Naperville police on Tuesday honored one of their own for his service with a police dog named Sabek, who was involved in the largest methamphetamine bust in DuPage County.
Officer Chris Sherwin is adjusting to his patrol duties without his partner for the first time in nearly a decade after the German shepherd retired from the force last month and died a few weeks later.
"It's a big change," Sherwin said about the loss of Sabek, his K-9 partner. "You have somebody with you for nine years every day and then all of the sudden he's not there. It's a big change."
Sabek retired from service on Valentine's Day after searching one last vehicle for drugs and helping Sherwin find some marijuana. Sherwin said the dog was put to rest a couple weeks later, just shy of his 11th birthday.
"I was with him the better part of my career," said Sherwin, 45, of Plainfield, who has spent all of his 13 years as a police officer in Naperville. "I think a lot of the patrol guys miss him, too, because he was a great asset."
Cmdr. Jason Arres said Sabek's death brings the Naperville K-9 unit down to two dogs and two handlers. Officer Grif Lippencott has been chosen as the department's next handler and will begin training in April.
When the department's K-9 unit is at full force, two of Naperville's police dogs work with the patrol division and the third works in investigations, specializing in narcotics searches.
All the dogs are trained to sniff out drugs, search areas for certain items and follow the scent of missing or wanted people. They also help provide crowd control, but Arres said the dogs are not trained to search for explosives. Naperville relies on dogs from county sheriff's departments when that service is needed.
Sherwin said Sabek had a good nose for illegal substances, which he put to work in October 2012 when Sherwin stopped a driver near Route 59 and Meridian Road.
"He was instrumental in the largest methamphetamine bust in DuPage County," Sherwin said. "Basically we worked a case and he sniffed out about 19 pounds of methamphetamine."
The dog's ability to direct officers to search the bed of the truck resulted in the discovery of 19 one-pound bundles of methamphetamine hidden under roofing shingles. DuPage County prosecutors trying the case thanked Naperville police for their "outstanding work" to find the drug, which had a street value of about $1 million.
"Chris and Sabek were an excellent, excellent partnership for the police department and their work will be missed," Arres said. "They did a phenomenal job in nine years together."
K-9 handlers like Sherwin train for more than a month with their dogs to help the animals learn how to track people, search buildings, seek items and sniff out illegal drugs. The training period also helps the animal and handler bond, which Sherwin said is important for being an effective investigative team.
"Just knowing your dog: the way your dog stands, the way he looks, the way he looks at you," Sherwin said.
Sometimes, it was almost as if Sabek was surprised Sherwin couldn't smell the people or drugs the pair was seeking, the officer said.
"No matter what he did, he would look at me almost like 'Really? He's right here,' or 'The dope's right here,'" Sherwin said. "And then he would indicate. When he would indicate on narcotics, he would scratch at the source of the odor."
Sherwin said he learned Sabek's tendencies well over nine years, so when the German shepherd started dragging his legs, losing feeling in his toes and dripping some urine about four months ago, Sherwin knew the dog's health was faltering. Sabek's nerves were deteriorating, which led to his retirement last month and his death a couple weeks later.
"For that type of disease, there's no cure," Sherwin said.
The death of Sabek ends Sherwin's time as a K-9 officer, but he is still working the midnight shift on patrol as a solo officer. The lifelong dog lover said he was glad for the chance to work with a partner like Sabek.
"It was something I wanted to do ever since I started," Sherwin said. "Now I'm on patrol, doing the same thing I've done -- just without my partner."