ZEPHYRHILLS — It was dark and Gunner sprinted across the road, chasing after a burglar. An officer on the other side nabbed the suspect and Gunner's handler — Officer Joe Rinaldo — called the canine officer off. His job was done.
The black German shepherd stopped and searched for Rinaldo. He spotted him and was coming back across the road when he ran into the path of an SUV. Gunner was hit. Rinaldo and the other Zephyrhills Police Department officers saw it happen. There was nothing they could do.
Gunner died at the scene.
"He was a part of our family," said Lt. Derek Brewer. The incident happened at 1 a.m. Thursday on Gall Boulevard.
Gunner was Rinaldo's dog, his partner, going through countless hours of training and certification together, Brewer said. In 2007, they were commended for saving a man who tried to kill himself by overdosing on lithium. The man ran from his house and into the woods. Gunner tracked him down in time.
Brewer said everyone at the station was in shock Friday. This is the department's first canine officer to die in the line of duty. They are planning a memorial service for next week. A date has not been set. They have another canine officer, Janko. Brewer said they have talked about getting another one, but it's up to Rinaldo. He's taking Gunner's death hard. Brewer said he might not want another dog.
"We're trying to stay strong for him," Brewer said.
The break-in happened at a hearing aid store. The back locks were broken. A report says the two suspects took off — one carrying a stolen laptop computer — after they heard that a police dog was entering the building.
Both were arrested. Police said they are Kathleen J. Harpst, 36, and Charles Lee Boulanger, 51. They live together on North Avenue in Zephyrhills. Both list their jobs as "laborer." According to records, they were arrested together in late June — both on charges of shoplifting and resisting a merchant. Both pleaded no contest to the charges and got probation.
Thursday night they were charged with burglary and possession of burglary tools. They were also charged under the obstructing justice statute, which makes it a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison to kill or injure a police dog. They were being held in the Land O'Lakes jail in lieu of $15,000 bail.
Harpst declined to be interviewed. Boulanger agreed.
"I regret the loss of the dog, but I didn't even know a dog was chasing me," he said Friday afternoon in a room at the jail. He didn't want to talk about his guilt or innocence.
"I feel bad, but I can't talk about anything else," he said.
He said he and Harpst are engaged. He said he didn't see or hear what happened to Gunner. When asked about how the officers reacted after Gunner's death, Boulanger said, "Let's just say they were a little emotional, and we'll leave it at that."
Times researchers Will Gorham and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229.