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Cadaver dogs search site of old Helena graveyard

Posted at 1:36 PM, May 30, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-30 16:18:06-04

HELENA — An unmarked graveyard in a Helena neighborhood was recently the subject of another search, this time with trained cadaver dogs.

The old Poor Farm cemetery is located on Benton Avenue between homes in a subdivision. It is believed to be the final resting place for more than 300 people.

“There’s a wide variety of people, most of which we know nothing about — we know nothing about their lives, why they went into the poor farm in the first place,” Montana Department of Transportation historian Jon Axline said. “They’re just kind of Helena’s forgotten citizens.”

Lewis and Clark County opened a poor farm on the site of the present-day Florence Crittenton Cooney campus in the late 1800s.

It housed the elderly who had no one to care for them, people who were disabled and unable to work and orphaned or abandoned children. When residents of the poor farm died, they were buried in the cemetery, which is now surrounded by homes.

Ground-penetrating radar was brought to the burial site in October 2022. It indicated anomalies beneath the ground, but couldn’t definitively pinpoint bodies. Following the search with ground-penetrating radar, Axline said he took a personal interest in the cemetery site.

“I thought maybe the next step would be to bring out forensic dogs to see if they could sniff out here for the smells left behind after somebody dies,” he said.

True North Search Dogs brought out three of their trained cadaver dogs to perform the search. Although, due to the age of the site, this is not the typical work they do.

“If there is anything here, it’s going to be really subtle,” True North Search Dogs owner Sam Heigh said.

Heigh said the oldest body her dogs found was that of a hunter in a 30-year-old missing person case. She said they also train on bones that are about 80 years old. But the old Poor Farm cemetery is more than 100 years old.

In addition to the age of the remains buried in the cemetery, there are other challenges to the search — it's not clear how deep bodies could be buried and if they’re in caskets, both factors that can lessen the amount of scent that escapes to the surface of the dirt.

Additionally, it rained prior to the search, which Heigh said could also push scent down. Despite the challenges, Heigh said all three dogs showed interest in the same spots.

“It’s hard to tell what that is at this point, we’re not getting full alerts,” she said. “But, they’re all giving the same subtle indications in the same places.”

Heigh said the dogs’ behavior indicates there is scent in the gravesite, but she can’t say definitively what it is and where it is coming from. “Since they are trained cadaver dogs, I would lean more toward the interest being human remains than anything else."

The cemetery property is owned by the City of Helena, and Axline said he hopes to see a marker installed explaining what the poor farm was, and remembering the people possibly buried under the ground.

“I think we tend to forget this part of it, and I think it’s well worth people to know it as well,” Axline said. “It’s not all sunshine and roses. These people had a hard life, and now they’re largely forgotten.”