Their calling is search and rescue
AS A SEASONED search-and-rescue operative, Sergeant Devendran (Collin) Chetty and his canine partner, Ghost, have grown accustomed to searching for missing people.
But when Chetty and Ghost stumbled upon nine-year-old Miguel Louw’s corpse on September 3, 2018, the find hit home hard.
Chetty was “disheartened”.
Until the discovery, Chetty, like many others, was aware of Louw’s disappearance on July 17, 2018, and clung to the hope of a fairy-tale ending for the boy and his family.
Instead, he and Ghost found the Sydenham youngster lying lifeless on his back with his jacket and shirt pulled over his face, in a bushy area off Longbury Drive, Phoenix, north of Durban.
That Louw’s family would finally get closure after an emotional roller-coaster ride of nearly two months, was the only solace for the 48-year-old Chetty.
Louw was last seen leaving a KFC outlet in Sydenham, a short distance from his home, in the company of Mohamed Ebrahim, who was known to the boy and his family.
Ebrahim, who lived nearby, was arrested a few days later and charged with kidnapping, murder and theft.
On Wednesday, he received a 25-year prison sentence in the matter, after a prosecution led by senior state advocate Kelvin Singh, at the Durban High Court.
Warrant Officer RM Govender, of the SAPS KZN Provincial Investigation Unit, led the investigation.
Chetty previously testified in the matter, where Jacqueline Henriques was the presiding judge.
However, Chetty and Ghost weren’t on a missing person’s mission when they found Louw’s body.
They had teamed up with Chetty’s colleague, Warrant Officer Cheryl Ellis, to support another crew of policemen doing a drug raid in Phoenix.
After completing that assignment, Chetty and Ellis were driving on Longbury
Drive when they noticed a man covered in blood on the pavement.
The man had a knife stuck in his head. He had been robbed and his attacker had fled into the nearby bush.
With the assistance of a security officer, Ellis, Chetty and Ghost went in pursuit of the suspect, as the SAPS’S patrol dogs were unavailable.
Chetty used Ghost, a specialist search and rescue dog, to lead the way. They had walked about 150 metres on a pathway that cut through bush when the dog detected a scent.
Following closely behind Ghost, Chetty’s instincts told him the pungent odour was of human remains.
“I eventually saw someone with grey pants and a white shirt, but didn’t think it was Miguel.”
When Chetty reached the body, he noticed a jacket and shirt pulled over the face, an exposed abdomen, and no shoes on the feet.
“I moved the shirt slightly and saw the jacket had a Rippon Road Primary School logo attached. That’s when I realised it was him.”
At the time, information was being widely circulated that Louw was a Rippon Road pupil.
“It was mixed emotions for me because finding the body meant the hopes of finding him alive were over.
“I was disheartened, especially since he was a child and I’m a father. The only consolation was the closure of a traumatic chapter for the family,” Chetty reasoned.
He admitted, his job was not for the faint-hearted. “Apart from being physically fit, you have to be mentally tough and passionate about the job.
“We all have our purpose in life. I think I have found mine. Families need closure, the victim needs a decent send-off, and I am relied on to deliver that outcome.”
Chetty said there were also days with happy endings when he and Ghost rescued missing people.
Chetty transferred from the SA Navy to the SAPS in 2005, having joined the naval forces in 1991.
As a lover of dogs, it motivated his successful 2007 application to join the SAPS’S dog unit, and two years later, he joined the Durban Dog Unit.
He and Ghost were paired in 2017. His partnership with the German Shepherd, a donated dog, has been formidable ever since.
Through training, Ghost is non-aggressive, which is an essential searchand-rescue dog trait.
Chetty relies on the five-and-a-halfyear-old’s ability to identify the scent of decomposing bodies and people, lying in desolate or difficult terrain in mountainous areas, rivers, dams and under collapsed structures.
Chetty said he had a “perfect relationship” with Ghost. “The understanding between me and him is great. He’s also energetic, lively and eager to work.”
It took much training for the dog and his master to achieve harmony. They started with a four-month training course and needed to pass all the necessary disciplines in different environments, with A+ passes to do searchand-rescue duty.
“Passing well also indicated our compatibility. I need to direct him and he must obey,” said Chetty.
Tracking missing people requires skill and the right instincts, but a big part of searching is the planning, which is achieved when accurate information is gathered, Chetty explained.
“Often, we get hearsay info, which prolongs the search and wastes resources.”
To cope and remain in peak physical condition, a session of exercise is his reset button.
Chetty has completed 13 Comrades Marathons and various A-list road races. But after the rigours of a difficult search, Chetty and other team members have made it a ritual to enjoy a glass of coke, to get their fizz going again.
Lieutenant-general Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi, the KZN provincial commissioner, praised the police work done in the case.