Officers mourn K-9 killed on duty

Dog slain while trying to detain man fleeing from a robbery

Published: Sunday, Jan. 3 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

MIDVALE — After hearing gunshots Friday night, officers turned a corner to find their newly certified police service dog, Koda, fatally wounded.

"He may have saved the life of one or more of our officers," Midvale Police Sgt. Marcelo Rapela said Saturday. "He did his job, and he did it well."

The dog had been sent to detain Tevita Talanoa Fisiitalia, one of four people who had been caught trying to flee the scene of an attempted robbery near 6700 South and 625 East at around 8:30 p.m. Friday. When icy road conditions prohibited the getaway driver from speeding away in a stolen vehicle, the four occupants jumped out of the car, running in all different directions, Rapela said.

One occupant ran back into the home the group had attempted to burglarize and locked the doors. A woman, not the homeowner, and her children were inside at the time but were able to get out before the doors were locked, thus "avoiding an even bigger catastrophe," Rapela said.

The owner of the home, to which police had been called two weeks ago due to a report of a "suspicious person" lurking in the backyard, was out of town, and the woman had been house-sitting there with her children.

Fisiitalia was chased by officers around the back of a neighboring home. At one point, police lost track of him and released Koda, a 3 1/2-year-old Belgian Malinois that had been with the Midvale department K-9 squad just over a year, to detain him. Koda's handler, a Midvale police officer, heard the gunshots and encountered the dead dog upon rounding the corner of the home.

"He's having a tough time," Rapela said of the dog's handler, adding that Koda was "a very aggressive, hard-working dog."

"A handler and his dog spend a tremendous amount of time together," Rapela said. The handler, who is on paid administrative leave, will be given the opportunity to choose whether he wants another police service dog in the future.

Fisiitalia, 22, had shot two rounds from a 9mm handgun, both hitting the dog. Officers returned fire, and the man was hit once. Rapela said Fisiitalia was taken to the hospital, where he later died from the gunshot wound.

Officers arrested 33-year-old Clinton Sean Peterson, who Rapela said was "heavily intoxicated at the time of his arrest," before he could get far and before other agencies were called to assist them. Charles Uriah Wright, 28, was also arrested.

A 5-foot-7 Hispanic woman with long "dirty blond" hair and a medium build was able to escape the scene, and police are looking for leads to help locate her. She is believed to have three dots tattooed under one eye, but officers are not sure which eye.

Police believe the incident might be gang-related. All three men involved have criminal histories, including prior theft and burglary charges, as well as charges for manufacturing and being in possession of burglary tools and other stolen vehicles.

Wright had been arrested on one count of fleeing police just before Christmas. He was set to appear in court later this month.

"They are being somewhat cooperative," Rapela said of the two men being held in the Salt Lake County Jail. "But we're still piecing together the information."

Fisiitalia also was scheduled to appear in court for multiple and various charges that resulted from a November arrest in which he was being pulled over for speeding and tried to flee police. Upon detainment, officers found that he had been driving on a revoked license, gave officers a wrong name and was in possession of drug paraphernalia.

Koda is the first Midvale K-9 to be killed while on duty, and the department will be holding an official funeral service for the dog. "He was one of us, and he will be treated as one of our officers would be," Rapela said.

Details on the service are forthcoming.

A Beaver County police dog was killed in 1999 when police stormed a religious compound at Vance Springs, in southern Utah. Occupants refused to pay taxes on the property and were being evicted. Nine-year-old Max had saved his handler/partner multiple times.

The suspect in that case was charged with multiple counts of various crimes, including murder of a service dog, a class A misdemeanor. Rapela said a similar charge will not be filed, as the person who fired the fatal shots died.

e-mail: wleonard@desnews.com

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