TAMPA — A Valrico man pleaded guilty Tuesday to animal cruelty charges in a case where Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies entered his home to serve a warrant and ended up fatally shooting his pit bulls.
Garrett McGall, 24, also was charged with aggravated assault and using his dogs as a weapon. He accepted a plea agreement requiring him to serve 18 months in state prison, minus time already served, for the animal charges and a probation violation that had led to the warrant.
After the hearing, McGall's attorney, Michael Celso Gonzalez, declined to say why his client entered a plea.
Judge Manuel Lopez asked prosecutors how McGall abused his pit bulls when it was the deputies who shot and killed them.
Prosecutors said McGall ordered them to lunge at the deputies.
McGall said that was true. "I wasn't thinking, sir," he said.
Authorities said the incident began March 10, when deputies serving a warrant knocked several times on McGall's door at 1221 N Valrico Road. They waited 25 minutes, according to an investigation report, but there was no answer.
Neighbors told them McGall was definitely home, and a manager gave deputies a key to the mobile home. The deputies announced they were with the Sheriff's Office, and four pit bulls met them at the door.
Deputies sprayed dog repellent five times, but it didn't work, according to the report. They struggled to keep the door cracked open while calling for McGall, who showed up after 15 minutes but refused to put the dogs away. Instead, he commanded the dogs: "Go!"
A brown pit bull jumped on a deputy and tried to bite him. A deputy shot two rounds into the dog. A white pit bull charged at the deputy who fired. That pit bull was shot twice.
One dog bit McGall before dying. Inside McGall's trailer were more pit bulls, a runaway girl and a woman who refused to put the dogs away.
Dennis McCullough, operations manager for Hillsborough County Animal Services, occasionally hears of animals hurt in similar situations. Any animal can be trained to attack and be used as a deadly weapon, he said. But the animal is the victim.
"It is an irresponsible owner," McCullough said. "I mean, what kind of idiot would sic their dogs on a police officer?"
Deputies can shoot when they're in danger or to stop someone else from getting hurt, said Deputy Larry McKinnon, a Sheriff's Office spokesman.
"They'll try their best just like anything else to avoid it, and depending on the situation, will determine whether or not it's justifiable," McKinnon said.
Supervisors conduct an internal review each time a deputy fires a weapon, McKinnon said. These deputies were cleared.