Owners to Sue Over Katrina Pet Shootings
John Bozes still pines for Angel Girl, the black Labrador retriever he called his baby. The dog was among more than 30 canines found dead at three schools in St. Bernard Parish after Hurricane Katrina.
Bozes is one of several pet owners who believe that deputies from the parish Sheriff’s Office slaughtered their animals. And now they plan to sue.
“I want the families of those officers that did this to suffer the way I did,” said Bozes, a former resident of the parish who now lives in Brookhaven, Miss. “I want them tortured the way those poor animals were.... And I’m going to make sure justice is served.”
Attorney Eileen Comiskey said Bozes and other pet owners left their animals at area schools when they were forced to evacuate temporary shelters after Katrina hit Aug. 29. Floodwaters inundated all but a few dozen of the parish’s buildings.
Thirty-three dogs and two cats were later found dead at Beauregard Middle School, St. Bernard High School, and Sebastien Roy Elementary School. At least a third of the dogs appeared to have been shot, Comiskey said.
The suit that Comiskey plans to file in civil district court Monday will name as defendants Sheriff Jack A. Stephens, at least one deputy and a sergeant, she said. It will charge destruction of property and failure to safeguard property as an authorized custodian of the animals; the intentional infliction of emotional distress; and negligent hiring, training and supervision by the sheriff’s office.
Col. Richard Baumy, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, would not comment on the claims. But shortly after the incident last year, Baumy was quoted as saying: “As far as the information we have now, our deputies did not shoot the dogs.”
He said the investigation was taken over by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and state Atty. Gen. Charles C. Foti Jr.
The suit against the sheriff and his officers is being built on tips from pet owners, investigations by a Washington state-based animal welfare group and research by other local animal activists, Comiskey said.
At least four pet owners would be named as plaintiffs in the suit, Comiskey said, but it is possible several others would be added, and not just residents who had pets at the schools, the lawyer said. “These are people who care about their animals, and they were counting on law enforcement to do the right thing, and they didn’t do the right thing,” said Susan Michaels, co-founder of Pasado’s Safe Haven in Sultan, Wash., which is funding the lawsuit.
Wildlife and Fisheries officials confirmed that agents had come across the animal deaths, and that there was evidence that some dogs had been shot. A spokeswoman with the attorney general’s office confirmed a “formal investigation” but did not elaborate.
Pet owners and animal rights activists said they were frustrated at the slow pace of the state’s inquiry, and believed there had been foot-dragging in the case because it involves animals and not people.
Bozes said his brother-in-law left Angel Girl tied up on the second floor of Beauregard Middle School with three other family pets.
They included a Siberian husky-German shepherd mix that belonged to Bozes’ sister Carol Ann Hamm, a lead plaintiff in the suit; her mother-in-law’s Chihuahua-dachshund mix; and a red-nosed pit bull puppy that belonged to Hamm’s son.
The animals were left with food and water, and there were several other pets around, Bozes said. The family took shelter at St. Bernard School. Law enforcement officials prevented them from retrieving their pets from Beauregard the next day before they were evacuated, Bozes said.
Forced to abandon their animals, owners wrote messages on the walls and chalkboards in the rooms where their pets were kept, to help potential rescuers to identify them and their owners.
Some owners pleaded “please save them.” Others, like Bozes, begged that their pets not be shot. “These people knew their animals were in danger,” said Mark Steinway, Pasado’s co-founder and an investigator for the shelter.
Sheriff’s deputies said last year that some dogs had been shot on the street after the hurricane because they were vicious. Animal activists said this did not describe the dogs at the schools because their owners left food and water, and, in some instances, had tied them up.
Comiskey said witnesses overheard sheriff’s deputies talking among themselves just before the owners were evacuated, asking whether the owners were aware their pet were going to be killed.
In late September, Marilyn McGee, a local volunteer animal rescuer, was in search of a service dog that had reportedly been left at Beauregard by its hearing-impaired owner. She and her husband discovered a grisly scene on the school’s second floor.
McGee also went to Sebastien Roy Elementary, where she said at least five dead dogs were found. Four appeared to have been shot. She took photographs and went to the authorities.
Officials at Pasado’s, which had launched an animal rescue mission in the New Orleans area shortly after Katrina, said they received an e-mail from a resident about the animal slayings at the St. Bernard schools.
Steinway said that in early October, three investigators from the Louisiana attorney general’s office accompanied him to Beauregard, where most of the pets were allegedly killed. Spent shell casings from a variety of guns, including a shotgun and 9mm handgun, consistent with those used by law enforcement officials, were scattered across the floor.
Identifying the animals’ remains was difficult, but many still had ID collars or other distinguishing features. One poodle was recognizable from its red painted nails, Steinway said.
Pasado’s officials say the animal sanctuary is offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest, prosecution and conviction of those responsible, Michaels said. So far, no one has responded.
Bozes and Hamm learned of the death of their dogs through television news reports. They recognized the animals’ collars.
“Never a day goes by when I don’t think, ‘Why?’ I want to know why they did this,” said Hamm from her new home in Texas. “I want to see justice done and face the person who did this to my animal.”