BROOKSVILLE — From around the corner of a house, the Hernando County canine deputy could hear his partner, Kilo, engaged in a desperate struggle.
The police dog had tracked a man to the back yard of a house at 617 Fort Dade Ave. around 10 p.m. Wednesday. The man was yelling that the German shepherd was biting him.
Then, Deputy Steven Miller heard gunshots.
"I was a little freaked out," Miller said Thursday morning. "I tried to get (Kilo) out of there as quick as I could and get him back to me."
As Kilo bolted back to Miller, deputies flooded the back yard. After a brief gunbattle, the suspect, Keith Ritchie, was dead. He was the second man to be shot to death by Hernando deputies in three days. Robert Capkovic was killed in his Spring Hill home Monday after a standoff.
Kilo, a 5-year-old four-year veteran of the Sheriff's Office, was shot in the jaw, neck and leg. A fourth bullet hit Kilo's bulletproof vest near his neck. No officers were injured.
Sheriff Richard Nugent said Thursday that Kilo was "groggy" but "a trouper" and that he was recovering with his handler.
"We're hopeful it will be a full recovery," Nugent said. "He wasn't feeling any pain when I saw him. He's a tough dog."
Nugent identified the deputies involved in the shooting as Sgt. George Smith, 44, and Deputy Cliff Faulkingham, 32. Brooksville police Sgt. Jason Matheson, 32, Sgt. Randal Orman, 36, and Officer Stephen Greenwood, 54, were also involved.
All have been placed on administrative leave at their respective agencies, which is standard practice with officer-involved shootings. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has begun an investigation, which is also standard practice.
The trouble started at 8:15 p.m., when Brooksville police responded to a domestic violence call involving Ritchie, 39, at a home at 564 Bell Ave. Nugent said Ritchie had punched his fiancee in the face.
A neighbor, Heather Pauliot, said she heard the couple screaming at each other Wednesday evening and then saw Ritchie twice try to hit the woman with his car as she walked along the sidewalk.
"I've heard them yelling and screaming stuff at each other before," Pauliot said. "But I just tried to stay out of it."
Brooksville police began searching for Ritchie, and Matheson came upon a man he thought was the suspect in a parking lot on W Jefferson Street. The officer told Ritchie to identify himself, Nugent said, but Ritchie began shooting.
Matheson returned fire. Neither was hit.
Ritchie then ran and hid in the back yard of the house on Fort Dade Avenue. Police, joined by deputies, searched for him with the help of a sheriff's helicopter equipped with heat-sensing equipment.
Sometime after 10 p.m., Kilo found Ritchie hiding under a tarp in a shed. Kilo latched onto Ritchie and as the two struggled, deputies said, the dog was shot.
Within seconds, deputies had opened fire at Ritchie, who was pronounced dead at the scene. Nugent said results from Ritchie's autopsy were set to come in later in the day.
"If you shoot at a law enforcement officer, prepare to die," Nugent said.
Ritchie had been serving two years of drug offender probation. Called a career criminal by the sheriff, Ritchie had a lengthy criminal history that included at least six arrests in Florida and a criminal record in Maryland and Virginia.
Most recently, Ritchie pleaded guilty in January 2009 to possession of cocaine, possession of a concealed weapon by a felon, and fleeing or attempting to elude a law enforcement officer.
"Obviously, he was looking for a fight," Brooksville police Chief George Turner said.
At the apartment Ritchie shared with his fiancee, the woman's sister blamed the tragedy on the couple's drinking problems. Amy Repoza said Ritchie and her sister had been drinking shots of Crown Royal throughout much of the day. Then, as they usually did, the two got into an argument.
"When they drink," Repoza said, "things get a little crazy."
Repoza said she doubted that her sister called the authorities because "she didn't want him going back to jail. He was facing 15 years" if he violated the terms of his probation.
Repoza said her sister wasn't available for comment.
The last time a Hernando County police dog was shot in the line of duty was about 10 years ago when a handler mistakenly shot the dog during an arrest.
Miller said Kilo, one of five dogs in the agency, was resting at home but was eager to return to work. It wasn't clear when Kilo would be able to return to active duty.
"He's just pacing back and forth" in his kennel, Miller said. "He wants to be with me."
Joel Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 754-6120.