By Mary Helen Yarborough
Photo: A memorial was held today at 11 a.m. in front of the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office for Viper, a sheriff’s K9 dog (pictured here with Deputy Jared Zeller) who died over the weekend after finding a kilo of cocaine and then suffering a reaction to dangerous chemicals. SUBMITTED PHOTO
The Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office lost one of its top dogs Saturday to cocaine poisoning from a package allegedly dropped by drug suspects in Ash, a rural community about 11 miles northwest of Shallotte.
K-9 Viper was memorialized by about 200 county employees and law enforcement officers Tuesday morning during services in front of the county courthouse. A Belgian Malinois and one of the office’s eight police dogs, Viper became the county’s first, and nation’s second, police dog killed in the line of duty this year.
At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Viper was tracking suspects in a drug investigation by the sheriff office’s Drug Enforcement Unit, U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives and the Wilmington Police Department.
Two Ash men, Braulio Yanez Marin, 28, and Jamie Lopez Gonzalez, 32, were arrested on cocaine trafficking and conspiracy charges and taken to the Brunswick County jail where they remain on $1 million bond.
A six-year veteran, Viper, an aggressive-trained dog for special operations involving dangerous criminals and patrols, was offlede because he was chasing suspects in a 100-acre cornfield, according to an official with the U.S. Police Canine Association, which certifies the county’s canine training.
But while running, Viper came across and bit a package containing a kilo, or 2.6 pounds of cocaine.
“That explains how the dog was poisoned,” said Russ Hess, the canine association’s executive director. “The package probably had sweat and the scent of the suspects all over it, and when the dog found it, he bit it and probably shook it.”
Viper retrieved the package and brought it to his handler, sheriff’s Deputy Jared Zeller. Zeller, who was not available for comment, attempted first aid and took the dog to Four Paws emergency veterinarian hospital in Southport where he was pronounced dead, according to a sheriff’s office spokeswoman.
“By the time the dog got back from across the field with that cocaine in his mouth, he was pretty much a goner,” said Lt. Tom Tolley, who once ran the office’s canine unit and who trained Viper six years ago.
Death by narcotics ingestion is rare in police dogs.
“Ordinarily, a dog used in narcotics searches are on a lede and close to its handler,” Hess said. “These dogs also are also passive trained so that during drug searches they do not bite it.”
Brunswick’s police dog handlers spend eight hours a week on dog training, several hours a day, and must attend USPCA training seminar each year, said Tolley, adding that Zeller was taking the loss of his canine partner hard.
Grieving the loss of a canine partner can be more intense than losing a human partner, Hess said.
“You spend more time with your K-9 partner than you do with your fellow officers, family or even your wife,” Hess said. “He listens to you vent. He knows what kind of mood you’re in when you get up each day. He doesn’t criticize, and he would not hesitate to lay down his life for you. This dog obviously did that for his handler. They are guardian angels to these officers.”
An estimated 15,000 police dogs are in use in the United States. On average, two to three police dogs die annually in the line of law enforcement duty, primarily by gunshot or being killed by a driver. An unknown number of police dogs also succumb to causes unrelated to performance, such heat exhaustion or suffocation in a patrol car, Hess said.
Read more and see more photos: Star News Online