ZEPHYRHILLS — On April 11, while Pasco Sheriff's deputies were honored for dealing with hard-to-handle inmates, breaking up burglary rings and stopping other crimes in progress, Charles Payton was singled out.
His sergeant recognized him as one of the most focused deputies he's seen in his career. He touched on Payton's exemplary performance in his duties: arresting a suspect who stole and sold property to second-hand dealers; issuing more than 300 traffic citations in three months.
In one case, the sergeant said, Payton was bitten and forced to shoot and kill three dogs.
He received the Meritorious Service Award for Accomplishment for his high degree of professionalism.
Word of Payton's award brought fresh tears to the eyes of April Jackson. One of those dogs was hers.
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Feb. 26 was a Sunday. Her boyfriend, Vasco Vernon Wachob, 28, sat on the front steps of his mobile home; Payton and another deputy on either side of him. They were charging Wachob with domestic battery for allegedly hitting his girlfriend.
They jerked him up by his arms and said he was under arrest. He flung his fists, they said. They wrestled him to the ground.
Deputy Sascha Vanderwaall popped him in the jaw. Payton managed to cinch a handcuff around Wachob's right wrist.
"Get off me!" Wachob screamed. "I'm not going to jail. She didn't press charges."
The mangled front door to the home swung open. Three pit bull mixes piled out. Family members followed. The dogs circled the men still struggling on the ground, a sheriff's report says.
Jojo, the black-and-white dog, chomped Payton's rear end. He stood up and turned toward the dog.
The sheriff's report says Jojo growled and lurched forward. Payton unholstered his pistol and fired. Jojo dropped.
Naula, the youngest dog, approached "with an open mouth, and growling," Payton would later write in a report. Wachob's family members disagree. He shot Naula, too.
A third dog, Dixie, came over; the family says to check on Naula. Payton wrote she was "growling and opening [her] mouth in an aggressive manner."
"Don't shoot," Vasco Wachob's brother Randale yelled. "I can get [her]."
"Then get [her] before [she] gets any closer to me," Payton said.
Payton wrote that Randale Wachob, 30, tried to call Dixie, but she ignored him and kept coming toward the deputy.
Payton turned the gun on her. More shots. She ran and collapsed behind a shed.
In front of the steps, Vasco Wachob was in handcuffs. Family members cried and screamed at the officers to put the writhing dogs out of their misery. Two more shots, one to each animal's head.
Vasco Wachob was taken to Land O'Lakes jail.
Payton drove himself to a hospital.
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Now, Jackson, 21, remembers the dogs with whom she felt comfortable leaving her 2-year-old, Tristian Wachob. They liked cats, she said, and they would lick you to death.
Naula and Dixie belonged to Bayard McDavid, 21, Vasco Wachob's other brother.
Pebbles, plastic tulips and weathered photos mark three graves in a back corner of the property. Tristian still asks about Jojo.
The case is still under investigation by the State Attorney's Office, so Payton and Vanderwaall are not allowed to speak about it.
Wachob's charges of domestic battery and false imprisonment, along with charges of battery against law enforcement officers, have since been dropped. One charge of resisting arrest with violence is still pending.
Jackson understands why Payton shot Jojo. But she doesn't understand why Dixie and Naula were killed.
"I seen his eyes," Randale Wachob said of the deputy. "He looked straight at me and then he just made a decision."
Jackson said the deputies could have used pepper spray or Tasers on the dogs if they posed a threat.
A general order issued by the Sheriff's Office says: "Members need not apply force in gradually increasing steps in order to justify physical control or even deadly force. Instead, members need to respond with all the force reasonably necessary for the circumstances in each specific situation."
There are no specific rules in the general order for use of deadly force on animals. Regulations for the amount of force apply to humans and animals, said sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll.
"The bottom line," Doll said, "deputies have a right to defend themselves or other deputies against dangerous animals or people."
Alex Orlando can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.