By Maggie Cassidy
Valley News Staff Writer
Hartford — The owners of a dog say an off-duty Hartford police officer was out of line this weekend when he shot and killed their pet at a public park after a fight broke out between the 2-year-old pit bull and one of the officer’s two huskies.
Cheryl Gray, 44, who took the slain dog named Diesel on one of their regular visits to the Watson Upper Valley Dog Park in Hartford on Saturday, said the two dogs tussled after one husky lunged toward Diesel from atop a picnic table while the officer, Logan Scelza, was using his phone on a bench about 15 yards away.
She acknowledged Diesel “had (the red husky) by the neck.” Gray said Scelza ran over, tried to pull the dogs apart before firing three “warning” shots into the ground and then shooting Diesel four times — once in the face and three times in the chest.
There were about a dozen other people, including a 4-year-old girl, in the dog park at the time of the shooting.
“I can’t get it out of my head at all,” a distraught Gray said through tears on Monday. “It was unnecessary force.”
She said she doesn’t want the incident to be ignored because of the stigma against pit bulls, a catch-all term for several similar breeds including American Staffordshire terriers, or because the shooter is an officer.
She also was angered by the first news release that the Hartford Police Department sent out about the incident Saturday night because she felt it singled out Diesel’s breed in the title and suggested that Scelza’s dogs were “exercising” as if to say that hers was clearly the aggressor.
Messages left Monday for Scelza were not returned. He has been placed on administrative leave while Vermont State Police investigate the incident, according to Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten. The investigator, Sgt. Michael Notte, declined comment on the state and scope of the investigation.
Diesel belonged to John Justin Demers, who goes by Justin and who is roommates with Gray’s boyfriend. Gray was close to Diesel — she refers to him as “my dog” — and said she took him to the dog park three times a week for most of his life, largely without incident.
Gray said that on Saturday, Diesel, Scelza’s huskies and several other dogs initially were playing nicely at the park — which is fenced-in and requires dogs to be off-leash.
Several people were sitting around a picnic table when Diesel came over for head pats. He was followed by a red husky, who jumped up on the picnic table overlooking Diesel with another dog, Gray said.
The black husky then “moseyed over” near Diesel, she said, and all of the dogs were getting petted when she heard a growl.
“I went, ‘Was that Diesel or the other guy?’ ” Gray recalled.
She said she commanded Diesel to come to her and he started to, but then the red husky “jumped off the table and went right for Diesel … and then they were fighting.”
“Diesel had him by the throat. He did,” Gray said. “I probably would too if I had two huskies in my face.”
Gray said Scelza ran over, leapt in the air and body-slammed Diesel, which she believes “made it worse” instead of getting the dogs to disengage.
“(Scelza) was punching and punching (Diesel) in the face, and then he was punching him in the ribs and pulling on his collar the whole time,” Gray said, who spoke deliberately and paused often to fight back sobs.
“He turned around to me and said, ‘I’m going to shoot your dog.’ And I was screaming, ‘No!’ He pointed (the gun) at Diesel and shot him right in the eye and Diesel fell to the ground, and then he shot him three more times. And then I’m standing there with Diesel with his one eye shot and he’s looking at me out of the other eye like, ‘Cheryl, help me.’ He was lying there twitching and then he just stopped moving. He just stopped moving.”
Gray estimated the altercation lasted less than a minute.
“I didn’t even have time to react except saying ‘no, stop, no, stop.’ I just remember saying those two words,” she said. “He never touched his dog one time, not once.”
She wasn’t sure if the black husky got involved.
An eyewitness, Gabby Lamotte, gave roughly the same account as Gray when talking to Valley News reporters on Sunday and Monday, although she thought that both huskies were involved. She said she didn’t realize that the red husky had been on the table behind her until she later talked to her boyfriend, who was also there.
“It happened so fast, I swore that the red-and-white husky was next to me because I’m pretty sure that was the one that made the first move,” Lamotte said. “The pit bull definitely did not start it.”
Gray said two older men comforted her as Scelza retrieved his phone and a shoe that had fallen off.
She said one of the men told Scelza he shouldn’t leave until the police got there. She said he told them, “Don’t worry, I work for the Hartford Police Department.”
Gray said both huskies were on their feet while Scelza gathered his things. Police have not detailed the severity of the injuries to the husky, which is home recovering.
In a second news release on Sunday night — issued in text and video format — Kasten offered his department’s “deepest sympathies and condolences to the family and friends of both dogs involved in (the fight). Both families, those praying on a speedy recovery for their family pet, and those grieving the loss of a member of their family are in our hearts, minds and prayers today.”
“Although the police officer was off-duty at the time of this incident, both he and our entire police department recognize that we’re held to a higher professional standard,” Kasten said. “However, that standard does not supersede the rights of any party involved to due process, including being innocent until proven guilty. … While this is undoubtedly an emotional situation, it is important these emotions do not provoke rash judgment or hurtful actions based on one person’s profession, or the breeds of those dogs involved.”
Kasten said several online threats toward people involved are being investigated, and called for threats against the Scelza, his family and the police department to stop.
Gray said that over about two years going to the dog park, Diesel had one other altercation, less than two weeks ago. She said a Rottweiler was being pushy and would not leave Diesel alone when she told Diesel to sit with her, so she asked the Rottweiler’s owner to move the dog away. The woman did, but when she let go of the Rottweiler’s collar, Gray said, it lunged at Diesel and they scuffled before being easily broken up.
She said she wants to see video cameras installed at the dog park.
At the park on Monday, a number of dog owners said they considered the incident to be a tragic fluke and were not worried about the safety of their dogs in general.
All those interview said that going to the park does not relieve owners of the responsibility of their pets or of being familiar with dog behavior.
Reid Kotlas, of White River Junction, said he brings his 2-year-old Beagle mix Freddie to the park almost every day. Kotlas was familiar with Diesel and Scelza’s huskies and described them all as good dogs.
Kotlas said that if his dog were threatened, he could envision shooting a gun “if it were literally a situation where he could die.”
He also said officers should be held to a high standard when discharging their weapons — whether they’re on-duty or not — and he found it worrisome that a Hartford officer was “so willing to use lethal force in a tense situation.”
Mike Appel was at the park with his yellow Labrador retriever Grady for the third time since moving to Woodstock from North Carolina about a year ago.
Appel said it was tragic to hear about Saturday’s incident since the dog park is “supposed to be a safe place,” but he said that parks bring “all different (dog) types, all different personalities” that have to be watched closely for the whole visit.
He said it was unfortunate that firearms were involved, but also recognized the dangers of injecting yourself into a dog fight, and that officers are often “trained to respond in that manner” when answering calls.
Demers said he bought Diesel as an 8-week-old puppy in 2014, describing the dog as “harmless.” He said he would tell people the dog was a bull mastiff to “stay away from that stereotype” associated with pit bulls.
“The only thing pit bull about him was his breed,” Demers said. “He was like a pit bull-poodle goofball … like a goofy 12-year-old kid.”
He questioned whether Scelza would have shot Diesel if it was not his own dogs that were at risk.
Gray said she would cuddle Diesel often, calling him by his nicknames: Beasley, B and D. She said his best friends were cats named Miss Kitty and Bubba, and he was popular with children.
Demers and Gray buried Diesel in their backyard on Saturday night, erecting a large headstone on which the housemates plan to inscribe Diesel’s name.
“I’ll never have a dog again,” Demers said. “There’s no way I can replace that dog.”
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