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Star K-9 dog, handler retire from Buffalo police

Officer Mary Ellen Sawicki and her partner took a big bite out of crime over a seven-year span, relying on a keen sense of smell.

When Sawicki and Herc first hit the streets as the Buffalo Police Department began rebuilding its K-9 corps, some were at first amused at the sight of the dogs.

“It was as if the criminals did not fear Herc or the others dogs,” Sawicki recalled. “They said, ‘What is this, a police dog?’ It was like a joke, it was just a dog. But as we started finding a lot of drugs and guns, the criminal element started to fear the dogs, realizing they were going to jail.”

Sawicki and Herc, a German shepherd, retired a few weeks ago.

But department officials described them as one of the region’s most productive K-9 teams, specializing in narcotics seizures.

In carrying out 4,365 searches of homes, vehicles and school lockers, Sawicki and Herc’s actions resulted in confiscating:

• 348 pounds of marijuana

• 20 pounds of cocaine

• 8 pounds of crack cocaine

• 7 pounds of heroin

•3 ounces of methamphetamine

• 1,276 assorted narcotics pills.

And, it turns out, Herc also had a nose for money.

He sniffed out more than $1,482,235 that police confiscated from drug dealers.

“One time Herc found money under a carpet. The people had hidden the money making it like a carpet pad. Herc was scratching at the carpet in this corner of the room and we thought he caught the scent of drugs. We lifted the carpet and there were all these hundred dollar bills. It had to be $50,000,” Sawicki recalled of an East Side drug bust.

Another time at a North Buffalo residence, Herc arrived late but ended up embarrassing other police dogs who were already on the scene and had found nothing.

“Herc was there 20 minutes and started scratching the side of these kitchen cabinets below the sink. We found a fake floor in the cabinets and two kilos of cocaine. It was a DEA bust, and the agents could not believe what Herc had found. Everyone was amazed,” Sawicki said.

Herc also was good at finding criminals, apprehending 28 throughout his career.

“It’s amazing to see what a dog can do. It’s all nose work,” Sawicki said of how Herc located a suspect hiding beneath a pile of leaves in the Bailey-Rodney neighborhood. “Herc was standing on top of the leaves, and I thought what is he doing? Then I saw a little bit of red clothing. I told the guy, ‘Don’t move,’ and called for back-up.”

Herc and Sawicki also removed 35 illegal guns from the streets over their seven years.

What made Herc such a superstar of the K-9 Corps?

Well, Sawicki speculated, he was born that way.

“He and his brother had been brought here from the Czech Republic to become pets for a family, but Herc was constantly chasing a toy ball, and the family decided he would be too much work,” she said.

Retired Amherst K-9 Officer David Stark and Amherst Boarding Kennel owner Richard Smehlik spotted the makings of a police dog in Herc and so began his career change from house pet to K-9 duties.

“The career statistics for Officer Sawicki and Herc are truly extraordinary,” said Lt. Salvatore Losi, who supervises the Buffalo police force’s six K-9 teams.

The K-9 teams contributions go beyond statistics.

“All provide increased safety for the other officers and greatly reduce the time required to locate suspects or contraband,” Losi said.

Sawicki said the last seven years of her 34½-year career as a city officer have been the most enjoyable, thanks to working with Herc, who is being retired because of his age – 8½ years old.

Now Sawicki says she hopes to slow down and appreciate the simpler things in life.

“It’s just nice not having to go to work and be able to enjoy my home,” Sawicki said. “Herc can play with his toys anytime he wants, but I don’t think he’ll ever slow down.”