GALLIPOLIS — Gallipolis Police Department said goodbye to its first and arguably most beloved canine officer Friday afternoon as the year ends and a new year and chapter begins for his handler.
Virago was roughly 16-and-a-half years old before taking his last cruiser ride and receiving a salute from fellow officers in front of the Gallipolis Justice Center after passing on. According to current Gallipolis City Commissioner and past Gallipolis Police Chief Roger Brandeberry, Virago was “the best employee” he ever had. Virago was reportedly active for 11 years of service.
Gallia County Sheriff-Elect and Gallipolis Police Officer Lt. Matt Champlin served as Virago’s handler and partner and is currently undergoing training with the state before finally swearing in as the new Gallia County Sheriff for 2017. Champlin said he served a year-and-a-half on the road as a patrolman and started with the department in Sept. 1999. Champlin acquired Virago in Feb. 2001, went to training in March of that year and certified Virago as a professional police canine on April 20, 2001. Virago was 11 months old when certified for the first time. Champlin admitted Virago was young and that it is typical to shoot between 13 months and three years of age for a police dog certification, depending upon the dog’s maturity and cognitive abilities. The pair trained with the Newark Division of Police Canine Unit.
Virago was a Belgian Malinois and purchased from a kennel in Holland in Europe. He was named after the Yamaha Virago motorcycle for his high speed personality. Champlin noted that Virago was exceptional in his abilities in both the patrol and narcotics detection aspects of policing. He said canine units typically have strong aspects in one or the other and Virago excelled in both.
“Probably the two most notable seizures I had with him, one came on September 13, 2001 … with the Ohio State Patrol where we got 2 kilos of cocaine out of a traffic stop on U.S. 35 and then the second seizure … we assisted the Meigs County Sheriff’s Office. He actually located a duffle bag full of cash in excess of $120,000 and then packaged closely with marijuana. When they did the search warrant, this guy had hidden a bag full of money in the woods and Virago actually detected the odor of marijuana possibly 50 or 60 yards down an embankment in the woods.”
Champlin said in every way he felt Virago was an “exceptional member our family.” He said it was not uncommon for fellow officers in the department to say Virago was like the “Michael Jordan” of canine units.
“You know, this was the dog that could apprehend a fleeing suspect and an hour later he would curl up in the middle of the floor with my kids,” said Champlin.”He was the best house pet you could ask for. He was just truly a member of our family. I can remember when my daughter was six months. I have pictures of her curled up laid against his belly and they were taking a nap together. To call him a member of the family was pure understatement. He was family.”
Not only was Virago a member of the GPD, he and Champlin were also recognized for efforts in competition. The pair competed inside the U.S. Police Canine Association. The organization holds regional competitions. Officers participating compete with canine units from Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia. Those who compete in regional competitions either qualify or rank for the national competition.
“The last year we actually competed in that was 2005,” said Champlin. “We qualified at the regional competition and we actually went to the national competition where we competed against dogs from all over the United States and Canada and that was held in Atlantic City, New Jersey. We competed inside the Atlantic City Surfs minor league baseball stadium.”
Competitions consist of building and vehicle narcotic searches, open area searches, article searches, apprehension and obedience exercises.
Champlin said he felt the Gallipolis department respected Virago and “had nothing but positive things” to say about him.
“We used him as a public relations tool,” said Champlin. “I’ve been to schools all over Gallia County and church groups and civic organizations. It was nothing for somebody to pick up the phone and call us to bring him to a daycare or a vacation Bible school. He was part of the family that we called the Gallipolis Police Department. He was expected in the office. If I came in, he came in. He was part of our brotherhood. To say he was an asset is an understatement.”
Champlin said that everyone had a favorite Virago story that they liked to tell, but one of his favorites was when the pair of them discovered the cash in Meigs County.
“I refer back in the police business we train and we train and we train for the little things in life to make a difference for the people and our communities,” said Champlin. “In the dog business, it’s the same thing. We train tirelessly and endlessly to make these dogs perfect and to make them shine … When you have success with something that you’ve trained so hard in and you see your canine partner excel with something that you’ve worked together so hard to perfect, I would have to say that’s probably one of my proudest moments.”
Dean Wright can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2103.