She and her husband, John, live in a quiet part of northwest Mineral Wells in a nice brick home with a fenced yard and three dogs.
They draw Social Security, a couple that is like so many others in Mineral Wells and the county – that is, until the phone rings. Those phone calls have sent Vi Shaffer to some of the worst catastrophes of the last 20 years – the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., following the attack on 9-11; New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina; Del Rio following the devastating floods of 1998; and Oklahoma City after tornados ripped through that state.
Vi and John Shaffer train and deploy cadaver search dogs.
I first met Vi some nine years ago, on a search for remains in the southern part of Palo Pinto County. For those nine years, she has been adamant that the story is not about her nor about what she does. She remains so today, instead focusing on those she helps.
Vi Shaffer has been doing the same thing since 1991, volunteering her time and money to help police departments, fire departments, the FBI and other federal agencies – any agency that needs her particular services, and there have been a lot, including Palo Pinto County.
“Almost all (search handlers) are volunteers,” said Vi Shaffer. “You set your priorities.”
And with those priorities come sacrifices – staying home instead of going out to eat, staying home instead of going to a movie – bypassing many things others take for granted.
She said she has been a part of murder investigations, a lot of searches for murder victims and evidence. In fact, she said she has taken part in over 300 searches, mostly murder investigations.
“In the Casey Elliott search, Mercy found the blood drop in the house where the murder took place,” she recalled.
Helen Moore was arrested in March 1996 and convicted in the murder of her boyfriend, Elliott. She was sentenced to 60 years in prison. Law enforcement found body parts scattered across the county, but needed evidence of where the murder took place.
Mercy and Grace were Labs she trained, both have since passed away. Today, she has Spirit, a black Lab she has trained for the past eight years. Mercy was the first cadaver search dog to be recognized by the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team by proving beyond a doubt that a cadaver search dog could find bodies in a mass casualty event.
“They have to alert only on human remains,” said Vi. “In a mass fatality, there is body fluid and blood everywhere. They have to find the actual remains. Mercy proved it could be done.
“I don’t do it for publicity, praise or pay,” she said. “We don’t charge law enforcement agencies for our services, it’s our way of paying back.”
And there has been a lot of paying back over the years, including the disappearance of Madalyn Murray O’Hair. It was Mercy and Grace that found her body on a ranch in a lonely stretch of Texas far from anywhere.
“Things led to going to cadaver search,” she reflected. “I think it’s something the Lord wanted me to do.”
Those things included her work with search teams after she began, then realizing how much training and work would be involved that others were not committed to.
”I became independent and constantly train and work to become a resource for police departments and fire departments,” she said.
While she still assists in body searches, her focus has also moved to disasters with mass casualties.
“After every major disaster, people start coming out of the woodwork,” she remarked regarding those with dogs who want to help in search operations. “They’re good people. Good intentions do not make a search team. People wanting to help can be a hindrance.”
Shaffer said it takes a first-time handler two years to become mission ready.
“Unfortunately, there are search teams and dog teams in it for the publicity.
“I’m very passionate about it,” she said. “No search dog handler or team has any business talking to the media (on a search).”
She said when media is at a mass casualty scene, she and her husband and dogs make themselves scarce.
“The only time we’ll speak to media is if law enforcement asks us to.”
Shaffer completed 40 hours of intensive training and testing last week in Mineral Wells, a program that led to certification of Spirit, by Law Enforcement Training Specialist International, perhaps the premier program in the nation that requires a rigorous testing program and extensive training.
The test for certification included a five-acre search area, a building filled with machinery, tools and other items with minute samples placed in difficult areas for dogs to find.
She has worked on the DMORT since 1997 where she has been the chairman for DMORT committee for establishing standards and requirements for search teams – the Federal Mass Fatality K9 Standards and Requirements Committee.
“I’ve tried for 13 years to get this adopted (by the federal government),” she said. “I won’t quit until it’s done.”
In addition, she was a founding member of Homeland Security.
“Me and 5,000 other people,” she said with a smile.
“It’s not a hobby, it’s not a pastime, it’s not a fun game,” she said of her work. “Someone’s life may depend on it.
With so much emotion, time and money invested there are rewards.
“To feel that you have helped bring some kind of peace to a family, it’s rewarding,” said Vi. “The only name that’s important is the name of the victim. The deceased deserve dignity and respect in how they’re treated, the utmost respect.
“There is no such thing as closure,” she added. “What there is for families is a point of contact.”
“We like to think of it as bringing peace,” John added.