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Drug dog on the job in Jerauld County

WESSINGTON SPRINGS -- The Jerauld County Sheriff's Office has a four-legged weapon to battle drugs. Its name is Ajax. Deputy Shane Mentzer and Ajax, a Belgian Malinois dog, recently returned from a six-week drug dog training camp in Pierre and ha...

WESSINGTON SPRINGS -- The Jerauld County Sheriff's Office has a four-legged weapon to battle drugs. Its name is Ajax.

Deputy Shane Mentzer and Ajax, a Belgian Malinois dog, recently returned from a six-week drug dog training camp in Pierre and have been working the towns and highways in Jerauld County.

"Highway 281 is a fairly major drug corridor," Mentzer said. "It goes north into North Dakota and all the way into Canada. It's well-used for drug transport."

South Dakota Highway 34 intersects U.S. Highway 281 and brings traffic from the Western United States and provides easy access to Interstate 29 and other highways to the east, he said.

The sheriff's office received a $15,000 grant from the state attorney general's office in March to help get Ajax and pay for training and supplies. The grant was made possible through the state Drug Control Fund, which is funded through the sale of confiscated property or seized cash used in drug crimes.

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Ajax trained with a Dutch shepherd, a black lab and another Belgian malinois in Pierre. Mentzer said it was amazing to watch the black lab, which was already on his third handler and well-trained in sniffing out drugs.

Mentzer is working to follow that example with Ajax, who is well on his way and eager to please.

Although Jerauld County doesn't have a large drug problem, Mentzer said the sheriff's department is working to be proactive and stem drug trafficking.

The towns of Wessington Springs and Alpena as well as Jerauld County also provided money to pay for the dog, training, equipment, food and care.

This is Mentzer's first gig as a dog handler and he's more than excited to be on the road to catch drug offenders with his new partner.

"We made numerous drug arrests in Jerauld County in the last year, year and a half," he said. "One of the biggest problems is people selling prescription drugs like Oxycodone. It's a real issue and hard to take care of."

Mentzer said the sheriff's office plans to work on any drug problems in the county's towns -- Wessington Springs, Alpena, and Lane -- before attacking the highways.

"There's not a huge drug problem, but we do have illegal narcotics," he said.

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Ajax is trained to detect methamphetamines, marijuana, heroin, cocaine, mushrooms, Ecstasy and some derivatives found in many of these drugs.

Mentzer and Ajax have already made a few "successful stops," the officer said.

Mentzer said he must have a reason to pull a person over, such as speeding or erratic driving. He can't just pull someone over because he suspects they have drugs.

During a stop, he'll talk to the driver and if Mentzer suspects there may be drugs in the vehicle, he will take out Ajax and have him circle the vehicle. If Ajax gives any sign there are narcotics present -- like sitting when he smells a drug -- Mentzer then has probable cause to search the vehicle for drugs.

Otherwise, Mentzer said the only way he would have probable cause to search a vehicle is if he sees, for example, a bag of marijuana on the front seat.

"A lot of times, it's a routine traffic stop and sometimes there's an indicator there's something more to what's going on," Mentzer said, referring to a driver's nervousness or a story that doesn't make sense.

Ajax, who is 22 months old, lives with Mentzer and his wife, Angela, and their daughter. Mentzer trains with Ajax nearly every day.

Ajax was born in the Netherlands and the sheriff's department received him from a kennel in Alabama specializing in K9 police dogs.

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Ajax not only has air conditioning and heat in his kennel in Mentzer's new K9 unit, he has his own kennel in the office as well.

"He's just a part of the family," Mentzer said.

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