Gator, a 5-year-old German shepherd, became the first Hillsborough sheriff's dog killed in the line of duty when he was hit by a car while tracking a robbery suspect early Saturday.
"This is a major loss in the sense that (Gator) was an active, working dog who was out on the streets day in and day out," said Lt. Greg Brown, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Office. "And any time an animal is involved in something like this, it touches another chord emotionally."
Gator's handler of about three years, Deputy Ed Shea, was too upset to speak to reporters Saturday night, Brown said.
"Most people have pets, but it's different with us," said Deputy Jim St. Pearre, one of Shea's handlers in the canine unit. "We spend 12-hour shifts working with our dogs, then we take them home, too. We spend more time with our dogs than we do with our wives and girlfriends."
Said St. Pearre: "Right now, I'm sure Ed feels like he's lost a son."
Shea and his dog were called to a Denny's restaurant off Interstate 4 just east of I-75 about 4 a.m. Saturday, reports say. A man in a cowboy hat and jeans robbed the store, then ran south toward State Road 92, Shea was told. It was Gator's job to track him down.
Shea put his dog on a 5-foot leash and raced into the darkness. When the two reached SR 92 just south of I-4, Shea held Gator back until he thought the traffic had passed, reports say. But a car Shea hadn't noticed drove by just as Gator stepped onto the road.
Shea couldn't pull his dog from the road in time. The car slammed into Gator, knocking him more than 150 feet into a ditch.
The impact broke the dog's back, reports say.
"I know Ed was there with Gator and that he tried to do what he could to save him," St. Pearre said. "It was just a tragedy."
The driver of the car, William S. Marconie, 22, of Lutz, was not charged. Authorities are still investigating.
Deputies did not catch the robbery suspect sought by Shea and Gator.
There will be no funeral for Gator at Shea's request, Brown said. The Sheriff's Office is trying to find Shea another patrol dog.
But any animal they find will have a difficult time succeeding Gator. He was a purebred imported from Germany, Brown said, trained as both a patrol dog and narcotics sniffer. Getting another dog trained like that could take hundreds of hours and cost thousands.
For Shea, though, the loss runs far deeper than dollars.
"This was Ed's first dog, and the bond was unbelievable," St. Pearre said. "You can never replace your first dog."