Police Dog Brutality Questioned
Lake Ozark police say Daniel Curtis Johnson of Olean hit a parked car on Highway 54, then ran after an officer spotted him leave a gas station near the scene of the accident.
Johnson admits he was in the crash, but says he didn't see the police and was trying to get to a friend's house to make a phone call. But it's what happened after Johnson left the gas station that has both sides on the defensive.
"Per actual radio traffic, I believe, was that he ran off into the woods. Right then, I mean, that's part of Yasko's job is to find fleeing suspects," LOPD Sergeant Dale Heiser said.
"I never ran across the street into the woods, I didn't see any cops say anything to me," Daniel Curtis Johnson said.
Two different versions of what happened in the early morning hours of March 31 of this year. Both centering on Lake Ozark's only police dog, Yasko.
Heiser used the dog to track Johnson that night. During the track, Heiser fell, and hurt his knee.
He says he was holding Yasko back, keeping the dog from doing its job, so he let Yasko off his leash.
Target 8 spoke to two experienced K9 handlers. They say it's not unusual to let a dog off its leash during a track, especially in an area with rough terrain
"After I let Yasko go, he went into the woods, and I just had to follow him the best I could into the woods," Heiser said.
Heiser says Johnson had fair warning.
"When I get on scene, that's the first thing I do," Heiser said, "I get Yasko out of the car and I announce that a canine is coming into the woods, and if he doesn't stop, we're going to come find him. That night, I specifically recall announcing the presence of the canine three times before I let him go," Heiser said.
Johnson says he'd been walking for a while, so he sat down to rest in a nearby neighborhood. The next thing he remembers is seeing Yasko.
"I looked up, he came around the corner of the house, I looked up and saw him, next thing I know he's all over me," Johnson said.
Johnson remembers the struggle.
"Well, I was trying to get him off for a little while, then I thought if I just laid there and didn't move he wouldn't bite me, and I just tried to lay still and that's when he bit a hole in my shoulder," Johnson said, "I grabbed him by the neck and pinned him to the ground. I was yelling for the cops for a while, then I couldn't yell anymore so I just sat there and waited and finally they came out of the woods."
Johnson's injuries required a trip to the hospital and a surgical procedure. He had a gash on his chest and a chunk of flesh bitten out of his shoulder.
Heiser says Yasko was just doing his job.
"The best way to describe this is, if there's not any aggressive action, Yasko's not going to take any aggressive action," Heiser said.
Johnson says he was just trying to protect himself and that the dog was out of control.
"If he had gotten a hold of my neck, who knows what would've happened," Johnson said, "He took a chunk out of my shoulder down to the bone, I don't think police dogs are trained to do that."
There are no federal or Missouri state laws governing the use of police canines. Law enforcement rely on private organizations and kennels to certify handlers and dogs.
The LOPD says it took appropriate action, given the situation.
Heiser says Johnson could have avoided the situation if he'd listened to the police.
"It's a split-second decision that you have to be able to make, and based on what I had to go off of, I felt I had a felony property damage, and then a felony leaving the scene of an accident," Heiser said, "I believed I had two felonies at the time. And when people run, you know, they're running for a reason."
Police say evidence shows that reason. Johnson was on probation, and the accident itself was a violation of that probation.
Tests show Johnson was over the legal limit for alcohol as well. But Johnson's attorney says none of that matters.
"It doesn't matter the circumstances of the accident, the way the dog was unleashed and sent after Daniel is egregious, it's wrong, and unreasonable," Johnson's attorney Matthew Uhrig said.
The LOPD says it's in the clear because Johnson fled the scene and doesn't offer an apology.
"We take the responsibility in that we made sure he got the appropriate first aid treatment, so that's why we called the fire department and he was transported to lake regional for treatment," LOPD Chief Jon Hasker said.
"I don't want to see anybody get bit, I mean, that's not at all the situation. But if that's his job and that's the situation, he knows his job and he knows when to do it," Heiser said.
But Johnson's attorney says an apology alone wouldn't be enough.
"The way the dog attacked Daniel, his injuries are significant, he's entitled to something more than just a handshake and a we're sorry that happened," Uhrig said.
Because of his probation violation, Johnson is in prison for seven years.
But while he's behind bars, this incident has caught the attention of the FBI.
The agent Target 8 spoke with would not confirm the start date of the investigation, but says the report will soon go to the Civil Rights division of the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.
If the department finds the LOPD violated Johnson's rights, the department or the U.S. Attorney's office could file charges.