Aleszandra Berrelez, known to friends and family as Alie, was just 5 when she was taken. No one could find her, no one knew where she was, and for four days, there seemed to be nothing her family could do but frantically post signs and search, search, search.
The bloodhound from the Aurora Police Department had been on loan in Wyoming looking for another missing person, and there was no other agency with a dog capable of sniffing her out. When the hound, a 2 ½-year-old named Yogi, came back four days after Alie had gone missing, it didn’t take long. Less than 15 miles from her home, Alie’s body had been put in a duffle bag and discarded down an embankment up Deer Creek Canyon in rural Jefferson County. She was still wearing the Oskosh jumper she had put on days earlier.
Every member of the family was distraught, and they all coped in different ways. For her grandparents, Richard and Leticia Berrelez, they could only think about that bloodhound.
That was 17 years ago. Alie’s killer has never been found. Had police found her sooner, maybe just hours after she was taken from a neighbor’s lawn, she would have been 22 this year, and things would have been much easier and happier for the Berrelez family.
“Had the dog been available earlier, she could have been found—who’s to say—alive. She had to have been nearby. We will never know what would have happened if he had been around sooner,” Leticia says. But then she continues, “The fact that she was found is a wonderful gift. At least we could say goodbye.”
But Richard and Letecia Berrelez rarely talk about what would have been or could have been. Instead, they focus on what will be. The two have spent the last two decades ensuring their tragedy does not happen to others. Their Alie Foundation is a nonprofit organization that provides bloodhounds to missing people cases.
Leticia does much of the talking when the two are together, and Richard is more a man of action. Richard, soft-spoken and wearing a brimmed hat and boots, has been a nonstop force in making the organization viable and helping in missing persons cases. He speaks at schools and seminars about safety and bloodhounds. He’s raised funds. He’s learned everything there is to know about this special breed of dog. And he’s placed 350 dogs in various agencies across the county, saved at least 15 lives and caught two criminals. All in Alie’s name.
The foundation’s legacy will always be one of tragedy, but the Berrelez family has done everything possible to make its future positive. As they tell it, it started with just one dog.
“We knew that people needed a bloodhound accessible sooner than four days. So, we just started to raise money for a dog, and we started looking at where we could get one,” Richard says. The first dog, named Alie, went to the Cherry Hills Police Department.
“In the beginning, we didn’t have a long-term goal. It was just, ‘Let’s get a bloodhound.’ From there, it just expanded. We got requests from across the country. People wanted to give us money, and agencies wanted an Alie dog,” Leticia says.
Bloodhounds have tremendous olfactory senses—making them invaluable in tracking people or other animals. Bred for hunting, the bloodhound has 40 times the smelling receptors as people. Richard remembers how Yogi could track Alie’s smell when she had likely been put in a car and driven miles away.
But at the same time, the initial purchase of the dog, which can be $3,000, costs of training and caring for a bloodhound can be high, and for law enforcement agencies in this economic downturn, a bloodhound can be an ancillary cost. Plus, it’s been harder for the nonprofit to wrangle funds when much of the focus is on agencies that provide services to those facing poverty. Still, the Berrelez family says the last nine years have been tough, but there’s always a need and there is always a supply.
“This is really an invaluable tool for law enforcement,” Richard says. “When something is needed, everyone wants it. When someone goes missing, everyone wants a bloodhound.”
They’ve provided dogs for agencies across the country—from Portland to Florida—and for years, it was Richard and Leticia and their young daughter who would drive across the country to pick up and deliver the dogs to agencies. These days, things have slowed down a bit but Richard still does a lot of education about child safety and bloodhounds.
“As long as you are alive,” Leticia tells Richard, “you will help society because of what we lost. We were able to benefit from this dog. …There was a mission in your heart to educate kids and parents.”
“It never crossed my mind,” he responds, “not to do this.”