New Castle K-9 takes symbolic last ride
A New Castle police officer was moonlighting at a security job while his K-9 partner sat unattended in a cruiser for nearly four hours, dying of heat stroke, the police chief said on Thursday.
The officer, whom police would not identify, was suspended without pay and faces likely departmental discipline and possible criminal charges, Chief Thomas Sansone said after a memorial service for Chico, the 6-year-old Dutch shepherd. The officer left the dog in the car with the air conditioning running, Sansone said, but the air shut down after an extended period.
"Basically, he relied on the mechanics of the car to be OK," Sansone said. "I would say at this point there probably will be some kind of discipline."
Lawrence County District Attorney Joshua Lamancusa said his office is conducting a criminal investigation. Under state law, a person can be charged with crimes ranging from a summary citation to a felony for abusing a police dog.
"I don't want to speculate as to what might be the outcome of our investigation," Lamancusa said.
Dozens of police officers from as far away as Indiana County joined New Castle residents for the memorial service held at a Lawrence County Community Action Partnership office. Officer Terry Dolquist, Chico's former handler, carried the dog's cremated remains in a box. Attached to the box was a photograph of the animal and a plaque inscribed with its dates of service in New Castle.
Afterward, a procession of 30 police cruisers, one carrying Chico's remains, drove slowly through the city with lights flashing in a symbolic last ride.
Sansone said the service was conducted at no cost to the city. Officers scheduled to work were permitted to attend if they had no pending calls. The other officers volunteered their time. A pet cemetery provided cremation services, programs and a box for the remains.
"I came to pay my respects," said tearful New Castle resident Ana Martinez, who owns four dogs. "I just feel so bad."
Chico lived with his handler, who was scheduled to work on Saturday from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., Sansone said. The officer reported to a side detail for the Lawrence County Housing Authority, which contracts for security through the Fraternal Order of Police, at 4 p.m. that day. He left Chico in the cruiser outside the police station, and then drove another vehicle to a housing development.
The National Weather Service reported that the temperature hit 88 degrees in New Castle that day.
The officer returned at 7:45 p.m. and found the dog unresponsive in the back of the cruiser, Sansone said. Chico died a short time later at a veterinary hospital.
Sansone said tests of the cruiser revealed the air conditioning functioned properly, but shut down after running nonstop for two hours. He said the car was equipped with a device specially designed for K-9 units. It sounds an alarm and opens rear windows after the temperature reaches an unsafe level. The heat sensor functioned properly, but Sansone said he hasn't determined whether it had been activated on Saturday.
Department policy prohibits officers from leaving a dog unattended in a car for that length of time, Sansone said. He said the officer should have taken Chico home to his kennel while working the side job.
He said the officer, who has worked in New Castle for five years and became a K-9 officer in January, is distraught. He attended the memorial service but was advised to leave early after paying his respects, Sansone said.
"It's tough," Sansone said. "The officer was this canine's partner. There certainly was no intent for this to happen."
Dolquist said he met Chico at an Ohio animal trainer's facility in 2009 after serving a tour in Iraq with the Pennsylvania National Guard. His first impression: "God, that's an ugly dog."
But Dolquist built a bond with Chico after learning he served in Iraq with a private security company around the same time Dolquist was there. He said Chico became a great partner and a member of his family. He will keep Chico's remains until New Castle builds its new police station, which will include a memorial to the dog.
"He would be a big meanie when you wanted him to, but he could be a big softie," Dolquist said. "I loved him."