Sheriff defends K-9 after incident

Gary Tomlin Times Record

VIOLA — Apparently it’s the beagle’s fault that Thor, the Mercer County Sheriff’s Department K-9 patrol dog attacked a 9-year-old Viola boy and his mother Jan.11, in the boy’s yard. 

The boy sustained scratches. The mother was bitten on the leg.

According to the Mercer County Animal Control bite case report by officer Missy Debacker, Rachel Freiwald’s son was playing in his front yard when she heard him screaming. 

“She then ran outside and seen the dog had her son down on the ground and then the dog turned on her and got her leg, the dog released after the daughter of the owner came out and yelled for the dog and then the dog went back over to its own yard.”

Mercer County Sheriff Dave Staley said technically he is the owner of the dog, but it is in the care of it’s handler, Deputy Casey Switzer, and stays at Switzer’s home, which is next door to Freiwald’s residence. He said animal control cited Staley for an animal running at large and the fine has been paid. 

“The [Switzer] family dog, a beagle, had dug a hole under the fence and Switzer was unaware of it. Thor got out under the fence,” Staley said. “Thor has had no other issues with anyone. He has been in service eight years. He’s found a lot of dope over his career.”

The dog was put on 10-day, in-home hold, and after that period, cleared of rabies concerns by a veterinarian. He remains in service to the sheriff’s department.

Debacker reported that Freiwald asked her if the dog would be put down, and was told that is not normal for a first bite. 

“She, [Freiwald] then said the dog had growled at her son prior to this and I then asked her how that came about and she said that her son was climbing on the dog’s fence and I told she had to consider the son was on the dog’s territory and she had also said earlier in conversation that Casey [Switzer] had come over to her right after she moved in and told her of Thor and that they should stay away from the fence as he was a working K-9,” Debacker said.

Staley told the Times Record, “If he attacked because he was vicious, the little guy would have been chewed up before the mom got there. There has been issues with the kid teasing the dog through the fence.”

During the hold time Freiwald complained to animal control that Thor was running loose in his pen on at least two occasions. Which normally would have been a violation of the in-home hold. 

Mercer County State’s Attorney Meeghan Lee issued a letter to the sheriff that stated she understood the dog’s training prohibited him from eating or relieving himself while on the leash because the leash meant he was “working.” “As long as ... Switzer is home and in direct control of Thor he can be in his yard and off-leash to eat and relieve himself,” Lee wrote.

Freiwald referred questions to her attorney Steve Donner, of the St. Louis based law firm of Donner Applewhite.

Donner said he has not yet filed litigation on the case, and other than that he has no comment.

Attorney Kenneth M. Phillips of Los Angeles, California, author of the book, “The Dog Bite Law,” spoke to the Times Record about such incidents. 

“I have not had a case where a dog which currently is working for the police is living at the handler's house and attacks someone,” Phillips said. “There are far too many cases where police dogs are put out of service from the police department, end up living with their usual handler at his house, and then attack people. The police departments should not allow these dogs to go into the community because they often -- not always, but often -- are put out of service because they are too vicious and unpredictable.”

The matter rests at this time.

“It was a very unfortunate incident,” Staley said. “Everyone feels terrible, and no one feels worse than Deputy Switzer. It’s just one of those things.”