Owner of Bear-Bear hopes laws will be toughened after dog park shooting

Shooter of Siberian husky in Arundel dog park faces two misdemeanors

August 18, 2010|By Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun

The owner of a Siberian husky that was shot in a Severn dog park two weeks ago said she is pleased that charges have been filed — even if weeks later — against the man who shot Bear-Bear, adding that she hopes that laws might be changed in the wake of her pet's death.

"It will be really beautiful if out of all of this, animal cruelty penalties increased because of Bear-Bear," Rachel Rettaliata said. "Maybe we could push for a law in [his] memory."

Charges were filed Wednesday in District Court in Annapolis against Keith Elgin Shepherd, 32, a civilian police officer for the Army in Northern Virginia. He faces two misdemeanor charges: animal cruelty and discharging a firearm within 100 yards of an occupied home.

"I can't say that I am surprised that charges were brought, and we are looking forward to challenging this in court," said David Putzi, Shepherd's attorney. "My client maintains his innocence," Putzi said.

The charges were brought against Shepherd 16 days after the shooting Aug. 2 of Bear-Bear at the private Quail Run dog park. Shepherd and his wife, Wendy, had brought their German shepherd, Asia, to the park. Steven Ryan Kurinij, Rettaliata's brother, had brought Bear-Bear to the park that night.

According to an initial police report, Shepherd said that Bear-Bear attacked Asia and then menaced him. He also told police that Kurinij did not act on his calls to intervene, so he shot Bear-Bear and called 911.

The Rettaliata family has disputed Shepherd's account. Rachel Rettaliata said her brother told her that the dogs were playing and that before he could respond to Shepherd's request, Shepherd fired.

The husky died a few hours later at a veterinary hospital. After veterinarians started emergency surgery, they said the dog could not be saved, and Bear-Bear was euthanized.

That no charges were immediately filed against Shepherd prompted a public outcry, but Kristin Fleckenstein, the spokeswoman for Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee, said the case had not been dropped.

Fleckenstein explained Wednesday that an attorney in her office received the initial police report the day after the shooting and decided that there was not enough evidence to file charges, but sent the report to others for review.

The office continued to work on the case with police, and received a police report Aug. 9. Prosecutors questioned Kurinij on Tuesday and filed charges Wednesday. "A review of the evidence and subsequent investigation resulted in these charges, which are the appropriate and applicable charges in this case, based upon the evidence," Fleckenstein said.

The state's attorney's office conferred with the office of the judge advocate general, the Maryland attorney general's office and the Department of Defense before filing the weapon charges, said Fleckenstein. Prosecutors and police had been looking into whether Shepherd was allowed to be carrying a gun, a complicated issue because he works as a federal officer, she said.

"He had the right to carry the weapon, based on his status as a police officer," she said. "He does not have to turn in his weapon as a result of these charges."

Prosecutors are still looking to interview a man named Steffon Nelson who told a TV reporter that he witnessed the shooting. He has not been located.

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold, who demanded a full investigation of the shooting when the public outcry began, said Wednesday that he was pleased police conducted a "thorough investigation of the facts" and worked with prosecutors.

"I know the shooting of Bear-Bear shocked the conscience of people around the country, and beyond," he said.

Leopold said he will ask the county's law office and state legislators to review laws regarding cruelty "and see if there is a need to stiffen these penalties."

A conviction for misdemeanor animal cruelty — in this case, inflicting unnecessary suffering and pain to an animal — is punishable by up to $1,000 and 90 days in jail. A conviction on the weapons charge is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and six months in jail.

Leopold said that he also asked county recreation and parks officials to re-examine rules at the county's public dog parks. "They should be safe havens for dogs and their owners," he said.

Both the Rettaliatas and the Shepherds live in Quail Run, where there is a movement afoot to dedicate the community's private dog park to Bear-Bear. Calling the gesture "a wonderful idea," Ryan Rettaliata, Bear-Bear's other owner, said Wednesday that "it's the community who is reaching out to do something nice for a tragic situation."

At the same time, he said, "I wish no harm to come to Mr. Shepherd, his family or his dog. I just want to see justice done."

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