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Orange County | Dana Parsons

Lost Tail? Just Put It Behind You, Rusty

May 16, 2003|Dana Parsons

Police work is dangerous. Most of us don't have the guts for the job, no matter what they'd pay us. The thought of heading off to work in the morning -- not knowing what manner of bad dude you might encounter by the end of your shift -- is not for the faint of heart. Getting dressed down by your boss is pretty tame stuff compared to the risk of getting wounded or killed. It's no surprise that law enforcement is high on the list of stressful jobs.

So it was for Rusty this week. He checked in for work Monday, just five weeks into his career and rarin' to go. By day's end, 9 inches of his tail were missing, left on the asphalt of a Garden Grove parking lot.

Twenty-four hours later, the last 3 inches were gone as the result of surgery.

Rusty, in case you hadn't heard his story, is a dog. He works for the California Highway Patrol and was working a speed zone in Garden Grove with his partner, Jason Nicoletti.

Pretty routine duty but, for my money, important work. I deplore these irresponsible dopes who speed down city streets. Nothing satisfies me more than when the cops pull them over.

That's how Rusty's night was going, until it took one of those unpredictable turns that defines police work. Following up on a complaint, Nicoletti and Rusty flagged a suspicious person in a car. The suspect pulled into a convenience store lot and bolted.

As Nicoletti gave chase on foot, Rusty stayed in the car. The suspect, later determined to be a parolee, eventually circled back to his car. Nicoletti decided he needed Rusty's help, so he let him out of the squad car.

Displaying none of a rookie's uncertainty, Rusty, a 65-pound Belgian Malinois, made his move toward the suspect who, unfortunately, was already behind the wheel. In a blur, he put the car in reverse, dragging Nicoletti and running over Rusty's foot-long tail, severing three-fourths of it.

A bleeding Nicoletti took Rusty to an animal shelter. Later, at a pet hospital, a surgeon amputated the rest of his tail, saying it was necessary. Nicoletti suffered cuts and bruises, and returned to work the next day.

Not so for Rusty, who's getting at least a week off to recuperate.

A Garden Grove police spokesman said the physical prognosis is promising, with the surgeon expressing confidence that Rusty will "be back to service with no tail."

Less certain is how he'll handle the psychological stress. A CHP spokesman told a Times reporter that "we need to see how [Rusty] is going to deal with cars or if there are any psychological problems."

Completely understandable.

Whatever they're paying Rusty, it isn't enough. Sure, he probably wasn't forced into law enforcement, but it's fair to say he probably never envisioned a situation where he'd lose his tail, either.

Cops will tell you, theirs is a job you can't do if you're afraid. That's when you make mistakes. Only time will tell whether Rusty will ever be able to approach a car -- or a suspect -- again. Especially a suspect described as the parolee was -- tattooed on his arms with skeletons, demons, a skull and a clown.

That's an image that could haunt anyone's memory.

Here's hoping Rusty, after a week of extra biscuits and plenty of rest, is tougher than the rest of us. I was hoping to reach a CHP spokesman to get details of Rusty's recuperation but was unsuccessful.

Obviously, Rusty has some issues to deal with, but I hope he knows the rest of us appreciate what he did, not to mention what he's sacrificed. Just thinking about it gives me the willies.

Get well, Rusty.

And hurry back, big fella.

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821, at dana.parsons@latimes.com or at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626.

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