Although they say they regret the incident, officials for the West Virginia State Police are standing behind a decision to fatally shoot a family dog in Mason County last week.
“The West Virginia State Police is extremely sorry for the loss of Willie Pete’s life and the loss sustained by his family,” State Police spokesman Lt. Michael Baylous said in a lengthy statement issued this week. The statement refers to the fatal shooting of the dog during a manhunt near Ashton in Mason County on June 24.
Baylous said a Mason County sheriff’s deputy was responding to a call on Jolly Road near Ashton June 24 when Jonathan Wade Jeffers allegedly shot at the deputy before running away.
Jeffers was on home confinement last year, but allegedly cut off his home confinement bracelet in December, Baylous said. He had recently been involved in a domestic violence incident with his father, and was involved in a domestic violence incident with his wife shortly before firing at the deputy, Baylous said.
Deputies pursued Jeffers in a car to Kansas Lane before Jeffers ditched the vehicle and fled on foot, Baylous said. A West Virginia State Police special response team and K-9 unit were then called in to help search the woods for Jeffers, Baylous said.
Baylous said family members told police Jeffers had vowed not to be taken alive and threatened to shoot any officer who tried to arrest him.
Baylous said the special response team found an ATV path they thought Jeffers might have taken and followed it back to Kansas Lane, where it joined the road near the home of Jeremy and Ginger Sweat. Baylous said a small dog ran up to Diego, a State Police canine officer, and tried to bite him, but ran away when the larger dog barked.
A much larger dog, later identified as Willy Pete, then charged at Diego and his handler, Sgt. S.T. Harper, growling and baring his teeth, Baylous said.
Baylous said the dog was acting in an aggressive manner, and that Harper got between Willy Pete and Diego to try to thwart his attack. Baylous said Harper was forced to shoot three times to stop the dog when Willy Pete got within about five feet of the trooper.
“Sgt. S.T. Harper has been a member of the West Virginia State Police K-9 unit for 14 years,” Baylous said. “During the first 12 years he was a K-9 handler and in the last two years he has been a K-9 instructor.
“Sgt. Harper has been around dogs all of his life,” Baylous said. “He works with dogs daily both as a K-9 handler and trainer and with his own dogs.”
Based on his experience in dog behavior, Baylous said Harper decided he had no choice but to shoot the dog. Willy Pete ran behind the Sweat’s house, where he then died.
According to media reports, Ginger and Jeremy Sweat have questioned the need to shoot Willy Pete, and were concerned that the dog was shot near their home, where their children were sleeping. Baylous said troopers apologized to the family for having to shoot the dog and helped bury Willy Pete.
Jeremy Sweat told the Gazette Tuesday he was unsure about taking legal action against the police. Hiring an attorney could be too expensive, he said. He isn’t actively seeking donations from those who had shown support, either, he said.
“None of us have ever dealt with a situation of this magnitude,” Sweat said. “We respect law enforcement, but we have a lot of questions that we want answered.”
Sweat declined further comment, saying that the family is evaluating how they can get as much information as possible about the shooting.
Baylous said staff at the Kanawha-Charleston Humane Association have offered a voucher to Ginger and Jeremy Sweat to adopt another dog.
Jeffers is still at large and considered armed and dangerous, Baylous said.
Staff writer Jack Suntrup contributed to this report.
Reach Rusty Marks at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1215.