Vigil Set For Mercer County K-9

By Eric Dutkiewicz
By Maureen Mespell
By Rachel Martin

August 5, 2012 Updated Aug 6, 2012 at 11:21 PM EDT

CELINA, Ohio (Indiana's NewsCenter) - A candlelight vigil was held to remember a K-9 that died Wednesday after being left in a Mercer County Sheriff's Department squad car.

The community of Mercer County, Ohio held a vigil, Monday evening in memory of a Zak. Dozens of people and their dogs gathered to remember a dog, who they consider an officer for the Mercer County Sheriff's Department.

Zak joined the sheriff's department in the Fall of 2010 as part of a K-9 unit. He was able to join the force through donations from the Celina Moose Lodge and Fraternal Order of Eagles. He was just a year old.

Zak was trained and certified in handler protection, and assisted deputies in sniffing out drugs and tracking down suspects.

“Sometimes Zak would get into situations that human officers couldn’t get into,” said Maria Suhr, organizer. “Not only was he a servant in our community, but he was our friend. We would often see him out and about at festivals and what not and we just wanted to get together and memorialize him.”

In his honor, versions of "A Dog's Prayer" were read, and Zak's cousin, Nick—a retired K-9— attended the ceremony.

Deputies from the Mercer County Sheriffs Department did not attend. Sheriff Jeff Grey released a statement saying they did not want to be a distraction to the vigil due to the controversy surrounding Zak's death and Sheriff’s Department. The department will hold their own private ceremony later.

Despite the issues, Suhr says the vigil was not to cast a shadow over how Zak died, but they wanted to help a community heal.

“It's a very emotional situation for our community,” said Tammy Hileman, organizer.

“We're really hoping that this could bring some healing to our community, and to just memorialize Zak for who he was and start to bring the community together,” added Suhr.

Instead of donating money or constructing a memorial, Suhr and Hileman encourage people to donate pet supplies to The Call Food Pantry. An area of the facility, called “Zak’s Corner”, will be dedicated to helping needy animals in Mercer County.

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The Mercer County Sheriff's Department held a press conference Monday morning regarding the K-9 officer that died last Wednesday.

Deputy Chad Fortkamp, the officer responsible for the K-9’s accidental death, opened the press conference with this statement, “I just want to say that I take full responsibility for my actions that caused the death of Zak. I would give anything to be able to bring Zak back, to be back with me. I’m sorry for what my actions have done to not only the Sheriff’s office and to this community, but most importantly Zak. I’ll always love him.”

Sheriff Jeff Grey of Mercer County followed and expressed two things: fairness and respect for deputies and Fortkamp’s punishment.

Sheriff Grey says since the incident on Wednesday, Deputy Fortkamp, his family, and the Mercer County Sheriff's Department have been receiving threatening phone calls and e-mails from people across the country. He says people are criticizing Fortkamp for his actions as an officer, and they think he should be charged with animal cruelty.

The K-9, named Zak, died after Fortkamp left him in the squad car for hours. Sheriff Grey says Fortkamp left Zak in the squad car for several hours while he worked on a project. When Fortkamp returned to the car, he found Zak unresponsive and immediately performed CPR. Zak was then taken to the vet, where he was pronounced dead. Sheriff Grey says Fortkamp does not remember turning off the car. The coroner’s report stated Zak died of heat stroke and had an internal temperature of 108 degrees. It was 81 degrees outside that Wednesday.

Sheriff Grey says despite what happened, he doesn't appreciate the threats, and believes Fortkamp made an honest mistake. Sheriff Grey made this statement at Monday’s press conference, "Just because we wear a black shirt and we're police officers, doesn't mean we're not human. Sometimes we fall short and we make mistakes, not intentionally, but because we're human, and when that occurs we own those mistakes,” he said.

Fortkamp has been suspended for 45 working days without pay, which adds up to $6,500. Someone who is charged with animal cruelty, a 2nd degree misdemeanor, must pay a maximum fine of $750 and serve 90 days in jail. Sheriff Grey says he considers Fortkamp's punishment fair and perhaps financially worse than someone with those charges. No charges have been filed against Fortkamp. Sheriff Grey says that is in the hands of the Mercer County Prosecutor.




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