Round Lake police Tuesday mourned the loss of a valued member of the department, a go-getter who tracked criminals and narcotics with a rare drive.
Highway, a sable-colored German shepherd, died Monday night of thyroid cancer, dealing a blow to the department where he had served as the canine in the K-9 unit the past five years.
"Over the years, he was involved in a lot of arrests and seizures of drugs and properties and he helped find a lot of missing people," Chief Michael Gillette said. "He was an asset to the community."
Highway, who was about 6½ years old, was purchased from TOPS Canine Complex in Grayslake. The facility, which long has supplied police dogs to various departments, and trains them for three months before they are partnered with a handler.
Those selected are a special breed and Highway was at the top of the class, said TOPS owner Alex Rothacker, who has been training dogs for more than 30 years.
"It's got to be a dog that has a lot of drive," he said. "He was one of our best."
Every day, Highway reported to work with his handler, Officer Mike Stevens, and went home with him at night, in a round-the-clock partnership.
"He was always with me," Stevens said. Highway was "a family member and partner," he added. Stevens also has Sniper, now 12, the department's first police dog who was retired due to arthritis.
Besides the initial 150 hours of training, the nationally certified unit trained about 16 hours a month. The pair averaged 80 to 100 calls per year, Stevens said. At the most basic level, Highway was a tool that helped police do their jobs better.
"He paid for himself on drug seizures. He helped us apprehend more than 20 people," Stevens said
The pair was one of two K-9 teams working with the Northern Illinois Police Alarm System, a regional SWAT team, and had won awards for their achievements.
Besides the hard work of tracking criminals and protecting officers and citizens, Highway loved doing public demonstrations, opened the rear door of his patrol car with his nose, walked backward and could run 40 mph, according to the department.
Gillette said Highway had a tumor removed about six weeks ago and was going through chemotherapy when another, fast-growing tumor was found. Highway's last day on duty was about two weeks ago, Gillette said.
"We will probably have some memorial service for him as part of our healing process," he said.