As his handler stood nearby, Crespo the dog disappeared behind the green countertops at Napa’s old Cinedome theater where popcorn, sodas and candy were once sold.
Within seconds, Crespo, one of four Napa County Sheriff’s K-9s, barked at a towel dispenser, alerting his handler of his “find” — methamphetamine hidden inside a towel dispenser behind the counter.
“Here,” said Sheriff’s Deputy James Baumgartner, rewarding Crespo with a juke toy. “Actually, he’s a just big pet,” said Baumgartner, allowing a stranger to pet his 7-year-old companion.
The Sheriff’s four K-9 dogs — Crespo, Whiskey, Mac and Ronnie, all Belgian Malinois — came to the boarded up theater on Pearl Street on Thursday to practice their law enforcement skills in between calls for service. The dogs, who live with their deputy partners, are cross-trained to search buildings and sniff for marijuana, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine.
As dog trainer Chip Johnson of CJ’s Police K-9s gave directions, the sheriff’s deputies let their dogs loose inside the Cinedome’s darkened theaters where all the seats have been removed since last fall’s closing. No rats were found.
A volunteer sheriff’s deputy bundled in a “bite” suit — an oversized snow man-type outfit — played the role of a “suspect.”
Thursday’s workouts were part of a series of training exercises by deputies in the old movie theater, which has been shuttered and boarded up in November when the new Century Napa Valley cineplex opened in south Napa.
On Wednesday, about 30 deputies practiced three scenarios roughly based on a shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. that killed 12 people last July. More deputies were expected to train Friday inside the theater.
The training sessions at the old Cinedome are part of each deputy’s monthly training, the deputies said. Over the years, deputies have trained in other realistic settings, including warehouses and the American Canyon High School.
“It’s just a matter of being prepared,” said Undersheriff Brian Banducci. “We had an opportunity to use this for training and it’s always nice to do something realistic.”
“It’s not that we’re worrying about it happening,” he said of the Aurora shootings. “It’s just that we want to be prepared.”
Each deputy spent a minimum of 30 minutes to pass the three tests designed to improve their skills, including quickly interviewing shooting victims writhing in pain in order to track a suspected shooter as fast as possible.
Other exercises included target identifications, where deputies identified and shot paint bullets at suspected “shooters” — life-size photos propped up under dimmed lights, as if a movie were to start shortly.
“We want (the deputies) to be as efficient and fast as they can be, but efficient and safe for (themselves) and the public,” said Sgt. Doug Pace, who heads the K-9 unit.