The service was over, taps played, guns saluted, flag folded and presented, and just as people were invited inside for cookies and punch, Officer Joe Rinaldo stood up and walked to the podium. The crowd hushed.
It was his partner who died, a police dog named Gunner. It happened a few minutes after 10 p.m. Aug. 6, when Gunner was hit by a car while chasing a burglary suspect.
Rinaldo and Gunner had been called to a burglary at a hearing aid business to flush out the suspects and nab them, just as they had done dozens of times before. Gunner — a 4-year-old German shepherd, glossy black, nearly 100 pounds, always the biggest, tallest one at police dog training sessions — chased one suspect across Gall Boulevard, where another officer picked up the pursuit. Rinaldo called off his partner, and as Gunner started coming back, an SUV seemed to come out of nowhere and hit him.
The driver stopped. It was an accident.
The call quickly went out through the Zephyrhills Police Department that Gunner was dead. He was one of two canine officers with the force. And he was the first officer to be killed in the line of duty with the agency, which began with one man and a revolver in 1914.
Police Chief David Shears jumped in his car and raced to the scene. He will never forget what he saw: Rinaldo, 34, big and brawny, quiet and not prone to outward emotion, cradling Gunner's body on the grass by the side of the road. He hadn't moved. He wouldn't leave his partner.
The chief and Capt. Rob McKinney coaxed Rinaldo away and into the back of a car. They took Rinaldo back to the station, where he was joined by his girlfriend, Becky Bolton; his father, Dan Rinaldo; and his stepmother, Sue Rinaldo.
Dan Rinaldo had never seen his son like this before and he felt helpless. He traveled with his son and Gunner when they competed in police dog events. He watched Gunner when his son was out of town. He said Gunner, the big working dog that tracked bad guys in the dead of the night, was a normal dog off the clock. He loved tug toys and biscuits. He liked to put his paws on people's shoulders — hug, they all called it. He was so tall on his hind legs, he could look a man in the eye. Gunner often rested his head on Dan Rinaldo's lap as they watched sports together.
Dan Rinaldo grieved deeply, too. He loved that dog.
At the memorial service for Gunner on Friday afternoon, Pasco sheriff's Deputy and police dog trainer John Rux said people who aren't in canine law enforcement can't understand the bond between a handler and his dog. They go through thousands of hours of training together. They entrust their lives to each other. They work together and go home together, sometimes having seen and dealt with the worst society can offer. Both can switch it on and off; work, home.
Other police dog handlers from across the country called and wrote, as well as community members. More than a hundred people showed up for the service at Zephyr Park. Handlers from Polk, Lakeland, Sarasota and local agencies came with their dogs. The Pasco Sheriff's Office handled Zephyrhills' calls, so all of the department's officers could attend.
Capt. Jeff McDougal held a radio to the microphone, so everyone could hear a dispatcher sending a final call to Gunner — his call sign, 403, and 10-7, out of service. This is what is done for officers who die doing their duty.
Officer Rinaldo wasn't on the program. He took a few days to write out what he was going to say. He talked about Gunner, their first meeting in 2006, their training. He thanked everyone for their support. He said Gunner taught him the greatest lesson in life:
"I will never quit on you — so don't you quit on me," he said, struggling to not cry.
So he made an announcement.
"I will not resign," he said, of staying in the K-9 unit. His voice boomed.
"I will return."
He is going to get another dog.
He left the podium and his dad was there to embrace him. Rinaldo's big shoulders heaved, his face buried. Later, his girlfriend's 7-year-old son, Cody, ran to find Rinaldo, who is like a father to him. He had something to tell him. When he grows up, Cody said, he wants to be a K-9 officer, too. Just like him.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.