Meet the author
Who: Davis resident Adam Russ, author of “Bloodhound in Blue”
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 19
Where: The Avid Reader, 617 Second St.
One might say Adam Russ traveled a good distance to get back to where he was always supposed to be.
Russ was a writer in his early days — in high school and college — but his education and career trajectory took him in other directions: a master’s degree in economics, several years serving in the Peace Corps in Guatemala, working as an economist in Washington, D.C., and teaching math, first at a middle school in West Baltimore, and later at Esparto High School.
There was much he loved along that journey — particularly his time teaching in hardscrabble West Baltimore — but a move to Davis, and its welcoming community of writers, eventually returned him to his roots and ultimately will land him in a most enviable position next week: at a launch party for his first book, “Bloodhound in Blue.”
The true story of a police dog, JJ, and his partner, Michael Serio, “Bloodhound in Blue” marks Russ’ first foray into nonfiction, something that had never particularly interested him as a writer. Fiction, and short stories in particular, are his forté.
Since his move to Davis, when his wife, Kadee, took a job at UC Davis, Russ has focused on writing fiction and serving as assistant editor of the Blue Moon Literary & Art Review. His short stories have appeared in Paradigm, The Battered Suitcase and the collection “All in the Game,” and have earned him numerous awards.
But sometimes the pull of the past, the ties of friendship and what is, pure and simple, a great story, lure a writer in a new direction.
And so it was with Russ.
Russ, now 42, and Serio have known each other since they were young boys growing up on a military base in Germany. Serio was a year behind Russ in school, but they played soccer together and became fast friends.
The life of the military family being what it is, the two boys eventually parted ways as their families headed elsewhere.
It wasn’t until some years had passed that the two ran into each other at a lake in Virginia and discovered both would be attending Virgina Tech in the fall. They decided to become roommates, and that, perhaps, is where the story of “Bloodhound in Blue” really begins, because that’s when Serio would fall in love with Russ’ dog, Jessie, a hound mix.
“We raised her together,” Russ recalled.
Years later, when Serio was working as a rookie police officer in Salt Lake City, it was his memories of Jessie that led him to adopt a similarly droopy-eared pup, a bloodhound he named Jessie Jr.
JJ was supposed to be a family pet for Serio and his wife, Lisa, but his natural inclination and ability to track soon had Serio thinking. He knew bloodhounds had been used by law enforcement in the past, and wondered why the Salt Lake City Police Department didn’t use them — why, in fact, there wasn’t a working bloodhound in any Utah law enforcement agency. And then he set out to change that.
He did. He and JJ, anyway.
Together, they overcame early obstacles and challenges, as well as resistance from some in law enforcement who questioned the use of bloodhounds as police dogs. And they went on to apprehend close to 300 suspects in JJ’s nine-year law enforcement career.
JJ became a celebrity in Salt Lake City, decidedly different from those German shepherds on the force.
“JJ … was taller, longer and a good 10 pounds heavier than his fellow police dogs,” Russ writes in “Bloodhound in Blue.” “He combined regal and goofy in the same expression, and even the reticent couldn’t help but smile at his approach.
“Bystanders’ smiles often disappeared, however, when JJ’s affable greeting left thick, sticky strands of translucent drool everywhere.”
He didn’t just catch criminals, following them from the scene of the crime to wherever they may have hidden — up a tree, under a car, on a roof, even in the occasional garbage can. JJ also searched for and found lost children.
But it was the one he didn’t find that haunts Serio the most.
In June 2002, Salt Lake City was the scene of the one of the largest manhunts in U.S. history when 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her family’s home. JJ and Serio joined the search, with JJ’s nose leading the duo up into the hills near the Smarts’ home.
In “Bloodhound in Blue,” Russ describes the track JJ took, even as officers back at the Smart home began insisting the duo were on a wild goose chase, that it made no sense for a kidnapper to take Smart into the wild, that surely she’d been taken away in a car.
And while Serio agreed it didn’t really make sense, he wasn’t about to force JJ to abandon the track until a helicopter could have a look from above.
“My dog is telling me there’s something up ahead,” Serio told the helicopter pilot. “Can you check the canyon northeast of our location?”
Using a thermal imaging system, the helicopter scanned the area and found two joggers running together on a trail up ahead and no one else. The pilot suggested JJ was mistakenly tracking the joggers rather than Elizabeth Smart and her abductor.
“From his experience, Serio knew that even the best tracking dog can switch midway through a track to follow a new scent,” Russ wrote.
And though Serio hesitated to pull JJ off the track, he eventually did.
“JJ gave him a funny look,” Russ wrote. “(O)ne that Serio had never seen before. It read: ‘I’m not done yet. Why are we stopping?’
“If I pulled him off the right track, I’ll never live it down,” Serio would later recall thinking.
A little over a year later, Elizabeth Smart was found, and the details she provided about the night of her abduction made Serio sick.
When law enforcement provided her with a map for her to indicate the path her abductor had taken that night, Smart showed a path exactly like the one JJ had tracked into a canyon, a path that ultimately ended at a lean-to shelter constructed in a way that likely made it hard for the helicopter to spot from above.
Whether JJ eventually would have tracked to that shelter had he not been pulled off the path, Serio will never know, and the “if onlys” will plague him forever.
But JJ, “free from the human foibles of guilt and afterthought,” Russ wrote, just kept on tracking — for a few more years anyway. The lovable bloodhound was diagnosed with melanoma in January 2007.
Now with the full support of the Salt Lake City Police Department and the community as a whole, JJ and Serio embarked on experimental — and expensive — cancer treatments that included several trips to New York City. But it worked, and JJ was soon back on the job, with donations from the community covering the thousands of dollars worth of treatment and travel expenses.
A year later though, cancer returned, and JJ’s storied career and happy life drew to a close, with his final hours captured in moving detail in “Bloodhound in Blue.”
After JJ’s death, Serio approached his lifelong friend Russ, now a successful writer in Davis, about chronicling the bloodhound’s career in a book.
The two had stayed close over the years — with Serio serving as best man at Russ’s wedding — and Russ had followed JJ’s story from afar.
But the thought of writing nonfiction didn’t appeal to him. He turned Serio down.
“Then he flew me out to watch his dog work,” Russ said.
Accompanying Serio and JJ’s successor — Junior — on the job inspired Russ. He changed his mind and agreed to tell JJ’s story.
That was near the end of 2010, and two years later, the book was finished.
“Starting out, it was really challenging,” Russ said.
With fiction, the writer takes whatever direction he or she chooses; in essence, said Russ, “you are God.”
Nonfiction is a whole different matter.
Much research had to go into the book, including reading police reports, accompanying Serio on ride-alongs and interviewing the huge cast of characters, from law enforcement to canine experts.
Then there were the many, many conversations with Serio himself, collecting his memories.
The end result, though, is an already well-received book, likely to delight animal lovers, true crime aficionados and everyone in between.
” ‘Bloodhound in Blue’ combines the best of animal lore with police procedurals to create a compelling read,” prize-winning author Brenda Miller writes in review. “(Russ) describes JJ so vividly that you’ll feel as though you’ve been by this dog’s side, cheering him on as he sniffs his way toward the status of canine legend.”
Russ will be at The Avid Reader at 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 19, for the book’s official launch.
Then he’ll be off to Salt Lake City, later in July or early August for the book’s launch there.
He’ll continue to serve as stay-at-home dad to 4 1/2-year-old Atticus. And earlier reservations notwithstanding, Russ plans to stick to nonfiction for a while. He’s already at work, in fact, researching for a book about his father’s time in Vietnam.
Sam Wallace Russ Jr. retired as colonel in the U.S. Army, having served two tours in Vietnam, from 1965 to 1966 as a platoon leader and 1967 to 1968 as an infantry company commander.
He never used to talk much about his time in Vietnam, Russ said, “but now he’s opened up and started talking about it.”
And what stories he has, from being accompanied by Pulitzer Prize-winning combat photographer Horst Faas during his first tour to working with a particularly heroic medic, Lawrence Joel, whom the elder Russ nominated for a Medal of Honor. Joel would go on to become the first African-American medic to win the medal. They and others the colonel encountered during his time in Vietnam will form the heart of the book, Russ said.
And as he has since his arrival in Davis, Russ will rely on the support, fellowship and input of his fellow writers in town. He’s part of a group that meets weekly to share their work, and says he is “blessed with this incredible community of writers.”
The acknowledgements for “Bloodhound in Blue” reads like a who’s who of Davis literati, from Blue Moon editor Scott Evans to all the members of the Blue Moon Writers Guild.
“Writing is such a lonely enterprise by itself,” Russ noted. “But being able to share it with other people… makes you feel like part of a community.”
“Bloodhound in Blue” goes on sale Tuesday.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [email protected] or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy