WAYNESBORO, Ga — Axle and Leo had barely recuperated from a month-long training class in Savannah when they were immediately put to work on their first big assignment: locating a murder suspect.

Axle, a 2-year-old German Shepherd, and Leo, a 2-year-old Belgian Malinois, are the Burke County Sheriff’s Office first K-9s. For the past month, the dogs and their handlers, Cpl. James Kelly and Deputy Calvin Davis, have been in a training and certification program.

They returned last week officially trained and certified in narcotics odor detection, tracking for criminals and lost persons, handler protection and criminal apprehension and were immediately put to work sniffing out Quame Lamar Collins, who is wanted in the Jan. 23 fatal shootings of Eddie Lewis Grubbs, 64, and Marshall Jordan Jr., 65.

They helped search residences and even though they weren’t successful finding the suspect, their handlers said they were impressed to see them in action.

The dogs, which cost $11,500 each, were purchased with a private donation and had some prior training. Kelly and Davis, who are also part of the department’s Crime Suppression Team, also have previous experience working with police K-9s from their previous jobs at Richmond County Sheriff’s Office.

“I think it’s going to have a big effect especially with drugs,” Kelly said. “Both these dogs are going to bring in a lot of money.”

Sheriff Alfonzo Williams has said he intends to crack down on the county’s drug problem, which he believes will lower property crime.

The dogs are trained to detect marijuana, cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.

Chief Deputy Lewis Blanchard said that will be especially useful in traffic stops where there is a high level of suspicion but not enough for officers to search the vehicle. A Supreme Court ruling says officers cannot prolong a traffic stop for an unreasonable amount of time, but now deputies can call for a dog to be at the scene immediately.

In the past, Burke County relied on other departments’ assistance anytime a K-9 was needed.

“It will certainly help officers be more proactive,” Blanchard said.

The dogs can also assist in searching for missing persons, like children or the elderly.

As the dogs rubbed up against their handlers’ legs and nudged them for rubs, it was clear they had already bonded, but Davis said trainers advised it may be a full year before dogs and handlers form a true team.

“It’s great,” Kelly said of the job as a handler. “We get to come to work and work with dogs every day.”

Reach Bianca Cain Johnson at (706) 823-3486 or bianca.johnson@augustachronicle.com

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