Biting Back

To a casual passerby, the sight of Phillip and Doris Samarco probing and poking through the grass of their neighbor's front yard on a summer afternoon might have seemed a familiar suburban tableau: a retired middle-class couple in West Boca Raton retracing steps in search of a lost set of car keys or possibly a contact lens.

The Samarcos weren't looking for their car keys. Or an earring, a lottery ticket, or a cuff link. They were looking for the missing piece of their son's left leg.

They didn't find it. All they found on that day in July 1995 was a few empty syringes and a dirty bandage -- the usual detritus left behind by paramedics who, having stabilized the victim of a serious wound, are in too much of a hurry to clean up the mess. The object of the Samarcos' search, an oblong three-ounce chunk of their son's left calf muscle, had disappeared. Phillip Samarco thinks he knows what happened to it: "The damn dog ate it. The damn dog ate the damn meat."

The dog he's referring to is a 100-pound German shepherd police dog named Faero. The day Faero bit Rusty Samarco's leg, tearing out a piece of it in the process, the dog was fulfilling his given role in law enforcement: finding and apprehending a hidden person suspected of committing a felony.

In Samarco's case, though, the crime for which he was apprehended by Faero turned out not to be a felony after all. Samarco eventually pleaded guilty to simple assault, a second-degree misdemeanor, for which he was placed on probation. Having already lost many of the leg nerves that control vertical movement of his left foot, Samarco considered the court-imposed sentence so superfluous as to seem almost sarcastic.

Now he's trying to rewrite the punch line. Toward that end he's filed suit against Palm Beach County and retained a nationally known civil-rights lawyer to back his claim that the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office (PBSO) used excessive force in arresting him. The county, through its attorney, vehemently denies the charge and vows to take the matter to a jury. The result could well become a test case over how law-enforcement agencies use police dogs.

"To see your kid get bitten alive, I'd like to get that dog myself and break his neck," says Phillip Samarco. "I don't know how they can let a dog maim somebody for life and say it's right."

The family members and their lawyer have announced their intention to use the lawsuit as a lever to force changes in the canine search methods of the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office -- and possibly around the country. "One of these days, there's going to be a tragedy, because dogs don't distinguish between adults and kids," Green says.

In some ways Rusty Samarco, a 34-year-old man who's never held a steady job, who's never learned to read or write, and whose mother still refers to him as "my little hyper baby," has no more understanding of his actions than a child. Over the years he's become familiar with the inside of several area jails, he says, adding that "somehow I always ended up taking a beating" during the arrest. His father has more insight: "That's what he does. He gets a couple drinks, starts fighting, then when they try to stop him, he fights the police officers. So they claim he's a police beater."

At the moment Rusty Samarco is in the North Florida Reception Center in Lake Butler for violating his probation; last year he was convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol and carrying a concealed weapon.

In the 1995 incident, Samarco was bitten and captured during what is known as a perimeter search. In this sort of search, a fleeing suspect is not directly chased; instead he's bottled up inside a building, park, wood, or neighborhood by officers placed at strategic locations around the perimeter. When surrounded he's tracked down by a dog.

In Samarco's case, the perimeter comprised the small, self-contained housing development where his parents live just north of the Hillsboro Canal. It didn't take Faero long to find Samarco, who wasn't exactly well hidden -- just half-burrowed under some wood chips behind a bush in a neighbor's front yard.

As soon as he'd seen the squad cars tearing along the road in front of his parents' house, he knew why they were there. "I knew that for a fact," he says. "They were coming for me."

At that very moment, in fact, he had been on a pay phone at a nearby community swimming pool trying to get hold of a buddy with police contacts "to see if I could square this situation out." But when he saw the cars pulling up, he figured it was too late.

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Paul Belden