A Michigan police officer who caused a national uproar this month when he shot and killed a dog on its own property will not face criminal charges.
That’s the conclusion of Gratiot County Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kushion, after the matter was investigated by state police to avoid a conflict of interest with the St. Louis, Mich., Police Department.
“I do not find any legal basis to charge Officer Vanhall with a crime,” Kushion said in a prepared statement.
As WND previously reported, the 8-year-old golden retriever named Scout was owned by Brian and Hillary Goetzinger, who were inside their home when the incident took place Sunday, Sept. 9.
“I heard a pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, and I was like, ‘What is going on?’” Brian Goetzinger told WNEM-TV. “So I stood up and looked out this window right here out of my house, and I see the St. Louis Police Department standing over my dog, and that’s all bloody, laying right here.”
According to a police report filed by Officer Matt Vanhall, the officer was on patrol in the neighborhood when the dog darted out in front of his cruiser.
“I had to hit the brakes very hard to avoid hitting the dog,” he said in the report.
Vanhall got out of his car and followed the dog to its own yard.
“I could see the dog standing in the yard of the residence about six feet in front of the open gate,” Vanhall said.
He approached the gate without entering and whistled to Scout, saying, “Come here pup,” and the dog “jumped off the deck and ran at me. I began backing away as fast as I could in a backward direction. I immediately noticed the dog was showing its teeth and I could hear the dog growling very loudly.”
According to the Morning Sun newspaper, Vanhall kicked at the dog a couple of times as the dog tried to bite his leg, he claimed in the report. He repeated the action and the dog continued to try to bite his leg.
“At this point the dog was within three feet of me and I was running a backwards circular motion so as not to turn my back on the dog,” he wrote. “At this time I pulled my service weapon and rapidly fired seven shots while backing away from the dog as quickly as I could.”
He says most of the shots missed, but he thought the canine had been shot in its hind legs and mouth, and thus was no longer a threat.
But a neighbor who witnessed the entire incident has a very different account of the shooting.
“It wasn’t provoked. It wasn’t warranted,” said Lori Lynne Walmsley. “He just started shooting him. He just kept shooting him in the head, and I saw it like six or eight times. And I just couldn’t believe it. I can’t live in this town. What is wrong with you?”
On Monday, Walmsley said she had seen the bullets enter the dog and became traumatized.
In her statement to police, she says before the shooting, Officer Vanhall had asked her if the dog was hers.
“And I said, “No, but it is my new friend.”
The dog then scampered back to his yard and got behind the gate.
The policeman, she wrote, “tried to force the dog out. The dog made a low, mild growl declaring his displeasure at being forced from his ‘safe’ haven (and at the same time assumed he needed to protect his property,)” she wrote.
“The dog never attacked the cop. He never jumped, tried to bite or threaten him, but the cop drew his gun as if in a panicked frenzy,” she wrote. “He shot the dog like it was ‘Cujo’ at least six or eight times.”
The dog was still alive after being shot, and despite being rushed to a veterinarian, it died of its injuries.
“I just couldn’t believe that, let alone the police were in my yard shooting anything, let alone my dog, who was sweet,” Goetzinger told WNEM. “He’s been our family pet for at least eight years. We’ve had him since he was a puppy. My daughter sleeps with him periodically, and he’s just the nicest dog. He’s never attacked anyone ever. So I just couldn’t understand why someone would shoot him.”
Police Chief Patrick Herblet told the station his officer was “absolutely” justified in shooting Scout.
“He felt threatened,” Herblet said. “The dog came at him. It growled. It showed its teeth. He backed away. He tried to kick it away a couple times and it kept at him. And he felt the only thing he could do was pull his service revolver, and he shot.”
The city of St. Louis has a leash law aimed at keeping dogs from running through the streets.
Before reaching his conclusion regarding any possible charges, Kushion viewed the scene of the shooting and spoke with state police and local officers.
“Simply put, if Officer Vanhall was being attacked by Scout, Officer Vanhall would have been within his rights to kill the attacking dog,” Kushion said. “If he was not being attacked, he would not have this right. Officer Vanhall claims he was under attack by Scout.”
Kushion noted that on the day of the shooting, a witness told police she didn’t observe the shooting, but four days later provided an entirely different account to the Michigan State Police.