Trial of federal officer who shot dog in Severn park set for Friday

Defense maintains he was protecting self, wife, pet; husky's owner calls it 'deplorable act'

(Photo courtesy of Rachel…)
November 17, 2010|By Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun

What's not at odds is that two family pets were brought to a neighborhood dog park on a summer evening in Severn and the owner of one dog shot the other dog, producing outrage from animal advocates, and then, two weeks later, criminal charges against the shooter.

Everything else is in dispute in the emotional case that left a Siberian husky named Bear-Bear so severely injured the dog was euthanized.

The differing accounts of what happened at the Quail Run community's dog park are scheduled to be aired Friday in an Annapolis courtroom. A judge is to decide if Keith Elgin Shepherd, 32, is guilty of animal cruelty and firing his gun near homes, or if the shooting of the husky owned by Ryan and Rachel Rettaliata was justified. Shepherd's lawyer said he was protecting himself, his wife and pet, a German shepherd named Asia.

Since the Aug. 2 shooting, the Rettaliatas have adopted two huskies, a brother and sister they named Chief and Spirit.

"To be honest, the boy looks like Bear-Bear," Ryan Rettaliata said. The dogs romp twice a day in the same park where Bear-Bear was shot — and where a plaque memorializing Bear-Bear will be placed, he said. "I am defiant in the fact that I will not allow this to change my life in any way. I will not leave the dog park."

The Shepherds, however, moved from their rented Quail Run townhouse. Defense attorney David Putzi is not revealing their location due to "very vague online stuff that fortunately never materialized." Shepherd is expected to publicly tell for the first time his account, when he testifies that he shot the dog out of fear, according to his lawyer.

The Rettaliatas will attend the trial — Ryan was subpoenaed — where, Rettaliata said, "I hope he is held accountable for his actions." Whatever happens, he said: "Nothing is going to change. It's a deplorable act."

The Rettaliatas have significant support from Justice for Bear-Bear, a regional and online community that has grown to more than 15,600 Facebook members. Becky Prodoehl of the Justice for Bear-Bear campaign said it has raised about $1,500 for the Rettaliatas' expenses, selling Team Bear-Bear bracelets, buttons bearing the dog's picture and JFBB window stickers at pet events.

She said some people cry when told what happened. Others get "very, very angry," she said, and the group tries to deter nasty remarks about Shepherd. "I don't think anyone should do anything to harm him. No matter what happens he is still going to have to live with this for rest of life," she said.

Some from the group will attend the trial in the Anne Arundel County District Court building.

"I have taken off work so that I can go," said Laura Shenk of New Windsor. "I want to be there to support Rachel and Ryan."

Putzi said his goal "is to have a fair hearing of what occurred and a result where the law and the facts meet up." According to Putzi, people who attend the trial can expect to hear this account from his client:

Rachel Rettaliata's brother, Steven Ryan Kurinij, told the Shepherds that Bear-Bear was friendly. The two dogs — Bear-Bear, unleashed, and Asia on a leash held by Wendy Shepherd, the defendant's wife — played, then separated. Bear-Bear approached again, and the husky put its jaws around Asia's neck. When Shepherd tried to intervene, Bear-Bear bared teeth at him and his wife. Asia was pressed against her, he said. Rettaliata's brother did not respond to Shepherd's shouts to control the dog, so he used his handgun, then called police.

Kurinij maintained that Shepherd fired before he could do anything.

In the initial police report, released after an outcry that led County Executive John R. Leopold to order a full police investigation, an officer described Kurinij as slow to respond to him. The Rettaliatas' lawyer, Charlotte K. Weinstein, said that although Kurinij has a mild form of Tourette's syndrome, the disorder does not affect his reaction or mental abilities.

The case is no slam-dunk for either side, lawyers say.

A conviction for misdemeanor animal cruelty is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and 90 days in jail. A conviction on the weapon charge is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and six months in jail.

While prosecutors charge that Shepherd, a civilian police officer at the Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Northern Virginia, acted illegally, his lawyer says Shepherd had a right to protect himself, his wife and their pet from an aggressive husky after Rachel Rettaliata's brother did nothing, despite his calls to control Bear-Bear. Both pets were rescue animals whose owners were living several blocks apart.

"The question becomes was the shooting justifiable under the circumstances," said John H. Robinson III, a former prosecutor turned criminal defense lawyer in Glen Burnie. That, he said, will depend on the judge's findings about such things as whether the husky bared its teeth in what may have been an attack or only roughhousing, and Kurinij's response to Shepherd's shouts.

"The state's arguments would have to be that his actions were not justified. … If he wasn't justified in using the weapon on the dog, then he wasn't justified in discharging his weapon," Robinson said. But, "the court could make a finding that people are in danger of harm, and then he has a justifiable defense in using his weapon."

He added: "The problem is it's a very emotional case."

Supporters of the Rettaliatas have questioned why Shepherd brought his personal Glock to a fenced section of a community park surrounded by homes, why he was quick to shoot, and why, especially as a police officer, that's how he dealt with the situation.

G. Warren Mix, a criminal defense lawyer in Towson, said there's a fine legal line between overreaction and reasonable self-protection, though he said it seemed "extreme" to bring a gun to a dog park.

Putzi, Shepherd's lawyer, said his client was legally allowed to carry the weapon, and was working on light duty.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

    Baltimore Sun Articles
    |
    |
    |
    Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.