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Member of Police K-9 Corps : Rookie Is Fatally Stabbed After Sniffing Out Suspect

September 10, 1987|MARILYN GARATEIX | Times Staff Writer

He was the rookie on the team, and in one month he already had four felony arrests to his credit.

"He did everything he was told," an officer who worked with him said.

And Wednesday morning, the career--and the life--of "Officer Richter" of the Los Angeles Police Department's K-9 Corps ended when a burglary suspect stabbed him twice in the chest.

He died of cardiac arrest six hours later on an operating table at a nearby veterinary hospital. Even a blood transfusion from a fellow police dog could not save him.

"He was a great dog," said Officer Danny Bunch, himself the junior member of the K-9 force and the handler for the 3-year-old black-and-rust-colored German shepherd. "He was my own personal family pet and he was with me 24 hours a day."

Bunch's three sons, ages 6, 3 and 1, were "really close" to Richter and to Bear, their golden Labrador retriever.

"He was great around my kids and great around everybody and everyone," he said. "The 6-year-old is going to take it the hardest; he'd seen him working and playing."

At home, Richter's favorite game was searching for a ball tossed into the bushes.

"He loved it," Bunch said.

But it was not a game Wednesday morning.

Richter--so new to the force of 12 dogs that his official police photos were not scheduled to be taken for another week--had ferreted out a suspected burglar hiding beneath a 15-foot-high jumble of furniture, boxes, and clothes on the third floor of a five-story warehouse-storage building in South-Central Los Angeles.

Police had answered the owner's burglary-in-progress call, and a floor-by-floor search ended when Richter located a suspect, later identified as Mitchell Johnson, 59, hiding under the pile.

When the intruder did not answer commands to come out, Richter went to work, tunneling under the heap.

"He ended up working his way in under the pile," Bunch said, his voice wobbling with emotion, "and went out of my sight."

First, he heard a bark, Bunch said--the signal that Richter had found his man.

"I heard two barks, then I heard a yelp, where obviously the guy had stabbed him the first time . . . I thought he had been hit or something."

Then, Bunch said, "the fight was on." And then came another yelp, another stab from what police say was a four- to five-inch blade.

"I realized something was terribly wrong," the officer said, so he called for his "partner" and Richter returned with blood "squirting" out of a severed artery.

"I grabbed my dog and got the hell out of there," Bunch said, and raced to the veterinary hospital.

As he did, other officers at the warehouse arrested Johnson after a brief struggle in which one of them knocked him cold with a police baton. He was booked for investigation of burglary and felony assault against an on-duty police dog. Bail was set at $2,500.

"He had actually improved and stabilized," Bunch said of Richter. "He was trying to get up and wag his tail and stuff . . . he was responsive to my voice."

But at 7:30 a.m., not long after Bunch left (his presence was exciting the wounded dog, the veterinarian said), Richter died.

He was the second Los Angeles police dog to die on duty, and the first to be killed by a suspect. Popeye, the first, died three years ago in a fall from a roof during a chase.

"If it hadn't been for Richter," Bunch said, "we never would have found this guy, even with 20 officers stomping through there. If it hadn't been for the dog . . . it would have been an officer climbing up there.

"Very possibly Richter saved an officer's life," he added. "That's the only redeeming fact in all this."

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