Saturday, November 20, 2010

Federal Police Officer Gets Probation For Shooting Family Pet, Bear-Bear

Federal police officer Keith Elgin Shepherd was fined and given probation before judgment Friday for shooting a Siberian husky he claimed attacked his pet and was threatening him and his wife at a community dog park in Severn in August.

"We are overjoyed that it's gotten this far," Rachel Rettaliata told Anne Arundel County District Judge Thomas J. Pryal. She and her husband, Ryan Rettaliata owned Bear-Bear, the dog shot in the Quail Run community dog park and injured so severely that it had to be euthanized. "Our lives have been turned upside down."

After a 31/2-hour trial, Pryal called the shooting of Bear-Bear "an overreaction" and said it was unreasonable, causing pain and suffering to the 3-year-old dog.

Pryal said he was ready to convict Shepherd, 32, on charges of misdemeanor animal cruelty and, with the nearest home about 66 yards away, discharging his personal handgun within 100 yards of homes in the Quail Run neighborhood. He offered Shepherd probation before judgment, allowing him to avoid a criminal record if he successfully completes probation.

Shepherd accepted the terms and, barring new criminal charges or not fulfilling the conditions of probation, he will have the opportunity to have his record expunged in three years. He cannot appeal.

Pryal fined Shepherd $500 for animal cruelty and gave him a suspended fine of $1,000 on the handgun charge. During his one-year unsupervised probation, he must complete 80 hours of community service.

During the trial, testimony from the two sides about what happened at the dog park was in conflict.

While on the stand, Shepherd said that Bear-Bear had bitten his dog around the neck, then bared its teeth at him. Seeing no rock or stick to use, he took a few steps back, pulled his personal Glock and shot the dog once, then called 911, telling the dispatcher to make sure animal control officers came to help the wounded dog.

Assistant State's Attorney Kimberly DiPietro argued that Shepherd had other options for handling what Shepherd perceived as a threatening situation for himself, his wife and his German shepherd.

"Did you kick Bear-Bear?" she asked Shepherd in cross-examination.

"No," he replied.

The verdict left the community that has rallied around the Rettaliatas — thousands locally and online — with mixed feelings. About 15 supporters attended part or all of the trial, some carrying "Justice for Bear-Bear" signs outside the courthouse before the trial, others wearing "Justice for Bear-Bear" T-shirts with Bear-Bear buttons pinned to their clothing. The Justice for Bear-Bear Facebook page has more than 15,600 members.

"I think the judge made the right decision," said Pamela Semies, a retiree who came from Halethorpe to attend the trial. "I would have liked to see the judge make the penalty stiffer."

She said she believed the judge made it clear that shooting the dog was the wrong way for Shepherd to handle the situation.

"I don't think Bear-Bear's death was in vain. A person will think a little more next time. Suppose [the bullet] would have ricocheted and hit a child, a person," she said.

Wendy Cozzone, who operates Cheryl's Rescue Ranch in Gambrills and heads the Anne Arundel County Animal Welfare Council, said it was important to see that Shepherd was held publicly accountable for a bad decision that proved fatal to someone's pet.

"I just wish one time, one of these cases, animal abuse cases, a statement would be made. And then someone says, 'Boy, I better not abuse animals or neglect animals. I might get that kind of a sentence,' because the judge says you're going to get the toughest fine you can get," she said. "I guess we take it one step at a time."

The Rettaliatas declined to comment as they left the courtroom. But their expressions were buoyant, a contrast to when they were listening to testimony, when Rachel Rettaliata appeared to sniffle and Ryan Rettaliata looked somberly down at the floor.

David Putzi, Shepherd's defense attorney, said he was not surprised but understood the rationale of the judge's decision.

Shepherd accepted the probation agreement, Putzi said, because "I think he wants to move on."

How this might affect Shepherd's work — he is a civilian police sergeant for the Army at Joint Command Myer-Henderson Hall in Northern Virginia and serves as a sergeant in the Army Reserves — is unclear.

"I think he's optimistic that it won't have too negative an impact," Putzi said. Shepherd, as a federal officer, was allowed to carry a personal weapon while off duty.

The prosecutor was pleased with the trial's outcome.

"I'm happy that he was held accountable for his actions," DiPietro said.

During her cross-examination of Shepherd, she noted that he did not get Bear-Bear's leash to hit him with, did not try to grab the dog's rear legs or take the leash of his German shepherd, Asia, from his wife. His wife did not drop Asia's leash, and neither Shepherd nor his wife retreated from the dog park through any of its three gates, she said.

Rachel Rettaliata's brother, Steven Ryan Kurinij, who lives with the couple, said he'd taken Bear-Bear to the private dog park about 6 p.m., as he often did. The Shepherds arrived later with Asia. The couple asked whether Bear-Bear was friendly, and after Kurinij said yes, the Shepherds said Asia was friendly, too, and entered.

Kurinij described two dogs playing, up on their hind legs making "little grunts," followed by Shepherd's wife screaming and Shepherd shouting.

"He told me, 'You'd better get your dog,' and he pulled out what I thought was a Taser and shot it — in the abdomen" in a sequence that took just seconds. Asked by DiPietro why he didn't jump in to get Bear-Bear, Kurinij replied, "I didn't have time to." Under cross-examination by Putzi, Kurinij said that at no time did it seem to him that the dogs were fighting.

In contrast, Shepherd said the dogs started out playing, but said that once his timid dog backed away, the husky attacked. He described a nearly minute-long sequence that included Bear-Bear's biting his dog around the neck, his wife "calling out hysterically" and him moving to grab Bear-Bear's collar, only to see the husky turn toward him.

He said he shouted a dozen times at Kurinij to get his dog but "he did absolutely nothing." Fearing for his wife as the husky bared its teeth, he shot the dog, he said.

Initially, county police closed the case, said Detective Tom Middleton. But the case was not really closed, he said, because his supervisor had not signed off on it.

Amid a public uproar, County Executive John R. Leopold ordered a full police investigation. Meanwhile, the state's attorney's office was reviewing the initial information and later solicited information from the state attorney general's office and federal officials. Charges were brought about two weeks after the shooting.

The Rettaliatas have adopted two huskies since Bear-Bear was shot. The Shepherd family has moved from the neighborhood.

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