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CELINA — The handler for the Mercer County K-9 unit has been suspended for more than a month in the wake of the animal’s death last week.
On Monday, Mercer County Sheriff Jeff Grey announced Deputy Chad Fortkamp, Zak’s handler, has been suspended without pay for 45 working days as a result of the events leading to the dog’s death last week. Grey noted the suspension equated to a $6,500 penalty.
“Everyone at the sheriff’s office loved that dog,” Grey told The Evening Leader in a telephone interview on Monday. “Chad would bring the dog into the building and we’d play tug of war and keep away with Zak. As far as Chad goes, the 45-day suspension, while it’s going to hurt him financially, it’s nothing compared to what he’s doing to himself. Chad feels devastated.”
According to a report issued by Grey, Fortkamp arrived at the Mercer County Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday to continue work on an investigation related a fatal crash that occurred on July 14 near St. Henry.
Fortkamp brought Zak with him to the sheriff’s office but left the dog inside the vehicle while he went inside to complete some work.
Fortkamp returned to the vehicle approximately two hours later and discovered Zak in the back of the vehicle unresponsive. Fortkamp attempted CPR, however, a vet pronounced Zak dead. At the time of a necropsy, Zak’s internal temperature was 108 degrees.
Fortkamp’s vehicle is equipped with a warning system designed to activate the horn, turn fans on and roll down the windows as safety precautions. The system — which was not turned on the day Zak died — also sends a signal to a pager.
Grey said he does not believe the incident reached the criteria needed for an animal cruelty charge. The sheriff noted the case has been turned over to the Mercer County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, which would be responsible for filing any charges.
“I was harder on him than any court would be,” Grey said, noting the maximum penalty for an animal cruelty charge is a $750 fine and 90 days in jail.
“I wasn’t harder on him because I think he’s a bad deputy. If I thought he was a bad deputy, I would have fired him. I wanted to send a message that we have to pay attention ... Hopefully other K-9 officers at other agencies will see what happened to Chad and the severity of his punishment and hopefully that will keep them alert.”
Since reports of Zak’s death first surfaced, the sheriff’s office has been inundated with e-mails and phone calls — some of which Grey called “inappropriate and unprofessional.” Grey also said some of the correspondence also has been directed at Fortkamp.
“The interesting thing is the nasty e-mails and stuff, those have come from outside of Mercer County,” Grey said. “If someone had identified themselves from Mercer County, I have tried to call or reply to their e-mail. Quite frankly, I don’t care what people outside have to say — I don’t work for them, I work for the people of Mercer County. They are my boss and that’s who I am listening to.”
Grey also has suspended the K-9 unit at the sheriff’s office.
“At this point, we are going to sit back,” Grey said. “We have access if we need one to Celina’s K-9 so we are going to take a little time and think things through before we would start up a K-9 again. We have had some citizens who have offered to donate money. The Celina Moose is offering to pay the whole bill for a new K-9. While I appreciate the support, I just don’t think at this particular time that we are ready to handle that again.”