It wasn't supposed to end like this. Nearly four years ago, Kathie Lockwitch brought home a German shepherd puppy. Baron would become the disabled woman's best friend and helper, a literal crutch to bolster her. Lockwitch figured he would be her service dog until he got too old to hold her steady. On Saturday evening, Lockwitch sat on the ground in front of her house on Flamingo Lane, crying and petting the 120-pound dog's face as he struggled to nuzzle up to her.
"He tried twice to get up onto my lap," Lockwitch, 50, recalled this week.
The driver of the pickup truck who had barrelled into Baron moments earlier stopped briefly, then screeched away, she said.
The man is known to speed down the neighborhood's narrow streets, Lockwitch said as she sat in her family room. Baron's empty harness rested on a nearby coffee table.
Lockwitch wants the driver found.
"Next time," she said, "is it going to be a child?"
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A speeding car and terrible crash in Pennsylvania in 1978 is largely to blame for the health problems that prompted Lockwitch to train a service dog more than three decades later.
A Thunderbird crossed the center line and slammed into Lockwitch and another girl as they walked along the roadside. Lockwitch's friend was killed.
Lockwitch spent the next three years learning how to walk again. Later, she developed spinal cysts.
The former firefighter and emergency medical technician has been officially disabled since 1994, the same year she was diagnosed with lupus. She has no feeling in her right leg, wears a brace and cannot walk without a cane. She suffers from an irregular heartbeat and tires easily.
Lockwitch worked as a dog trainer during her early 20s. As her health deteriorated, it dawned on her and her husband, Greg, that a dog could do more than keep her company.
"We've always known there was probably going to be a time when I needed assistance," she said.
In early 2009, Lockwitch went to a friend's house to pick out a puppy. The mother of the litter picked one up in her mouth and dropped it in Lockwitch's lap.
"It was like she was saying, 'Here's your dog,' " Lockwitch said.
Baron's intelligence and temperament made him well suited to a dual role as pet and service partner.
He calmly tolerated playful swats and nips from the family cat and allowed Lockwitch's 2-year-old grandson, Caleb, to sit on his back.
He learned hand signals to sit and stay and was trained to act as a support to help Lockwitch get up if she fell. He could sense when she overexerted herself, she said, and would nudge until she sat down. Once, when Lockwitch passed out, Baron howled until Greg woke up.
Lockwitch registered him with the county in 2010. He tag said "SD No. 102."
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Greg, Caleb and Lockwitch's 20-year-old daughter, Whitney, were playing fetch with Baron a little before 7 p.m. Saturday when the small, older-model pickup came zooming south on Flamingo. Kathie could see the street and yard from her oversized easy chair in the family room.
According to the Lockwitches, this is what happened next:
A neighbor yelled at the driver — a thin man in his mid to late 20s — to slow down. The man did slow for a moment, apparently to see who was yelling, then gunned the engine again.
About the same time, Whitney threw a Frisbee that bounced off Baron's nose. He chased the rolling disc into the road, just beyond the edge of the driveway, as the truck approached.
The impact threw the dog at least 40 feet.
"I'll never forget the sound of that truck hitting him," Kathie said.
The man stopped, leaned out the window and yelled that the family shouldn't be playing in their front yard. You shouldn't be speeding, Whitney shouted back. The man said he wasn't, then punched the gas again. He was gone before anyone could jot down a tag number.
The family called the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, and a deputy arrived a short time later.
There is little the Sheriff's Office can do unless someone provides a lead, said Lt. Matt Lillibridge. The driver could be given a criminal traffic citation for leaving the scene of a crash resulting in property damage.
"We're at standstill until we get a break," Lillibridge said.
He noted, gently, that owners are responsible for restraining their dogs.
The Lockwitches say they understand that. But they also want the man to be held accountable for driving recklessly in their neighborhood and then speeding away after he hit a dog.
"It's not going to bring Baron back, but it could save somebody else," Kathie said.
She said she's not sure how to replace Baron. She no longer has the ability to train a dog herself, so the couple would have to spend thousands of dollars they don't have on a professional trainer.
In the meantime, Baron has been buried under lush grass on Greg's parents' farm near Bushnell. Kathie picked out a black marble marker with Baron's picture on it.
When she told her story to the man taking the order, he refunded her money.
Reach Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431. Follow him on Twitter @TMarreroTimes.