Even if 17.5 tons of cocaine represents only a fraction of the illegal drugs flowing through the United States, the 15,582 bricks nosed out by eight K-9 dogs in Philadelphia on June 17 was “the largest cocaine seizure American history,” says Robbinsville Police Sergeant Scott Kivet.
Three of the eight K9 handlers and their dogs who searched out the drugs were from Mercer County, including Ewing Police Officer Brittney Fornarotto and Jax. The other two were Kivet and Quori and Det. Sgt. Joe Angarone and Bela of the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office.
The dogs scoured a large Liberian-flagged container ship and pinpointed cocaine with a street value of about $1.1 billion hidden in just seven of thousands of containers on the ship.
Other agencies involved in the big bust were Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the U.S. Coast Guard, all under the Department of Homeland Security, as well as state and local law enforcement partners.
The three officers got a call to come directly to the port where, says Angarone, the “three football field-long” ship MSC (Mediterranean Shipping Company) Gayane was docked. They were told the containers would be both on and off the ship, because “the ship is so big there were areas we can’t get to.”
For the dogs, it was just another day of work. “It’s just like searching a house or a car—you give the dog the command to search and they search,” Angarone says.
Dogs are used to save on manpower and resources. When it comes to a huge container ship, Kivet says, “it’s easier to have a dog sniff a container than go through a ton of random fruit, or whatever is being imported.”
Kivet estimates that a ship may contain between 15 and 20 thousand containers, so “the dog’s job is to localize the odor as close to the source as possible.”
Kivet explains the acute sense of smell that enables the dog to locate drugs: “Their noses are 100 times stronger than mine. We might smell apple pie, and they smell cinnamon, sugar, and apples.”
But even though pure cocaine has a distinctive smell, drug distributors don’t make it easy for the dogs: they often pack the drugs near distractors like charcoal and coffee grinds. “But,” Kivet says, “it doesn’t distract them if you have a well-trained dog.”
The environment on a ship can be particularly challenging for a dog, who has to climb long metal steps to board and then work in a loud and hot environment.
Fornarotto says that Jax did particularly well in this area. “I was proud and excited that he had no environmental issues because he had already done training on a boat. My dog had no fears and did not clam up because of a different environment.”
Also, “dogs get tired out,” Angarone says, so they generally are on for four days then off for four, working a maximum of 12 consecutive hours, but based on the handler’s estimation of how the dog can tolerate.
Finding drugs is not a given, and when they do hit the jackpot, “sometimes it’s luck; sometimes it’s intel; and sometimes we routinely do checks with a dog,” Kivet says. In Philadelphia, he continues, “All our dogs did a really good job. We do a lot of drug seizures, but to find that amount—we are part of history now.”
Fornarotto was born in Toms River and moved at age four to Ewing, where she attended Antheil Elementary School, Fisher Middle School and Ewing High School.
“I knew I wanted to be in law enforcement at a young age,” she says. “I wanted to give back and do something different every day. I like the unknown and the uniqueness of seeing people at their best and at their worst.”
After earning an associate’s degree in criminal justice at Mercer County Community College, Fornarotto took a semester off, then matriculated at Fairleigh-Dickinson University. But after one semester, she went to work for the Ewing Police Department, starting with a six-month gig at the Mercer Police Academy’s Field Training Officer Program.
She spent her first week with a K-9 officer, something she hoped to become. “Being with a K-9 officer my first week ever as a cop was probably the coolest experience ever.”
After a year with Ewing Police, she returned full-time to Fairleigh-Dickinson, where her real-life perspective both enhanced her own learning and made her a source of information for her fellow students. “Being on the job, I had more insight and the actual experience,” she says. “The professor would look to me and say, ‘What is your opinion on this? What did you guys do in Ewing?’” She graduated in May 2017 with a bachelor of arts in criminal justice.
Dogs had been important to Fornarotto for a long time, so it wasn’t a surprise that, with the necessary three years of police experience under her belt, she applied to train as a K-9 officer.
“When I was younger, I would sit online and try to figure out how to train my own dog,” she says. “I was interested in the relationships of dogs and humans, and I wanted to put them together—to help people and work with animals.”
She got her chance after being selected in January 2018 to train as a K-9 officer. Soon after, on Feb. 8, she picked up one-and-a-half year old Jax, a mostly tan Belgian Malinois, from Upstate Canine in Clifton Park, New York.
“I was so humbled and excited because I wanted to bring my passion, fire, and youthfulness to it. I was the first female handler for our department, and I was excited to bring something different to the table,” Fornarotto says.
“It is a big, big commitment to get into. The dogs go home with us, and I am responsible for my dog 24/7—although technically he is township property.”
“If I want to go out for the day, or do anything, my life revolves around him,” she says. “I have a highly driven dog, and it is not feasible to keep him locked up for too many hours—that only backfires later. And I don’t think it’s that fair to keep a dog locked up all day if I can prevent it.”
The 68-pound Jax, who “thinks he’s a lap dog sometimes,” had learned basic obedience at Upstate Canine, but would do his training in scent and patrol work with Fornarotto. But first, they needed to start the bonding process. “You try to figure out one another,” she says. “For a month, we hung out.” Except when she was at work, “the only job you have is creating that bond.”
At the beginning of March 2018, Fornarotto and Jax started the New Jersey State Police’s Canine Scent Class #33, where Jax learned to detect methadone, crack, cocaine, heroine and Ecstasy.
Interestingly he was one of the first dogs not to be trained on marijuana, looking forward to its possible legalization. If the law does pass, then, she says, “he doesn’t have to be retired out early on. You can always train a scent on, but you can’t untrain a scent.”
For Jax, a drug search is just another opportunity to play with Fornarotto. “He doesn’t necessarily know he is looking for drugs—he thinks it’s a game of trying to find the toy,” she says. The toy he was trained on was a rolled-up white towel.
During training, the dog learns to find the towel that has been treated with the odor of a particular drug. When Jax finds the towel, Fornarotto displays her approval in myriad ways: expressing praise verbally, with phrases like “Woohoo” and “good boy”; dancing around; or playing tug of war with the towel. “Everyone has his own little thing,” she says.
The important point is that the dogs want to work for their handlers, which is why creating the bond between them is so important.
“It doesn’t develop overnight. It has taken a whole year to get where me and my dog have gotten,” she says. “Whether we are at work training or at home, there’s always something to be done to build that bond. We go running together, hiking, hang out at house, or play fetch like a normal dog. We’re probably together about 98% of the time.”
Having assisted the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and local agencies together with Jax, Fornarotto says that when he does find something, “It feels like I am a proud mom. It is our moment together—he is trying to make me proud and I am proud of him. The two of us are sitting there excited, then we do our happy dance.”
Fornarotto says she is particularly proud of Jax’s ability to work independently, whether he is searching for drugs or people.
“I don’t have to be right next to him to help him. I detail an area, and he’s really methodical on his own.” Especially when they are doing patrol work, the dogs, she says, “are expected to do things by themselves, and some dogs struggle with that.”
When they are out together on patrol, the first thing Fornarotto does is make sure the area is safe enough for Jax to get out of the car. Next she gives him water and a chance to “potty,” and only then does she get out his leash.
As one of nine women at the Ewing Police Department, Fornarotto says, “I’m thankful I grew up with two older brothers, so I’m always been one of the guys in a sense.”
Although she describes herself as “pretty personable and I get along with mostly everybody,” she says she has “that girl power attitude, if needed. Sometimes they have to be reminded that females can do anything a guy can do.”
The women are all supportive of one another, but, she says, “we all work on different shifts and don’t get to see each other as much as we wish.”
In the K-9 world, she estimates the ratio of women to men is 1 in 30, and sometimes at trainings she is the only woman.
She says she has no issues being a woman at the Ewing Police Department, but on the job out in the community is “definitely tough at times. Some people don’t understand and respect it. You could be standing there and it’s your call, then a guy shows up, and they start talking to the guy and basically look over you.”
Fornarotto now does a mix of road patrols and K-9 searches. “Depending on the type of call and situation, there is usually someone else who can clear up another call,” she says.
“A real treat and a highlight” for Fornarotto is that she gets to work with her brother Corey, a year older than her, who got hired by the Ewing Police Department three months after she did. “We are not allowed to work on the same shift,” she says, “so mom doesn’t get a phone call where both of us…”
They were one of the first brother-sister duos in the Ewing Police Department, among “a lot of families that have worked together.” Siblings Chelsea and Stephen Arnold graduated from the police academy and joined the force earlier this year.
Fornarotto says she appreciates this opportunity with her brother “to be so close and hang out all the time,” “to share the experience of this job, and to be able to have someone to talk to when you need it, who understands it.” Corey is also “super-helpful with Jax. He and Jax are best friends, and he wants to be a K-9.”
“One of my big things is I try to give back,” Fornarotto says of the charitable work she does with Jax. Mostly they do patrol or scent demonstrations in the community: for schools, at the Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware; at halftime for the Philadelphia Soul, a professional arena football team; and at PEAC, the Pennington Ewing Athletic Club, in honor of the National Senior Health and Fitness Day.
Annually she honors police officers and K-9s who have died during the year by being part of the Police Unity Tour, riding her bicycle from New Jersey to Washington, DC.
The drug bust in Philly meant a lot to Fornarotto: “It was the greatest experience that my dog and I could get, and we’re thankful and humbled about it.”