BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - A group of volunteers is taking the fight to find missing kids to another level by clocking in countless hours and dedicating an insane amount of manpower to reunite families with their missing loved ones.
The movement began about 22 years ago when Toney Wade began Cajun Coast Search and Rescue. Wade was motivated to start the group after living through an unthinkable horror.
Ten years before the group’s founding, Wade’s grandparents were kidnapped and murdered.
“Closure...whether it be good, bad, or anything else. That’s what were going to strive for,” Wade said.
Wade, a Canine Search and Rescue specialist and Search and Rescue specialist, says the group is made up of about 13 dogs and handlers.
He hopes the group can help families that remind him of his own following his grandparents murder, stunned and desperate for answers.
Together the group works homicides and missing person cases around the country free of charge.
The group says they’ve seen successes, sometimes providing the link law enforcement needs to solve a case.
“The agencies we work for, police departments...they trust us now so they’re forthcoming,” Wade said. “So if we’re really involved in a homicide case, they’ll pretty much give us just about all the information they have where we can draw a picture on what we need to do.”
Wade says a key element in the group’s success is the relationship fostered between the volunteer handlers and the search dogs, all of which are either donated or rescues.
Emergency situations don’t normally lend the ideal search environments Wade says, but the team is able to take advantage of their surroundings thanks to their four-legged secret weapons.
“You have to have a lot of trust in your dog. If you don’t trust your dog 100 percent it’s not going to succeed,” said Wade.
On Sunday, Mar. 17, the group’s gathering in St. Amant consisted of training that enhances skills in scent tracking and human remains detection while searching through high winds, mud, and tall grass.
It’s a training exercise called “Find the Man.”
In the exercise, Wade puts out a scent and the dogs must stay the course with their handlers to follow it, despite the conditions around them.
The exercise mimics the real search environment in which the dogs lead the way as their handler follows closely behind.
Just like a real-life situation, the dogs are given commands and they’re off.
“Each handler knows when their dog is on a scene by the way it starts acting,” Wade says.
One by one each of the dogs were able to find their man.
"We train 4-5 days a week, at least 2-3 hours a day,” said Kellie Brignac. Brignac is currently training to be a trainer.
Brignac has been working with her dog, Cash, for a month. The dogs are trained to track and detect human remains both on land and in water.
Brignac says it’s a passion of hers to help others.
Another volunteer, Sarah Prine, says she feels the same way.
“I’ve worked with dogs almost all my life,” Prine said.
Prine says her husband, John, joined the search and rescue group 2 years ago.
She saw firsthand the hard work and dedication it takes to volunteer, so she decided to start the process to join.
Wade says it takes anywhere between 8 months to a year for handlers and their dogs to become certified in search and rescue. Most of that time is spent training.
The group says it spends so much time training because a real search might be just around the corner. The group currently gets around 2-3 calls a week.
Wade says he’s happy the group has been able to reach so many people who may have given up hope.
“It takes a long time to get yourself proven, but once you’re proven the phone calls don’t stop.”
The group is hoping to expand their reach by recruiting more handlers and dogs. Also, being a nonprofit, the group is funded through donations and fundraising events.
Anyone hoping to work with the group, ask for help searching for a missing loved one, or wanting to donate to the group can do so by clicking the link here or calling Toney Wade at 985-253-1436.
The team has a Poker Run scheduled for May 11, 2019.