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Wednesday, April 30, 2008 01:39 am

Dog gone

Police serving a warrant kill a dog, but overlook suspect they meant to arrest

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Nick Bartolomucci says goodbye to Pepper

Nick Bartolomucci admits that his dog Pepper was an amazing creature. Rescued by Bartolomucci as a starved, dehydrated, mangy 5-month-old pup, the pit bull/Labrador retriever mix returned the favor by nursing Bartolomucci through the death of his mother, the breakup of a 19-year romance, and the loss of his job. “He was my therapy tool to deal with life,” Bartolomucci says. “He was my spiritual savior. He saved me.”
As miraculous as Pepper was, however, Bartolomucci still can’t believe that his dog managed to run 20 feet after being shot in the head by a Springfield police officer. Yet, according to a report filed by the officer who shot the dog on Monday afternoon, that’s exactly what Pepper did. Officers Russell Lehr and Daniel Weiss went to a residence in the 1700 block of Peoria Road, looking for a 21-year-old man wanted on a warrant. Court records indicate that the man has been charged with retail theft, criminal damage to property, and violation of a protective order. Bartolomucci happened to be at the residence because he was helping his friend — the suspect’s father — repair a truck. While they worked, Pepper played with his friend’s dog, a black Labrador named Morgan. The two men had finished working on the truck and were inside a workshop at the rear of the property when police arrived. Police and witnesses have two different versions of what happened. According to their written reports, Lehr and Weiss noticed the two dogs as they parked in the alley behind the residence. The officers walked across the back yard and onto the deck to knock on the back door. As they waited for someone to answer the door, the Labrador, Morgan, ran up to the deck, “barking at us, growling and bearing [sic] its teeth. . . .” according to Weiss’ report. The officers jumped over the deck railing and onto a narrow concrete driveway between the residence and the next-door property, which belongs to Michael Refine. The pit bull, Pepper, then ran toward them and attempted to bite Weiss’ leg but failed “as it had too much momentum,” according to Lehr’s report. The pit bull then turned and ran back toward the officers, they say, still growling and displaying its teeth. As Weiss pulled his weapon, Lehr yelled at him to get out of the way and then shot the dog in the head. According to Lehr’s report, the dog began limping but “ran past us for about 20 feet and entered the back yard [of the Refine residence] where it expired.”
Bartolomucci, Refine, and the suspect’s mother didn’t see the shooting, but they all dispute that account. The suspect’s mother says the officers came to her front door but didn’t ring the doorbell; instead, she says, they went around to the back. As she approached her back door, she saw them jump off the deck and then heard a gunshot. Refine says he was watching TV next to his back door when he heard the shot, after which he immediately went outside and saw Pepper lying next to his fence, obviously dead. Bartolomucci, a professional sound engineer, says the officers’ account doesn’t match his dog’s personality. He raised Pepper to be gentle, to counteract stereotypes of pit bulls, and took Pepper everywhere he went — to stores, recording studios, and outdoor music festivals. Ric “Skip” Major, another sound engineer, says Pepper was “sorta scary looking” and had jumped on him, but only in a friendly, playful way. “I’m a cat guy, and he would whimper at them like he didn’t understand what they were,” Major says. John Hoagland, owner of Net Top Dollar, where Bartolomucci worked part-time as a guitar technician, says Pepper was trustworthy enough to be allowed to hang around in the store. “We had families and kids in here, and never a problem,” Hoagland says. “He was harmless. If he had wanted to do something to that police officer, he could have.”
Refine, who didn’t know Pepper by name, says he had seen him next door as many as10 times, and the dog “wasn’t no kinda mean or nothing.” He wonders why there was no blood on the pavement that Pepper supposedly ran across after being shot and says that “farmer’s logic” suggests that the dog was shot right where he died — in Refine’s back yard. “Anything’s possible,” he says, “but I’ve hunted and I’ve helped do a couple of pig roasts, and a good head wound, everything’s over right now.”
Refine says he has scheduled an appointment with SPD’s internal-affairs office to file a formal complaint about the incident. He’s concerned not only about the shooting of the dog but also about what happened after the cops left. Refine says that he called 911 after spotting the suspect hiding among trailers across the alley, then waited outside for an hour for officers to arrive to execute the warrant. No one ever came. Lehr joined the SPD in July 2004 after working for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Leland Grove Police Department. Weiss joined the SPD in February 2005. In December of that year he was ticketed for driving under the influence and driving too fast for conditions after his vehicle collided with another motorist’s.
Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.
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