Nov 10, 2015

Investigation finds no wrongdoing in shooting of military/service dog; owner 'disgusted'

A bicyclist appears to have only acted in self defense when he fatally shot a Powell man’s military K9/service dog last month, the Park County Sheriff's Office concluded.

Late Thursday, the Sheriff’s Office announced it had closed its investigation into the Oct. 10 shooting of the Belgian Malinois named Michael. Michael, a bomb-detecting K9 who was 9 years old, served two tours of duty in Iraq with owner Matthew Bessler. When the two returned from the war, Michael served as a psychological service animal to Bessler, who suffers from post traumatic stress disorder.

In this file photo, Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Bessler is pictured in Iraq with Mike, the dog he adopted after the pair served together in the U.S. Army. Courtesy photo
The dog’s exceptional story of service was featured in the Washington Post this summer and

Michael’s violent death became international news.

The Powell man who shot the dog — 59-year-old Jeffery Brandt — said he did so after Michael attacked him on Road 5, near Bessler’s home, east of town.

Brandt was the only witness to the incident. Bessler — who was out of town at the time — publicly questioned his account. Bessler said he’s “disgusted” with the Sheriff’s Office’s conclusions, believes they’re “one-sided” and still has questions. He’s ordered a private necropsy on Michael. The Sheriff’s Office spent the past couple weeks looking into various questions Bessler raised, interviewing Bessler’s neighbors and following-up with Brandt.

In a seven-page summary of its findings, released Thursday night, the Sheriff’s Office wrote that, “We have determined to accept the descriptions of the reported attack by Michael as described by the victim, Jeffrey Brandt to be factual. Therefore, there will be no charges filed.

“As stated by Sheriff (Scott) Steward, if you feel your life is in danger or you feel threatened by an animal, you can act against it,” the report says.

Brandt — who like Bessler is an honorably discharged U.S. Army veteran — has continually expressed remorse about Michael’s death since the incident and has said he hadn’t meant to kill the animal, according to the report.

“The physical evidence seems to back up this claim,” the Sheriff’s Office concluded.
Brandt lives not far from Bessler’s house and he told the Sheriff’s Office he was finishing up a 30-mile bike ride when the dog came out of Bessler’s yard. Some other dogs reportedly approached Brandt, but only Michael acted aggressively, Brandt told the Sheriff’s Office.

“He stated that he ‘was genuinely in fear of his life and well-being, and Michael was definitely in full attack mode and not backing down at all,’” the report says of Brandt's account.
Bessler was out of town on a hunting trip that day and his roommate, Jody Church, had been caring for Bessler's dogs. Church later told the Sheriff’s Office he had locked them behind a fence before taking a trip to Cody and didn’t know how they would have gotten out.

Brandt said he had no way to outrun Michael.

“He stated that he ‘was genuinely in fear of his life and well-being, and Michael was definitely in full attack mode and not backing down at all,’” the report says of Brandt's account.

Brandt got off his bike and put it between him and Michael, he told the Sheriff’s Office. The dog then began circling Brandt, at one point lunging through the center of the bike, he told the Sheriff’s Office.

Ultimately, Brandt grabbed his 410 Taurus Judge pistol from a holster mounted on his bike — a weapon he said he generally carried to kill snakes — and fired one shot at Michael's right rear hind quarter. The dog then retreated, according to Brandt.

Several of the pellets from the No. 6 birdshot hit Michael in the front right chest, the report says,
indicating the dog was shot at a broadside angle and not — as some people have assumed — as it was running away.

Neighbor Jessica Klein came out of her house after hearing the shot. She saw Brandt standing in the road with his bike on the ground and Michael limping away, according to the report.

Brandt reportedly told Klein he was OK, but “shook up;” he told a deputy the same thing about 20 minutes later.

Brandt said he felt bad the dog died and felt bad for Bessler, the report says.

One of the things that upset Bessler was that Brandt never contacted him to apologize — a decision the Sheriff’s Office is defending.

The Park County Sheriff's Office withheld Brandt’s identity until Thursday, correctly predicting there would be a public backlash against the shooter.

A service for Michael will be held Wednesday, Nov. 11, at 1 p.m. at the Yellowstone Building at NWC. Courtesy photo
“It seems only prudent that Brandt would not reach out (to) Bessler, thereby divulging his identity,” the sheriff’s report said.

Online comments on the various news accounts of the incident drew plenty of threatening remarks toward Brandt, and Brandt reportedly did not sleep well in the weeks after the shooting.

One of Bessler’s primary objections to Brandt’s account of the attack was that Michael was a gentle dog that stayed on his property and “would never attack someone.”

The Sheriff’s Office says it doesn’t doubt Michael was a caring and faithful companion to Bessler and notes the two “served this country with pride and distinction.”

However, the Sheriff’s Office says it’s also convinced Michael “occasionally displayed aggressive tendencies towards strangers.”

Bessler takes issue with the image the report paints of his dog and says Michael was not trained to attack.

In support of that conclusion, the report specifically mentions an April 22 altercation between Michael and a man who worked for Bessler’s neighbors, Rick and Klodette Stroh.

That man, 70-year-old Steve Edwards, had wanted to ask Bessler about some damage some dogs had done to the Strohs’ irrigation pipe.

Edwards said that when he walked on to Bessler’s property to speak with him, Michael came across the yard and lunged for his throat. Edwards told the Sheriff’s Office he threw up his arm and Michael bit into it, biting through his work coat, shirt and long-johns. Edwards described being jerked around by the dog until Bessler, a short distance away, called it off.

Bessler said Edwards was looking in his truck when Michael attacked, a claim Edwards denies. 

Bessler also says Michael only “nipped at” Edwards and lacked the teeth to hurt him — although Klodette Stroh told the Sheriff’s Office she saw and treated Edwards’ bloody elbow and Edwards showed the Sheriff’s Office a torn coat.

No citations were issued in the April incident.

To further support its conclusions about the Oct. 10 incident between Brandt and Michael, the
Sheriff’s Office’s report cites general information about Belgian Malinois, including their skill at chasing people down.

Bessler, however, takes issue with the general image the report paints of the breed and says Michael was not trained to attack.

“It completely ruins the image that the dog is a loyal, good-looking, fun, happy-go-lucky companion, a good companion animal that is ... protective of their owners,” Bessler said, adding, “I just really feel that that discredits Mike.”

Bessler said he’s disgusted with the legal system and feels the Sheriff’s Office failed him.

The sheriff’s report describes the shooting as a “tragic situation,” with “no winners here, only losers.”

A memorial service for Michael will be held at 1 p.m. Wednesday at the Yellowstone Building at Northwest College.

A burial ceremony with military honors will be take place at the Crown Hill Cemetery in Powell immediately following the service. All are welcome to attend, Bessler said.


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