First on the stand on Wednesday was Karen Atkinson, an expert dog handler who participated in a search of Ruben Flores’ home in 710 White Ct. on March 21, 2021.
During her testimony, Atkinson described the process of training one of her Human Remains Detection dogs, Amiga, who she used to search the Flores home.
“You make it clear what their target odor is and you reward them for correctly identifying their source,” she told prosecutor Christopher Peuvrelle.
Atkinson said she spent “hours and hours” training Amiga, who she believed to be very proficient in finding human remains.
Atkinson said that Amiga did not exhibit any changes in behavior when she searched the car in the driveway or the backyard of 710 White Ct., but testified that she did see her mannerisms change once she went inside a lattice gate that led underneath the deck of the house.
During opening statements in July, Peuvrelle established that the prosecution believes that Paul and Ruben Flores buried Smart under the deck of Ruben Flores’ home.
On Tuesday, Atkinson’s partner during the search, Kristine Black, testified that she also observed a “change of behavior” in her dog that was typical of a Human Remains Detection dog when they’re in their target scent once she entered that same area.
Black and Atkinson both said their dogs changed their behavior once they went in through the door of the lattice and to the left, although Atkinson said that she did not see the area where her dog changed mannerisms upon Peuvrelle showing her a photo where Black said that her dog, Annie, exhibited a change in behavior.
The testimonies were consistent, though, in establishing that both dogs changed their mannerisms once they went through the door of the lattice and to the left under the deck of the home.
On Tuesday, Black clarified that Human Remains Detection dogs are “less likely” to alert to an area the longer the primary odor scent has been removed from the scene. The prosecution believes that Smart’s body was moved from under the deck at some point.
Black and Atkinson did their searches separately to minimize bias. Peuvrelle asked Atkinson to further describe what she saw when Amiga went through the lattice.
“There was a definite change of behavior which tells me she’s picking up some level of her target odor,” she said.
Human Remains Detection dogs give an “alert” when they definitively reach their target scent. Like Black, Atkinson testified that her dog did not give her final “alert.”
Black and Atkinson both said that, despite not going into their final alerts, the behaviors they observed in their dogs during the search was indicative of them being “in odor” of human remains.
During his cross-examination, Sanger established that Atkinson had participated in several searches related to the Smart case prior to the one at White Court — one on Jan. 20 and one on April 19, both in 2020.
During the search in January, Sanger said that Atkinson’s dogs “alerted several times” in a rural area of Arroyo Grande, although nothing was ever located as a result of them. Atkinson agreed. Her dogs did not alert anywhere during the search in April, which was of that same general area.
“You knew it was the Kristin Smart disappearance case, right?” asked Sanger of the search at 710 White Ct.
“Yes,” Atkinson said.
Sanger also established that Atkinson, like the other dog handlers who have testified in the trial, works for Search and Rescue as a “volunteer” and is not paid for the searches she does with her dogs.
“The fact that you’re a volunteer is all the more to your credit,” he said, clarifying that he was not trying to “demean” her work by asking her that question. Sanger made a similar comment to dog handler Kristine Black on Tuesday.
Next on the stand on Wednesday was Phillip Hanes, one of the archeologists who used Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) on various places throughout 710 White Ct. on March 15, 2021, the same day the dog handlers came to search the home.
“GPR is the use of transmitting a radio wave through the ground… and measuring the time it takes to bounce back,” Hanes said.
Hanes said that archeologists sometimes use GPR to find “anomalies” in the ground, which refers to anything that is different from its outside environment.
Noting Hanes’ Bachelors in Anthropology, his Masters in Cultural Resources Management, and his experience in the field of GPR, Peuvrelle asked the Court to officially recognize Hanes as an expert witness. Judge O’Keefe granted the motion.
During the search, law enforcement officials recommended various places throughout 710 White Ct for Hanes and his business partner, Cindy Arrington, to check for anomalies beneath the surface using GPR technology.
The archaeologists marked eleven grids throughout the property, and Hanes said that they found four anomalies amongst the grids. He said he “recommended excavation of all four anomalies to be safe [to law enforcement]” but that one of the anomalies, the one on Grid One, seemed the most “promising.”
Hanes said that the anomaly on Grid One “was a surface anomaly to depth.” This indicated the presence of a disturbance through the surface layers, potentially indicating that someone had dug through the surface to where the anomaly was.
“Would that suggest to you that [the anomaly] had been dug out and then refilled?” Peuvrelle asked.
“That would be a possibility, yes,” Hanes said.
Again, in accordance with Peuvrelle’s opening statement from July, the prosecution believes that Paul and Ruben Flores buried Smart’s body at the home on 710 White Ct. and then moved it at some point.
Grid One ran under the deck along the side of the back of the house, the same place where the dog handlers testified that their dogs exhibited a change in behavior.
Peuvrelle asked Hanes if the approximate size and depth of the anomaly on Grid One was “consistent with other burials” he’d seen over his 15-year-long career. Hanes said it was consistent, and later established that the anomaly was 4 feet high, 6 feet wide, and that it was buried 4 feet down at its deepest level.
Law enforcement excavated the four sites the next day. Hanes and his partner were present for the excavations but did not participate in them.
Peuvrelle asked Hanes a question from a jury member, who asked if the GPR technology could detect bodily fluids in soil.
Hanes said that would be possible “if those bodily fluids have contributed to a change in the consistency of the soil.”
Sanger began his cross examination by establishing that the GPR technology “doesn’t tell you that there’s a burial,” but rather provides information about anomalies in the ground that “might be worth looking into.”
“This is approximate. This is data that is turned into something that you can look at but it really gives you an idea of what… might be in the ground,” said Sanger.
“Yes,” Hanes said.
Hanes said that he’d used the technology to search other places where law enforcement officers believe a body may have been buried in the past, and that he was hired by the SLO Sheriff’s Department to work on this case specifically.
“When you get your data back you don’t know what’s going to be found under the ground, if anything,” Sanger said.
“That is correct,” said Hanes, adding that anomalies can just indicate differences in the soil.
Hanes told Peuvrelle during his testimony that it can be “quite difficult” to establish a grid on altered topography, such as a slope. During his cross examination with Sanger, he clarified that the elevation on 710 White Ct did not pose an issue for the efficacy of the GPR technology.
Hanes agreed with Sanger that anomalies can be caused by “all sorts of things.”
Sanger continued this line of questioning later. “At the end of the day, it’s what you find or don’t find.”
Peuvrelle objected to this, claiming it was vague. Judge O’Keefe overruled the objection.
“That’s correct,” Hanes said.
During his cross examination, Ruben Flores’ attorney, Harold Mesick, confirmed that Hanes and Arrington found that “the dirt was taken out and re-deposited at some point” in the area marked by Grid One.
“And you can’t say when that happened,” Mesick said.
“No, sir,” Hanes said.
Court proceedings continued Thursday.