Family’s pet ‘Coco’ killed by police

"Coco" was a good dog. Almost embarrassingly so.

When Jose Fernandez would have friends over, he would brag that he had a pit bull. He’d take his friends into the backyard to see Coco and the 6-year-old pit bull would lick their feet.

"I’d say, ‘Come on! Put on a mean face or something!’" Fernandez, 40, said.

But that’s all Coco would do, he said. Lick them, or put his paw on their laps for attention.

Around 5 a.m. Friday, Coco was shot and killed in his backyard by a Las Vegas police officer.

The officer was one of several who were searching for a DUI suspect who fled on foot from a traffic stop near Nellis Boulevard and Sahara Avenue, according to department spokesman Bill Cassell.

Police searched a nearby neighborhood with a helicopter equipped with a heat detecting device and spotted a large mass in a shed behind a home at 4880 Welter Ave., Cassell said.

Cassell said the dog, which was inside the shed, confronted officers. But he said he didn’t know how the dog displayed aggressiveness.

"The officer did everything he could to avoid shooting at the dog. Ultimately he was forced to fire in self-defense," Cassell said.

Two shots rang out. Coco had a bullet wound in his back and in his chest, according to Fernandez and his girlfriend, Yurisel De La Torre. Both were at work at the time.

The suspect, whose name and charges were not released, was arrested a few doors away.

Cassell said the dog’s death was a mistake and the department offered apologies to the family.

"This is an extra unfortunate incident," he said. "All cops are animal lovers and it hurts us deeply when something like this occurs."

A next-door neighbor said she never heard Coco bark or growl at the officers.

Sandra Orozco, 27, said she was awakened by seven police officers in her backyard around 4:30 a.m. The officers then jumped the wall between the two yards, she said.

Orozco couldn’t see the shooting while standing in her patio because the wall blocked her view, but she and her parents did hear two pops that she later learned were the fatal shots.

She said Coco was "always gentle" and played well with her 5-year-old daughter.

De La Torre, teary-eyed and surrounded by photos of the dog, said that was one of the reasons she adopted Coco.

She remembers first seeing him at the Lied Animal Shelter three years ago. While other dogs barked and jumped for attention, Coco didn’t make a sound.

"Coco just put his head right next to the door, looking for attention," she said.

Coco let De La Torre’s four Chihuahuas jump on him and bite his tail. When one of them became too rough, he gently nudged them with his paw.

With her 6-month-old daughter, Coco would set his face in her lap and she would pull on his ears. Coco didn’t mind, De La Torre said. He was just happy for the attention.

De La Torre and Fernandez don’t believe Coco could have harmed the officer and are upset that the officers didn’t ask before entering their backyard.

They also don’t believe catching the suspect was worth jumping into their backyard and killing their dog.

"I don’t think it’s right," De La Torre said. "It wasn’t like he was a killer."

Las Vegas police do not have official procedures for dealing with dogs because each encounter is different, Cassell said. Officers are just instructed to balance the risk to themselves and the public in such incidents.

They’ve been involved in other similar shootings.

In 2005, while chasing a graffiti vandal, two Las Vegas police officers shot and killed one pit bull and wounded another that they encountered in the dog owner’s fenced yard. Police said the animals chased the officers.

In 2004, while responding to a burglary call, an officer jumped into a backyard and shot and killed a blue heeler-dingo mix that police said "charged aggressively" at the officer.

In both of those cases the department either paid veterinary bills or offered to pay cremation costs. They haven’t done either in Friday’s incident, according to Fernandez and De La Torre.

While clutching Coco’s blood-stained collar, Fernandez showed a receipt of $225.45 they had to pay to a nearby veterinarian to have him cremated after police took the dog to the clinic.

"He wasn’t a dog. He was family," Fernandez said.

Contact reporter Lawrence Mower at lmower@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0440. Contact reporter Maggie Lillis at mlillis@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279.

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