Gunfight at the Canine Corral

Fred Harper

Talk about stepping into deep doggy doo.

Authorities are still trying to piece together exactly what happened at an alleged local drug hangout in November 2002. What began as a late-night drug bust, with a scrum of Fort Lauderdale police officers poised to follow a battering ram into a marijuana den, suddenly became a frenzy of machine gun and pistol fire, ending with one very dead dog and one officer shot through the keister. Thing is, the bad guys never got off a shot.

Adding to the cops' embarrassment, members of the Citizen Review Board have now found that follow-up reporting by the officers involved -- one of whom cavalierly dismissed the hailstorm of lead and the wounding of one of his officers as "business as usual" -- seemed less concerned with getting to the bottom of a cop's punctured posterior than about protecting the police supervisors' own asses. Up to a week after the event, the shooting of the cop was still being listed as a "dog bite," and strict procedures about immediately reporting any police gunshot injury had apparently been violated.

After a yearlong investigation, the review board has recommended two-week suspensions for a pair of Fort Lauderdale's finest in connection with the raid. It's now up to Acting City Manager Alan Silva to mete out the actual punishment to the errant cops.

Based on testimony from a stack of depositions taken for the case, here's how the key cops say the "Shootout at Canine Corral" (which resulted in one arrest) went down two days before Thanksgiving 2002:

Members of the Raiders, the elite drug-enforcement division of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, descended around 11 that night on 1649 Lauderdale Manor Dr., a charmless shell of a house whose front door leads to a spectacular view of northbound I-95. An informant had told the Raiders that a marijuana dealer lived there. So did an aggressive pit bull, the informant added.

But the Raiders came prepared. Equipped with a snare pole, Sgt. Tom Reed, the department's K-9 unit trainer, who had assisted the Raiders with dangerous dogs in the past, warily approached the yard gate and kicked it a few times to get the dog's attention. No dog. He and two armed officers scurried to the corner of the house, assuming that the dog was in the backyard.

At the same time, the entry unit, dressed in full battle gear, scuttled over the fence to the front door with a pneumatic battering ram at the ready. As with every bust-in raid, the cops were edgy and pumped. But this time, they had the added element of a mad dog to worry about. According to the officers' reports, they were keeping eyes peeled on the right side of the house, because that's where they expected the animal to appear.

A half dozen Raiders assembled by the front door in stack formation, a tight, single-file column that is supposed to rush in after others smash the door down. The stack veered a bit to the left, partially to avoid a sucker punch from the dog. Fourth in line was Detective Luis Alvarez, who held a long flashlight in one hand, his Smith & Wesson handgun in the other. In front of him was Detective Pat Hart, armed with an MP5, a short submachine gun favored by SWAT teams. Hart held the MP5 to his shoulder in firing stance, partially resting its stock on Detective Derek Joseph in front of him.

Joseph heard a dog growl. The whir of an air conditioner hanging on the wall near them cloaked the sound, however, and Joseph observed that it sounded as if the dog was inside. The cops tensed, expecting an angry canine to lunge at them when the door caved in. Seconds later, though, a snarling, teeth-gnashing pit bull bounded from amid some garbage cans in the yard of the target house and "latched on to Pat's posterior," one detective recalls. Hart yelled, the dog let go, and then it took a chomp on Alvarez's left knee. Alvarez shook the pit bull off his leg. The formation broke apart in the chaos as several curious neighbors rushed to the outside of the fence to witness the scene.

According to their carefully crafted accounts, Hart then turned to his right, Alvarez to his left, so that the two men were almost facing each other.

"So that's when I drew the weapon down, and I shot three times immediately," Alvarez says. The muzzle blast flickered in the dusk, and the onlookers scattered. One of those bullets, it turned out, ripped through Hart's upper right buttock and exited the lower left one.

"That's when I looked at Pat's face, and it looked like he was in pain," Alvarez says.  

Hart was convinced he'd gotten the mother of all dog bites. "The way to explain it to people is like I got hit by a freight train," Hart says. "It felt like... it felt like a dog coming up, biting me on my butt. It felt like it was right in the middle of my butt. I felt more of a clamping motion, and then I felt an immediate pain, a different type of pain."

Hart fell down flat to the ground about seven feet to the right of the line, then got up in a kneeling position, pointing the submachine gun at the dog. Alvarez had also backed off and knelt. "I wasn't hearing anything 'cause it was like my auditory system shut down," Hart recalls. "It seemed like everything for me was moving in a slow motion. All of a sudden, it seemed like the time kicked back in. I see the dog. It's illuminated. I hear somebody from my right say, 'Hit him again, Luis.' At that point, I thought the dog was coming near me, and I fired four rounds at the dog."

Another sergeant also began shooting, and a fusillade of lead whizzed through the air. The barrage of fire physically pushed the dog to the fence, where it collapsed. Thirteen shots had been fired at the beast, but for all of that, no one managed to deliver a fatal blow.

As the dogged team smashed through the door moments later, Reed pinned down the bleeding pit bull with his snare pole. "Somebody was yelling, 'Stay with the dog! Stay with the dog!'" Reed says, adding, "It was still a threat.

It was still, the dog was still alive when I was pinning it to the ground."

The dog died about five minutes later. Lying near the trash cans was a litter of suckling pups that the mother had apparently been reluctant to desert.

Hart, in pain, was also left lying in the yard. Adding to his distress, someone accidentally dropped the battering ram onto his helmeted head. Inside, Alvarez said he thought he'd shot Hart, but another detective told him he didn't.

No one called an ambulance for Hart. Instead, another detective drove him to Broward General Hospital. Hart predicted his worst pain was yet to come. "Man, this is freakin' embarrassing. I got fucking bit in the ass by a dog," he said to the detective. "How am I supposed to explain this to people? Cops don't ever let shit like this go and it's... oh man, I'm gonna hear this till the end of my career."

Hart's fellow officers gathered later in the ER treatment room to cheer him up. Hart lay there, wounded rump in the air, and the scene devolved into a raucous "comedy session," Hart says, with Hart's colleagues commenting good-naturedly on the heft of his posterior.

"At one point, I had to tell the detectives to quiet down because they were getting a little loud and laughing and cutting up," recalls Detective Sgt. Frank Sebregandio, who had been a team leader in charge of the raid. "There was some joking around about how the dog got the meatiest part of one of the entry team members and that type of thing. Some people made fun of Pat for having a big butt, but other than that, it was very lighthearted."

Despite all the levity, X-rays had revealed metal fragments inside Hart's wounds, an obvious indicator that he'd either been shot directly or received fragments from the Alvarez salvo. Sebregandio, however, wasn't terribly concerned about investigating the wounds. "It basically was business as usual, and there wasn't any need for me to ask the doctor what's the next step or is he gonna live or those types of things," Sebregandio says, adding that there was "nothing that would indicate that they were gonna wheel him into surgery or that they were gonna have to amputate at the waist or anything as severe."

Hart got home late that night, with one small canine indignity remaining. As he showed his wife the wounds, they heard their own two dogs "going nuts" in the bedroom. "They were playing tug of war with the shirt from the hospital, the one that I was wearing that night," Hart says. His wife buried it in the hamper, but the next day, the dogs had dug it out, and she "caught 'em wrestling with the shirt again."

About a week later, after doctors had concluded that Hart had taken a bullet directly in the butt, he had a talk with Alvarez. "I told him... that there was good news and there was bad news. I go, 'The good news is the dog didn't have rabies, and the bad news is that you shot me.'"  

Sebregandio and Paul Cristafaro, the two sergeants in charge that night, have since been transferred out of the Raiders. The Citizen Review Board has recommended two-week suspensions for both of them and letters of reprimand for Hart and Alvarez. The board also recommended that all cops involved take a class to bone up on proper report writing.

Patricia Mayer, who chairs the citizen review board, doubts that the official version is accurate because no one filed a report until at least four days later. "To me -- and this is my interpretation of how things should have been handled -- everyone at that point started writing up reports about the gunfire. It smells to me of a cover-up. I just feel very uncomfortable about it." Regardless of what really happened, she's certain that the night raid was an embarrassing debacle for the highly regarded unit. "I would hope that they'd be target proficient and that all those bullets wouldn't need to be fired," she says. "I think all those shots were inappropriate."

One next-door neighbor recalls a lot more bedlam and bullets than the depositions would suggest. Alfred Benyard was sitting on his patio that night, smoking a cigarette, not 50 feet away from the Raiders as they swarmed the house. He claims that among those shooting was a detective standing outside the fence. "Man, that dog had them in such turmoil," he says. "If you would have seen it, it was like a cartoon. That dog had 'em crazy."

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