It was three days into a 2006 search for a woman missing in a boating accident near the Highland Park Bridge, and the team led by Blawnox Fire Chief George McBriar could find nothing in the muddy Allegheny River.
Then Saber, a cadaver dog for the Allegheny County coroner's office, boarded a search boat and began sniffing the air above the river. Soon, he alerted investigators to a body at least 15 feet under water.
"That dog was amazing," Chief McBriar said Monday. "It told us exactly where she was at. And it proved to be true."
Saber, a 96-pound Doberman Pinscher who was the first and only cadaver dog to work for the Allegheny County coroner's office, died Sunday at age 10 in a Monroeville veterinarian's office, where he was put down because of to declining health.
Next to him at the end was Joe Angotti, the former deputy coroner who found Saber, named him, trained him and who was his partner on more than 70 cases.
Mr. Angotti had worked with police canine units as an officer with the Wilmerding and East McKeesport police departments, and when he became a deputy coroner, he suggested to Cyril Wecht, the Allegheny County coroner at the time, that the office hire a cadaver dog. Cadaver dogs aid in finding bodies by tracking down the scents released by decomposing human remains.
Dr. Wecht gave Mr. Angotti the go-ahead, and in 2002 he headed to Clymer, Indiana County, to see a breeder about Doberman puppies.
Out of a litter of 4-month-old puppies, the one that ran up to Mr. Angotti was the dog that stood out.
"He just seemed like he had a lot of energy in him, and that's something that would need to be a requirement, to get up and go," he said.
And after the training period -- about eight months of obedience classes and cadaver training in California -- there was plenty of get up and go.
Saber and Mr. Angotti responded to calls throughout Western Pennsylvania.
Mr. Angotti always knew when Saber had found something. The dog would make a low growl, then give a bark, and Mr. Angotti would alert the authorities either to where they should search or that they could rule out a location as a possibility.
"They were surprised to see how accurate a dog can be," Mr. Angotti said.
It was morbid work, but Saber loved it.
"It's all a game to him," Mr. Angotti said. "He doesn't realize what the end result is. All he knows is that when he finds his end result, he gets highly praised and rewarded."
Saber's four-year career ended in 2007, when the cadaver dog program was discontinued at the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's office, which replaced the coroner's office. Saber spent his retirement at Mr. Angotti's home.
Mr. Angotti left the medical examiner's office a year after Saber and now runs his own construction company. He buried the Doberman at his home in Wilkins.
Six years after he first met Saber, Chief McBriar, who remains fire chief in Blawnox, is still marveling at the dog's ability to pinpoint a location at the bottom of the Allegheny River.
"I will never forget that, honestly. It was amazing," he said.
Kaitlynn Riely: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1707.