Lawsuit may hinge on necropsies of Damian and Gotham
Buffalo, NY – Necropsies by the Erie County SPCA on a pair of pit bulls shot and killed during ‘No Knock’ raids last summer contradict ‘Use of Force’ reports of the law enforcement officers who fired the fatal shots.
The SPCA reports support claims by two Buffalo pit bull owners, Michael Urban, 36, and Corey Meer, 23, that their dogs presented no danger when police shot and killed them.
Meer and Urban are represented by Buffalo attorney Matt Albert, and both have filed a notice of claim for Federal lawsuits (42 USC 1983) against, respectively, the Buffalo Police Department and the Erie County Sheriff Department.
Both men’s homes were raided based on search warrants where probable cause was established through confidential informants, – or ‘snitches’ – actually criminals bargaining their way out of arrest – who told police drugs were being sold by occupants of the homes.
Neither raid – one conducted by Buffalo Police Narcotics Squad (Urban), and the other by Erie County Sheriff Deputies SWAT Team (Meer) – resulted in any drugs being found in the owners’ possession or led to the arrests of Meer or Urban.
While no drugs were found, both law enforcement agency’s Use of Force reports claim that the pit bulls were a threat to the safety of officers conducting the fruitless raids.
Was Gotham killed unnecessarily?
Gotham, a one-and-a-half year old pit bull who lived with Urban on Weaver St., was killed by Buffalo Police Narcotics Squad Detective Charles G. Militello on July 29.
Detective Militello’s Use of Force report for the Buffalo Police claims that he shot Gotham in self-defense.
“While executing a search warrant did fire one shot from a Glock 45 caliber in defense of a pit bull terrier killing same,” wrote Detective Charles Militello.
However, a necropsy was performed on Gotham by Dr. Helene Chevalier, a veterinarian working at The SPCA Serving Erie County.
Dr. Chevalier wrote that the evidence “suggests that (Gotham) was shot from the head towards the back… The dog also swallowed a large amount of blood before dying… The dog might have died of severe blood loss and for airway obstructions from aspiration of blood and tissue fragments.”
Dr. Chevalier evaluated the position of the dog when he was shot. “The lack of evidence of soot or gun powder residue on the sections of skin examined suggests that the gunshot wound was not a contact wound but rather that the weapon was shot at a distance… the sharp margins are consistent with an entry wound created by a weapon shot at a distance… Per the bullet trajectory, it appears that the shot was fired from a distance and that the dog might have been looking up while he was shot from above, in a direction almost parallel to his nasal bone from the front (head) to the back (rear end of the dog). The direction of the wound path, with respect to the dog in a standing position was front to back, downward and almost parallel to the nasal bone of the dog.”
Urban’s attorney, Albert, told Artvoice that Gotham being shot at a distance supports the fact that there was no true threat to Det. Militello.
Albert said, “I spoke with SPCA Cruelty Chief Aaron Kandefer. He states that the trajectory of the bullet, which went straight down through Gotham’s skull, is highly suggestive that Gotham was sitting down when killed. I will be making a huge push to have Detective Militello charged accordingly.”
Albert wrote to Acting District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty, Jr., on October 10, requesting Flaherty investigate whether Militello committed the crime of Aggravated Animal Cruelty. A person is guilty of aggravated cruelty to animals (Agricultural and Markets Laws §353—a) when, with no justifiable purpose, he or she intentionally kills a companion animal with aggravated cruelty which is “intended to cause extreme physical pain”; or “is carried out in an especially depraved or sadistic manner.”
Gotham’s owner, Urban, described the day of the raid, and Gotham’s death, which Albert says demonstrates an “especially depraved or sadistic manner” on the part of the police detective.
Urban said, “I was at home making lunch near my door, Gotham, my dog, at my right side sitting down.
“I hear the officers talking in the hallway and I say to Gotham ‘who is here buddy, who is here?’ Gotham tail now wagging, I look back and notice the stove clock says 6:28 am. I take a step to the door, unlock and start to open the door as they say ‘Buffalo Police search warrant.’ I instantly take a step back. Gotham stood up tail wagging and tongue hanging out, as I’m looking at Gotham, saying, ‘don’t shoot, don’t shoot, he’s harmless, he’s harmless, don’t shoot, let me kennel him.’ They still did not enter. Gotham standing still in the same spot, not barking, not growling, nothing! I looked back at the cop, he looked at me, then looked back at Gotham, and bang as he shot my dog, he cocked the gun again. I looked down and said ‘you cocksucker you shot my dog.’ Gotham went behind me tail wagging and he shot again as I said, ‘you mother fucker.’
Gotham did a circle in the kitchen and went out to the parlor and came back into the kitchen and collapsed by his bowls gasping for air. At this point they still did not enter my property as I said ‘goddammit, he’s still alive, do something!’ One officer entered said ‘who else is here?’
My buddy said, “I am, don’t shoot me”.
That officer put me in zip ties, came in and said ‘oh well, he’s dead,’ and put a blanket on him. They finally entered as they put me on my knees saying, ‘where is it, where is it?’
“I just wanted my dog. They then brought a (police) canine in saying to their dog, ‘oh sorry that you have to see this.’ With my dog’s brains everywhere, they didn’t search or do anything other than bring the canine in. They took my buddy for a nugget of weed and a scale. The cop said to me, ‘oh well this is what happens in raids.’ They cut me loose and said, ‘don’t move until the last officer is out.’
“The lady then said, ‘I’m the last one,’ as she left. I run to the pile of brains and blood crying and then run downstairs to see what is going on, a trail of blood and brains down my stairs to the front yard. The officers left their black gloves they used to pick up Gotham all over the grass which I had to pick up and throw out.
“I came back upstairs to a murder scene and had to clean my dog’s blood and brains up and they didn’t even give me a card as to where they took my dog.”
Peter A. Reese, a lawyer, and an industrial engineer, is an animal rights advocate who is familiar with the presentation of evidence in cases involving guns and the use and operation of firearms.
In killing Gotham, Reese believes the accuracy of the shot at a distance with a handgun makes it unlikely that the officer firing was under duress or being attacked.
“This is not a TV show,” Reese said. “Handgun accuracy, due to the angular alignment of the short barrel is generally poor, even at short ranges. A dog’s head is a small target and an aggressive dog will not be standing still waiting to be shot.”
Reese also pointed out the safety considerations.
“Firing multiple shots in a dwelling at a dog is very risky,” he said.
Alarmingly, the downward shot that killed Gotham went through the kitchen floor of Urban’s upper apartment and though the ceiling of the lower apartment, narrowly missing the young woman living below.
Police also had warrants to raid her home, and as they burst through the door at 6:30 am, guns drawn, they found Jami Krafchak in her bedroom, just starting to get dressed for work, and in a bra and underwear.
Flashing a spotlight in her eyes, they refused to allow her to finish dressing as they zip tied her hands behind her back, frisked and photographed her repeatedly on their cell phones, then searched the home for marijuana.
Police asked her several times, “Where’s your husband? Is he black?”
Krafchak, who by this time was crying, shaking and frightened, said she told police again and again her husband is not black and told them to look at the picture of him in the bedroom.
Emptying dressers, throwing contents out of closets, tearing off door frames, turning over garbage receptacles and emptying their contents across the floor, police searched the apartment but failed to find any drugs on the premises. Police left, leaving Krafchak to clean up the mess from another fruitless raid.
Albert also represents Krafchak, who is also suing Buffalo Police. He questioned the need for police to photograph Krafchak.
“What possible evidentiary value could photos of a woman in her bra and underwear have?” asked Albert. “From taking semi-nude photos of my one client to shooting and killing the angelic dog of my other client, it is clear the real criminals came from outside the house, not the residents within.”
Did Damian Die From Shots Fired at a Distance or Three Feet Away?
Damian was a six-year-old pit bull, owned by Corey Meer of Esser St., when he was shot and killed by Erie County Sheriff Deputy Chris Ginnare on July 28.
Deputy Ginnare claims he shot Damian at the last possible moment – just a mere three feet away as the pit bull charged – to save his fellow officers and himself.
Deputy Ginnare’s Use of Firearms/Force report reads, “I, Deputy Chris Ginnare while making entry into 370 Esser Ave. encountered a pit bull coming down the stairs in an aggressive manner. As the pit bull charged within three feet of myself, (Deputy) Matt Noecker, (Deputy) Jordon Graber, I, Deputy Chris Ginnare had no other choice than to discharge my duty rifle (4) times at the pit bull in effort to prevent serious injury to myself and other SWAT members.”
Noecker and Graber were listed as witnesses and are expected to testify to the veracity of Gennare’s version of events.
Dr. Chevalier, working for The SPCA, however, wrote that Damian “suffered from three gunshot wounds,” stating that “The lack of evidence of soot or gun powder residue on the sections of skin examined from wound #l and wound #2 suggests that the gunshot wound was not a contact wound but rather that the weapon was shot at a distance… Moreover, the sharp margins are consistent with an entry wound created by a weapon shot at a distance… The third wound… was located at the level of the right elbow… From the information gathered while performing the necropsy, it appears that the shot responsible for wound #3 was fired from a distance. Wound #1 and wound #2 might be the result of two separate shots fired from a distance in a direction going from above downward and slightly angled front to back.”
From the start, this is what Corey Meer claimed, a story that flatly contradicted Deputy Ginnare, who said Damian was shot at a distance of three feet away.
Meer, who lives with his mother Cindy and his son Cayden, 2, on Esser St., had two dogs, Damian, and a coonhound named Bear.
On Friday afternoon, July 28, Meer was home with his mother. Cayden was standing a few feet from the door.
Upstairs in a bedroom was family friend Bobby Rovison, and with him was Damian.
Suddenly, the front door busted open, crashing into the wall, narrowly missing Cayden, and into the house came half a dozen Erie County Sheriff Deputies, wearing armed gear, screaming “raid” and telling Meer and his mother to get down on the floor.
As Cindy and Corey lay down, little Cayden started screaming.
From their position on the floor, Corey and Cindy tried to talk to Cayden to calm him down but Sheriff’s Deputies told the two to shut up. As a Deputy was zip tying Corey’s hands behind his back, he punched Corey in the face causing his head to mash against the floor, and soon his right eye began to swell.
Deputies decided to barricade Bear in the kitchen, instead of killing him.
Upstairs, Rovison opened the bedroom door and Damian came toward the upper landing at the top of the stairs.
Corey and Cindy could not see much of what happened with their heads facing the floor.
“I heard three gun shots then a tumble as Damian my dog fell to the bottom of my stairway in plain sight of my two-and-a-half year old son,” Corey said.
It upset Corey to see his dog shot and his son, a witness to it, crying. Corey started crying himself and asked deputies, “Why did you kill my dog?”
“This is what happens,” a Deputy remarked, “Take it like a man.’
“They… dragged me by my foot to the couch where I could see my dog Damian take his final breath,” Corey said.
As deputies searched the house, Corey’s wrists were hurting from lack of circulation. He asked a deputy to loosen his zip ties.
They took off his zip ties and handcuffed him instead.
“I was then taken to my dining room table where two men asked me ‘where the guns were and that I was either a suspect or a witness'” Corey said. “After some time, I was then taken downtown for further questioning, then released with no charges. ”
The raid, however, did result in the arrest of Rovison, who had a small quantity of marijuana on his person.
Coming back home, Corey noticed that all of the bullet holes were at the top of the second stairwell by the landing area, indicating the dog never even began to go down the to second stairwell when he was shot by Deputy Ginnare.
Two bullets lodged in the freezer corroborate that Deputy Ginnare shot from the bottom of the stairs up to the landing area.
Based on the necropsy report, Albert made some observations for Artvoice about the raid.
According to Albert, “Erie County SPCA head Cruelty Investigator Aaron Kandefer advised that the necropsy supports my client’s assertion that the dog was initially shot in his leg, fell down the stairs, and was then shot in the back of the head two times while fallen. Animal Control was outside at the time… there was no legal basis that one can even contend for those kill shots and failing to render veterinary aid for the animal in question.
“Those last two shots would appear to be patently unjustified, and the dog could have been saved if not for those two kill shots.
“Those two shots were sadistic in nature and essentially are further proof that the first shot was gratuitous as well,” Albert argues.
“While this sounds like something out of a Halloween Horror movie, this was another day at the office for the Erie County Sheriff Department,” Albert wrote to Acting Erie County District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty, Jr. in pressing for a criminal investigation.
Contacted by Artvoice, Acting DA Flaherty declined to comment since he said he had not seen Albert’s letter.
Reese pointed out the dangerous manner in which this raid was conducted.
“Damian was shot with a rifle which are generally of a much higher velocity than a handgun. And firing four shots inside a dwelling is nuts. The plastic fragments would seem to indicate a shotgun was used. The necessity of shooting this dog is highly questionable.”
While Buffalo Police and the Erie County Sheriff may operate with a policy of shooting dogs on drug raids, many police forces across the country have taken steps to train officers in canine encounters to avoid lethal force.
Niagara Falls Police Superintendent Bryan Dal Porto said his department employs nonlethal methods in dealing with dogs during raids.
“If a big, aggressive dog is coming at you, you don’t have a lot of options. The Taser is not every effective. Mace doesn’t work that great and you take a chance of missing. With a long gun it is pretty sure thing,” Dal Porto said, “but we use a regular co2 fire extinguisher and we’ve had great success with that. The dog gets disoriented. The gas spooks him.”
Dal Porto said that he has participated in raids of homes of suspected drug dealers and personally used a fire extinguisher instead of a rifle.
“Every encounter I ever had where I used co2, the dog cowers in the corner. You shoot their face with co2 and it dazes them.”
The Niagara Falls Police Department isn’t the only police force that uses co2 fire extinguishers.
The US Department of Justice recommended it for police departments in a booklet published in 2011.
“A fire extinguisher produces noise, cold, a bad taste, and an expanding cloud—a combination that frightens dogs. Many police departments use fire extinguishers effectively when going in on drug raids if they believe a dog might be on the premises.”
Other experts have also weighed in. ASPCA dog behavior expert Dr. Randall Lockwood says the fire extinguisher is an almost perfect dog repellent. “It’s very noisy and very cold. It tastes bad. But it doesn’t do any damage to the dog,” he says. “I’ve talked to many, many officers who have used fire extinguishers, and I have never heard of a case where they didn’t work.”
Artvoice called Buffalo Police Spokesman Michael DeGeorge for comment on whether the Buffalo Police Department presently uses fire extinguishers, and if not, would they consider it.
DeGeorge declined to speak with Artvoice.
A few years ago, WGRZ-TV conducted an investigation of the city’s dog shooting practices, concluding that police shot 92 dogs in a three-year period, from Jan. 1, 2011 through Sept. 2014. Seventy-three of those dogs died.
Buffalo’s numbers were more than triple the amount of police-involved dog shooting incidents in Cincinnati, a municipality of similar size.
And shockingly, WGRZ reported that nearly 30 percent of the dog shootings in Buffalo were carried out by a single officer who shot and killed more dogs than the entire New York City Police Department during the same period.
While the prolific dog shooter was unidentified in the original story, Artvoice has identified him as Detective Joseph Cook of the Buffalo Narcotics Squad. Detective Cook shot 26 dogs, killing 25 of them in three years.
In every police Use of Force report studied by Artvoice, Detective Cook maintained that the dog he killed was aggressive and posed a danger to officers or himself.
Albert sums up the reality of police raiding American citizen’s homes on the secret word of snitches.
“They are running around in full Darth Vader garb, terrorizing families and executing dogs, all for the result of seizing minute quantities of plants. It’s shameful, and as a society, our cross to bear for being complicit with the great American lie, otherwise known as the war on drugs,” he said.