A Maryland dog trainer was to go on trial Monday, charged with providing the federal government with bomb-sniffing dogs that couldn't recognize the odor of explosives.
Russell Lee Ebersole, 43, of Hagerstown, Md., is charged with defrauding the government of more than $700,000 and risking the lives of thousands of federal workers who worked in facilities guarded by dogs he trained.
If convicted, Ebersole could get as much as five years in prison on each of the 28 counts and be fined as much as $1.4 million.
He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
"I believe that we'll be able to demonstrate the dogs are quite capable," his attorney, Spencer Ault, told The Washington Post.
However, they won't be able to demonstrate it with the dogs themselves: The court has refused a defense request to let the jurors see them in action.
Tipped by calls to anti-fraud hotlines, undercover investigators drove vehicles loaded with explosives up to three Federal Reserve building entrances. According to the indictment, the dogs trained by Ebersole "failed to detect the explosives, and the vehicles were permitted to enter."
Other dogs were then tested, without subterfuge, at the State Department and at Internal Revenue Service offices in Fresno. The dogs failed there, too, says the indictment.
Ault says the charges are result of jealousy by other dog trainers.
"Basically, his competitors are concerned because Russ has built a better mousetrap," he said. "Russ has developed a very capable type of dog that can detect both narcotics and explosives, and apparently this is unusual in this world."
The former General Electric salesman started "Detector Dogs Against Drugs and Explosives —DDADE or "daddy" — in 1997, first marketing to parents worried that their children were getting high and school systems searching for drugs and weapons among their students.
Competitors say while dual-trained dogs are possible, most experts worry that any confusion on the part of the dog could be dangerous, such as when a criminal booby-traps narcotics.
In 2001, Ebersole announced that his "Generation III" dogs could indicate the first letter of the drug's name, by touching its nose to red plastic letters tossed on the floor by a handler.
Soon after, DDADE began licensing other dealers. For $20,000, they would lease a dog and get marketing assistance from Ebersole. They also had to bring the animal back to Ebersole for annual retraining, at $3,800 per dog. DDADE materials said a typical handler could expect to gross nearly $1 million in the first year, against operating expenses of not quite $800,000.
The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, proved to be a windfall for Ebersole and his dealers, as government agencies and their landlords scrambled to find dogs that could detect explosives.
A prospective dealer, Michele Pershing of Ohio, told The Post she visited Ebersole's Aberdeen Acres kennel for a week of training, and was unimpressed. "I didn't feel confident at that point, even though I had a piece of paper ... that said I was qualified," she said.
Another handler, Mary Haley, began to question the abilities of her dog, and asked the head of the Maryland State Police canine training program, to test the animal. He failed.
"It wasn't a good dog," Winfield Baker said. Once he smelled the food that Baker had planted as distractions, he lost interest in finding explosives.
Ault, Ebersole's attorney, is confident the charges can be refuted.
Ebersole is also accused of shipping the explosive training aids used to teach dogs to find bombs by an air cargo company, without packaging and labeling them properly.