A Ferry-Fillmore District police officer has been suspended without pay, and the chief of the district demoted, in an investigation over allegations that the officer stole a Cane Corso mastiff puppy from a Herman Street residence earlier this month, authorities said Wednesday.
Officer Kristen W. Russo allegedly went to the dog owner’s home at 6 p.m. Dec. 3 and demanded the puppy from its owner, Tommy Degree, who initially refused but said that he felt intimidated when other officers arrived and he reluctantly told Russo to take his 4-month-old pet, named Boo Boo Baby.
He told The Buffalo News that the next day he went to the Ferry-Fillmore Police Station to file a complaint that the dog had been taken against his will and that Chief Michelle R. Kubala told him the dog had run away.
Police officials say the investigation is ongoing, but they discounted Kubala’s arguments that Russo was trying to rescue the dog from being groomed for dog fighting with suspected injections of steroids. Russo, the officials said, made a serious error when she turned the dog over to a family in the suburbs.
“The bottom line is you do not take someone’s property and give it away,” a police official said. “We found no signs of foul play with the dog. Procedures call for taking the dog to the SPCA or the city’s Animal Shelter.”
Russo may face felony grand larceny charges as the Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division and the Erie County District Attorney’s Office review the case, authorities said.
The puppy was retrieved from the Southtowns family last week by police and returned to Degree on Friday.
“The officer asked to see the dog’s papers,” Degree said, recounting his encounter with Russo. “I told her I had some of the papers, but the rest were at my other house. She picked the dog up and started kissing it and then said, ‘This is my dog and I’m taking it.’ I said, ‘No, you’re not. It’s my dog.’ She said, ‘You haven’t got any paperwork.’ ”
When other officers arrived at his second-floor apartment on the 300 block of Herman, he said, he felt intimidated and told Russo to take the puppy.
“I’ve been in trouble with the law before, and I didn’t want any problems, but the next day I went to the police station and filed a complaint, and the chief told me my dog jumped out of a car and ran away. That’s bull. It’s a little puppy. I went to the SPCA to look for it, but it wasn’t there,” Degree said.
Kubala, who has returned to her civil service rank of lieutenant, offered a different account of events.
“Officer Russo was driving down Herman and heard the dog yelping and crying. The dog was chained to the upstairs porch. She asked to see the dog. She asked for paperwork, its record of shots. He told her he didn’t take the puppy to the veterinarian. He said he gave the dog shots and pointed to empty vials. He said the paperwork was at his girlfriend’s house with his other dogs,” Kubala said.
The Stewart Avenue address where Degree said the paperwork was located, Kubala said, is the site of a suspected dog-fighting ring.
Kubala added that efforts to reach the SPCA and city dog control officers were made that evening.
“We tried to get city dog control officers, and Officer Russo was told they were not working. I contacted the SPCA emergency line and told them we had a dog that we suspected was being injected with steroids, and we were concerned about the welfare of the dog,” Kubala said, adding that she asked the hotline worker to call Russo, but a return call was not made until the following day.
Placing the dog with the Southtowns family, Kubala said, was seen as a temporary solution.
Kubala also said that she told Degree the dog ran away because she did not know where it was when he came to the station Dec. 4.
“He told me he bought the dog for $800 and who was going to pay him back. He stated he was going to contact his attorney, and I told him after he spoke with his lawyer to call me or have the lawyer call me. I gave him my card and said, ‘We will try and rectify the situation.’”
Kubala said no blood tests had been performed on the puppy to determine if it was given steroids and that the vials seen in Degree’s apartment had not been taken into custody as evidence. Kubala added that officers were on extra alert because a block away, on the 200 section of Herman Street, a Jack Russell terrier puppy had been doused with lighter fluid and set on fire Oct. 29. That puppy, which was later named Phoenix, continues to recover.
Kubala criticized the department for taking away her rank as chief.
“I feel this is a poor excuse for a demotion, and I feel Officer Russo is being unjustly punished,” Kubala said, but added, “I take full responsibility for the events that have happened.”
Degree, an electrician, said he is grateful to police officials who oversaw the return of his puppy and now he would like to let things settle down.
“I love my dog,” he said.