The decade-long career of the matriarch of the Chester County Sheriff’s K-9 Unit has come to an end with her retirement.
K-9 Afra, a German Shepherd born in East Germany, made her debut in the office in 2009. Proficient in explosives detection, tracking, article searches, and patrol, she will turn 12 at the end of the year. During her distinguished tenure, she has guarded Presidents, tracked fugitives, and cleared countless buildings after bomb threats.
“She still wants to work; she still has the heart,” said her handler, Lt. Harry McKinney. “But her body’s just not able to keep up.”
McKinney, who heads the Chester County Sheriff’s K-9 Unit, said he remembered visiting numerous K-9 facilities before determining that Von der Haus Gill German Shepherds and Police K-9 Academy in Ohio represented the best fit for the office. McKinney, who had received funding for a dog from a private donor, picked Afra out of the Von der Haus Gill offerings at the time. An enduring bond soon followed.
“She’s always been very protective of me,” said McKinney. “And she’s always had a very high drive to work. She would train hard because she wanted the excitement of her reward, which was play.”
McKinney, who returned to Von der Haus Gill the year after he obtained Afra to earn certification as a trainer, said he and Afra participated in many dozens of details. Among the most memorable was one of her first calls: a tracking request. Someone had allegedly pulled a gun on a state trooper and was on the loose in the area of Camp Saginaw in Oxford. Afra assisted in locating the suspect, McKinney said.
Another high-profile incident unfolded in West Pikeland Township in March 2012. McKinney said he and Afra were headed to Pennhurst, the former hospital for people with mental and physical disabilities in Spring City, in response to the theft of copper pipes. While en route, they heard a call for assistance in West Pikeland Township following the assault of a police officer, and they were seconds away from the scene.
In an episode epitomizing the concept that “no good deed goes unpunished,” McKinney said a motorist had run out of fuel and got a ride to a nearby gas station from a sympathetic police officer. At the gas station, Sgt. Wayne O’Connell conducted a routine records check and learned that the driver, Samuel D. Williams, then a 37-year-old Harrisburg resident, had an outstanding warrant. As O’Connell attempted to take him into custody, Williams responded violently, punching O’Connell in the face before fleeing on foot.
K-9 Afra quickly spotted Williams, who ignored McKinney’s repeated commands to stop and put his hands up. McKinney issued an apprehension command, and Williams, later convicted of assault and resisting arrest, finally raised his hands -- seconds before he would have been taken into custody.
“I remember Afra getting on scene within minutes of my assist-officer call,” O’Connell said. “Williams had no chance of escape. Afra tracked him, and he was taken into custody within 100 yards from where the incident occurred. “
McKinney said Williams, was fortunate that K-9 Afra was so well-trained. “I recalled her, and she stopped in her tracks,” McKinney said. He said the case represented an unusual occurrence. “Most defendants will surrender as soon as they see or hear the dogs,” McKinney said. “Many have told us that they believed they could outrun the officers, but not the dogs.”
During the following summer, McKinney and K-9 Afra were called to assist in locating two children who had run away in New Garden Township. Working with the late K-9 Buster and his handler, former Lt. John Freas, the CCSO teams canvassed a wooded area around a creek, eventually locating the children by extending the search skyward: The children had climbed up a tree in their unsuccessful attempt to avoid detection.
Chester County Sheriff Carolyn Bunny Welsh said Afra served the Sheriff’s Office and the citizens of Chester County well. “She is a loyal and dedicated deputy,” Welsh said. “And she deserves a happy and long retirement.”