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Thursday, 01/09/03    |    Middle Tennessee News & Information

Killing of family dog unfolds on videotape

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Staff Writer

Review finds officers acted properly in stopping car

Three minutes and seven seconds tells the story of a dog named Patton.

The dog, which was shot at close range Jan. 1 by a Cookeville policeman during a felony traffic stop, belonged to the James Smoak family of Saluda, N.C. At the time, the Tennessee Highway Patrol suspected the Smoaks James, his wife, Pamela, and his stepson, Brandon Hayden were involved in a Nashville-area robbery.

Yesterday, the Tennessee Highway Patrol acknowledged there was no robbery, just a calamitous mix-up in communications between dispatchers working for two separate patrol offices. This failure to communicate led to the shooting of the Smoaks' dog, an incident that was preserved on videotape by a dashboard camera in a patrol car.

Even so, the THP officers did not act inappropriately by making the felony stop, according to an internal investigation.

''Our investigation has found that our troopers on the scene that night Trooper David Bush, Trooper Jerry Phann and Lt. Jerry Andrews did have probable cause to conduct what in police terms is called a 'felony stop' of a motorist,'' said Beth Tucker Womack, spokeswoman for the Department of Safety. The THP is part of the Safety Department.

A felony stop is ordered when the occupants of a car are thought to have been involved in a crime.

Likewise, the Cookeville Police Department's internal investigation determined that its officers, who were providing backup for the troopers, ''performed their duties according to training and policy,'' said department spokesman Capt. Nathan Honeycutt.

As for the shooting of the family pet, Officer Eric Hall said the dog was coming at him aggressively when he fired.

The animal ''singled me out from the other officers and charged toward me growling in an aggressive manner,'' Hall wrote in his incident report, which was included in documents released yesterday.

Officers called the dog a pit bull that made a tense scene even more tense. Last week, the Smoak family called the dog a mixed-breed bulldog that was as gentle as ''Scooby Doo.''

Yesterday, the videotape of the stop was released for the public to decide.

The action begins as the Smoaks' car is pulled over in Putnam County. A green sign pointing to the Algood exit is seen in the frame just ahead of the family's stopped station wagon. Tractor-trailers and cars whiz by in the flash of the cruiser's blue lights.

Thirty-eight seconds into the stop, State Trooper David Bush calls the driver out of the car.

One minute and 30 seconds after their car was pulled over, Pamela Smoak and her son, 17-year-old Brandon, are ordered out of the car. They comply.

By 2 minutes, all three of the Smoaks are kneeling on the ground, being handcuffed as the Cookeville officers, in their role as backup protection, train their shotguns on the three.

At 2:18, James Smoak asks: ''What did I do?'' He is suspected in an area robbery, Bush replies.

Seconds later the North Carolina man tells officers that dogs are in the car. A beat later Smoak tells the troopers again that dogs are in the car.

Until 3:05 into the tape, the felony stop is textbook. The suspects are handcuffed and contained.

But then Patton appears.

The light-colored canine bounds from the passenger side door, travels outside the camera's right view for a second and then reappears, following Cookeville Officer Hall, who is backing up with his shotgun trained on the dog.

At 3:07, Hall fires. The dog falls and rolls over, dead. Each of the Smoaks cries out in anguish as their pet lies bleeding just a few feet from where they are handcuffed. ''Why'd you shoot my dog? Why'd you shoot my dog?'' James Smoak can be heard crying repeatedly.

How this unfortunate event came to pass is what the top brass of the Department of Safety and the Cookeville Police Department gathered to explain yesterday afternoon during a news conference.

According to Womack, the incident began when a woman traveling east on I-40 called the Nashville THP dispatcher at 4:52 p.m. She reported that she had been passed by a green station wagon traveling at a high rate of speed. The woman said an amount of money had been thrown out the window.

As all involved later found out, Smoak had left his wallet on top of his car when he bought gas on Old Hickory Boulevard in Hermitage. Apparently, the wallet stayed on the car until it passed the Mt. Juliet exit, at which point it fell, scattering more than $400 in small bills over the interstate median. Troopers recovered the cash and returned it to Smoak.

But, at the time the wallet fell off the car, the alert cell phone user was suspicious of the cash and the green car. She called the highway patrol.

Dispatcher Shannon Pickard of the Nashville office told investigators the woman believed the out-of-state car had ''been up to something.'' His statement was provided to reporters yesterday.

According to Womack, Pickard issued a bulletin at 5 p.m. to all Middle Tennessee law enforcement agencies to inquire whether any robberies had occurred involving a green station wagon with out-of-state tags. No replies fitting the description were received.

In Cookeville, THP dispatcher Timothy Glenn McHood issued a BOLO notice, which means ''be on the lookout,'' to the troopers in his area. In an interview with THP investigators, McHood said he noted that the green station wagon ''could possibly'' have been involved in a robbery.

At 5:07 p.m., the THP report noted, Trooper Bush spotted the Smoaks' car.

According to Womack, this incident has led to an examination of the department's radio room procedures, particularly as to documentation. Some of the messages between Nashville and Cookeville cannot be substantiated because the operators communicated using a phone that is not recorded.

Meanwhile, the Cookeville Police Department has instigated a third-party examination of the situation. A police chief in Gaithersburg, Md., will conduct an independent investigation. Officer Hall has been reassigned to an administrative position pending the outcome of that investigation.

The Smoaks, contacted at their home, offered no comment on the tape or on THP's ruling, but said they were in the process of hiring a lawyer to represent them in possible litigation. 


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