father of two had been an officer with the sheriff’s department for 24 years. He’d run the SWAT team, taught firearms classes, and had some experience with police dogs, rising to the rank of captain before retiring, in 2004, and taking a job with a contractor training police officers in Iraq. He had asked O’Connor to care for his children if anything happened to him while he was overseas and even left his friend a signed document granting him power of attorney. Buchanek had returned in late 2005, but only after being injured when a suicide bomber attacked his hotel.

The law enforcement officers all reconvened at ten o’clock at Cimarron Express, a nearby convenience store, buzzing with excitement about the break in the case. What was next, they asked the deputy? To be certain of the connection and to have probable cause for a search warrant, Pikett suggested a scent lineup. All he needed was a scent sample from Buchanek. O’Connor told Pikett about the document Buchanek had signed two years earlier; it was still sitting in an envelope in O’Connor’s desk drawer. Pikett said that that would do, so O’Connor retrieved it. Pikett wiped a pad across the signature and put the gauze in a bag.

Some time before midnight, at Pikett’s direction, detectives set up six paint cans twenty feet apart in the parking lot of the police station. Five of the cans contained scent samples from five other white males as foils; in the sixth was the scent pad that had been wiped along Buchanek’s signature. Pikett then held the scent pad from the rope to the nose of James Bond and walked him along the cans. According to Pikett, James Bond “alerted” on the one that held Buchanek’s scent. Pikett did the same with Quincy, using the scent pad from Blackwell’s body, and Quincy also matched Buchanek’s scent to the victim. Though Buchanek had denied having anything to do with Blackwell’s murder, he officially became a suspect, and officers obtained a warrant to search his home and car. He was barred from his home, and his car was seized.

Six days later Pikett and Eyre conducted another lineup, this time with a scent taken directly from Buchanek’s arm, in a grassy area of the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office. The three dogs

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