Sniffing out clues: Nevada County man and his dog help search for Amelia Earhart’s remains |

Sniffing out clues: Nevada County man and his dog help search for Amelia Earhart’s remains

Kayle, an eight year-old Border Collie, alerts to John Grebenkemper when she's found the scent of human decomposition. Here she alerts at a rock-covered site in Oregon, where she was asked to investigate whether the site that's believed to contain the remains of a soldier who died in 1867 is, in fact, a grave.
Submitted to The Union |

In 1937, Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan set off from Lae, New Guinea, on one of the final legs of their historic flight around the world. They were never seen again.

Search crews and archaeologists have looked tirelessly over the past 80 years for remains of the flyers or their aircraft, but none have been officially identified.

In June, The National Geographic Society brought a special search crew to a small island in the Pacific to help identify what may be the site where Earhart and Noonan died. The crew searched for remains in a way that no humans could do alone — they employed a group of dogs who are trained to identify the scent of death. Nevada County resident John Grebenkemper and his Border Collie, Kayle, were hired by the society to join the search.

Grebenkemper has trained Kayle to alert him when she finds the scent of human decomposition. Together, the pair have worked on a variety of search expeditions throughout North America, including an operation to locate the Donner Party camps in the Sierra. But Nikumaroro, an uninhabited, five square-mile island about 1,000 miles north of Fiji, was the most remote place Grebenkemper or Kayle had ever visited.

following a clue

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery began searching for the remains of Earhart and Noonan on Nikumaroro Island in the 1990s. Their search was originally based on a rumor which said that artifacts had been found there which were linked to the death of the two flyers, but documents were later uncovered that point to the rumor’s validity. Much of the evidence, however, went missing during World War II.

In 1938, the British government sent settlers to Nikumaroro, which was then called Gardner Island — an uninhabited, remote piece of land in the Pacific that Grebenkemper described as “far from a tropical paradise.” The British settlers explored the possibility of growing coconut trees and other crops in the largely-inhospitable landscape, which lead them to a curious discovery.

Gerald B. Gallagher, the resident British administrator on Nikumaroro Island in the early 1940s, told British officials that a partial human skeleton was located under a ren tree on the island, along with part of the sole of a woman’s shoe. Evidence of a campfire was also located nearby. Gallagher’s communications with British officials were discovered by historian and author Peter McQuarrie in 1997, according to the aircraft recovery group.

Gallagher told the British officials he believed he may have found Earhart’s remains, and he was ordered to ship the evidence to Fiji for analysis. But along the way, the remains were confiscated by a senior medical officer in Tarawa, who was unaware of their possible significance, and they were never seen again.

The British later abandoned their efforts to settle Nikumaroro, and it has remained uninhabited.

In 1991, when members of the aircraft recovery group were scouring Nikumaroro, they located what appeared to be pieces of two different shoes under a ren tree. They were unable to make any specific identification as to whom the shoes belonged to, but they may have identified the tree that Gallagher had written about.

Progress in the search for Earhart’s remains was halted for many years.

National Geographic hired the death-sniffing dogs this summer to confirm whether humans had, in fact, died under the tree that the aircraft group identified.

“Low and behold,” Grebenkemper said, “the dogs alerted human remain scent under that tree.”

A team of archaeologists then began digging underneath the tree to see what they could uncover. The National Geographic Society has not yet released the findings of their search.

The archaeologists plan to send samples back to a lab capable of extracting DNA from soil, in case they don’t find any bones.

For now, any evidence of Earhart’s death on Nikumaroro Island remains to be seen. But the four dogs — all Border Collies — did their part.

death-sniffing dogs

Grebenkemper said the expedition wasn’t all smooth sailing.

“We’d never worked the dogs in the tropics before,” he said. “The island is hot and humid, and it’s basically made up of broken-up coral, with very little soil. We weren’t even sure if the scent would survive under those conditions. Fortunately, there were graves of islanders that we ran tests on and the dogs alerted at all of them.”

Grebenkemper worked with the Institute for Canine Forensics in the Bay Area to train Kayle, who was certified to search for human remains by the time she was two years old. She is now eight.

Between 2010 and 2014, Grebenkemper and Kayle identified three sites near Alder Creek where they believe members of the Donner Party may have died. Their search was a product of Grebenkemper’s own curiosity — he’s a former computer hardware designer who worked in the Bay Area for the majority of his career. In his retirement, he’s explored other pursuits.

Grebenkemper is expected to give a presentation on his Donner Party search during the Nevada County Historical Society’s Nov. 16 speaker program, which is scheduled to take place at the Sierra Presbyterian Church in Nevada City at 7 p.m. He will provide more details on the search for Earhart’s remains, he said, when information is available.

To contact Staff Writer Matthew Pera, email or call 530-477-4231.

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