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Monday, August 6th, 2012
By Margie Wuebker
Dog handler suspended
Deputy will not receive pay for 45 days
Mercer County Sheriff's Deputy Chad Fortkamp has been suspended without pay for 45 days after the department's K-9 unit Zak died Wednesday from excessive heat after being unattended in a patrol car.
Fortkamp struggled to maintain composure during this morning's press conference at the sheriff's office.
"I take full responsibility for my actions, and I would do anything to bring back Zak," he said. "I regret what my actions have done to the sheriff's office and this community."
He paused briefly before adding, "I will always love Zak." He then walked with head down out of the conference room.
Sheriff Jeff Grey said the suspension is retroactive to Thursday and equals a penalty of $6,500.
"While a 45-day suspension will hurt financially, it does not compare with what Chad is doing to himself," Grey said. "He feels like he has lost a child."
However, the sheriff said he could not overlook the fact the officer did not turn on the heat-warning system in the cruiser that would have alerted someone about rising temperatures.
An investigation launched after the dog's death determined Fortkamp had come to the office to work on an accident reconstruction project. The deputy reportedly did not realize he had turned off the cruiser and the air conditioner. The ignition key was in a forward position but not on. The rear passenger window had been lowered several inches.
Fortkamp reportedly returned to the cruiser two hours later around 1 p.m. to discover the dog unresponsive in the back seat. After attempting to revive the dog and notifying supervisors, he headed to the Coldwater Animal Clinic, where rescue efforts continued.
A subsequent necropsy found Zak had suffered heart failure. His internal temperature was found to be at least 108 degrees - the highest the thermometer could register.
Although the dog had been diagnosed previously with a heart defect and cleared for duty, veterinarian Dr. Urban Seger did not believe it was a contributing factor in the death.
Seger noted in his report that a dog's normal temperature is 101 to 102.5 degrees. When the temperature increases to more than 106 degrees, Seger indicated panting and heat exhaustion may set in.
During the course of the investigation conducted by chief deputy Gery Thobe, authorities determined Fortkamp, an 11-year member of the department, was not in the habit of using the warning system. The system, which activates high-velocity fans, the horn and lights, also alerts the handler when inside temperatures increase - even when no one is inside if the switch is not turned off.
"It was his responsibility to utilize the alarm," Grey said. "Sometimes we do things without thinking."
The completed report had been forwarded to the Mercer County Prosecutor's Office regarding a possible charge of cruelty to animals, a second-degree misdemeanor.
Prosecutor Andy Hinders said the case is now in the hands of Celina law director George Moore.
No charge has been filed in Celina Municipal Court. If Fortkamp were convicted of such an offense, the maximum sentence would be a $750 fine and 90 days in jail.
Fortkamp served as the dog's handler since the German Shepherd had joined the force in the fall of 2010. The two were partners on the evening shift.
Grey noted Fortkamp's personnel file includes two written reprimands - one for crashing a cruiser on a icy roadway while responding to an injury accident 10 years ago and the other for taking a longer break at the office three years ago.
A candlelight vigil for Zak will be held at 7 p.m. tonight at the dog park at West Bank Park. Representatives of the sheriff's office will not be on hand for the ceremony planned by local residents Lori Taylor and Maria Suhr.
A private service will be held at the sheriff's office to honor the dog's memory. Zak has been cremated and the ashes given to Fortkamp.
Zak was the department's second K-9 unit to die in two years.
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