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Published: Friday, 12/22/2006

Jackson Township man indicted in fatal shooting of Findlay police dog

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

FINDLAY- A Jackson Township man who shot and killed a Findlay police dog after it came onto his property insists he didn't know the dog worked for police, but a Hancock County grand jury apparently saw things differently.

Steven E. Vanderhoff, 41, was indicted this week for assaulting a police dog and cruelty to animals. The assault charge, a third-degree felony, alleges that while Flip was not assisting police at the time he was killed Nov. 18, the shooter had actual knowledge that Flip was a police dog.

"He didn't. His girlfriend can tell you that he didn't know who the dog was," said Jeff Whitman, attorney for Mr. Vanderhoff.

Mr. Whitman said Mr. Vanderhoff, his girlfriend, and their young son live in the country, about a quarter-mile from Findlay Police Officer Bryon Deeter, Flip's handler who kept the dog at his home. He said Mr. Vanderhoff rarely drove in the direction of the Deeters' house and had never seen the dog before the day he came home with his son and saw Flip come up to the car.

Mr. Vanderhoff told Hancock County sheriff's deputies the dog would not get away and kept sticking its nose in the door when he would try to open it. He said he eventually was able to get inside the house, where he retrieved a gun, came back outside, and fired once at Flip when the dog failed to obey commands to get away.

"Anyone has the right to protect themselves on their own property," Mr. Whitman said.

While investigators said Mr. Vanderhoff never described Flip as "aggressive," his attorney insisted he used similar words.

"He used words like threatening, attacking, menacing," Mr. Whitman said. " The dog was charging him. When he fired the shot, reports show [the dog] was shot in the front chest. It was not like he was shot in the hip or shot running away from him. The dog was only 15 feet from him."

Mr. Whitman said Mr. Vanderhoff feared for his son's safety. The youngster was still in his car seat and "he didn't think he could get his son and get into the garage without the dog coming at him."

No charges have been filed against Officer Deeter for failing to confine the dog, and Findlay Police Chief Bill Spraw said yesterday that Officer Deeter had not been disciplined for violating any departmental policy.

"I think there's other factors involved in this I don't know that Bryon was completely culpable," the chief said. The officer's son had let Flip out of the house, then failed to let him back in before the family left to go to a relative's house.

Mr. Whitman said he understands the police department's loss but said his client has suffered as well "My personal opinion is there's been too much made out of this thing," he said. "I don't think the officer should be charged. It was an unfortunate series of events. I don't know why anyone needs to be punished any more than they have been over this."

Mr. Vanderhoff, who is to be arraigned Wednesday in Hancock County Common Pleas Court, faces up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine if convicted of the assault charge. Cruelty to animals, a second-degree misdemeanor, carries a maximum sentence of 90 days.

City law director Dave Hackenberg said shortly after Flip was killed, he sent a bill to Mr. Whitman for more than $11,000 that the city paid for the dog. He said that under Ohio law, a person who shoots and kills a dog is responsible to pay for it.

"It's the statute," Mr. Hackenberg said. "I'm not saying, 'You shot our dog. You owe us.' The statute says if you shoot a dog you have to pay the value, pure and simple. We paid $11,000-plus for that dog trained. If we wanted to be real stinky about it, he's worth more than that now."

After Flip was killed, Findlay native and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger announced that he would buy a new police dog for his hometown. Chief Spraw said Officer Deeter has been working with a loaner dog named Spike, also a Belgian Malinois, and Spike seems to be working out.

Contact Jennifer Feehan:

at jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-353-5972.



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