Dog in fatal Grover Beach attack was a trained police K-9, chief says

Alex Geiger performs K9 training exercises in a bite-proof suit with a dog in Hanford in 2013.
Alex Geiger performs K9 training exercises in a bite-proof suit with a dog in Hanford in 2013.

A Belgian Malinois that mauled a Grover Beach man to death as the man tried to rescue his severely injured neighbor was trained as a police dog before its owner, a police officer, transferred to the Grover Beach Police Department, the officer’s former chief confirmed Tuesday.

Three weeks after the Dec. 13 attack, many questions remain, including the extent of the dog’s training, why Grover Beach police Officer Alex Geiger owned it, and whether it had any previous history of violence.

San Luis Obispo County Animal Services has completed its investigation into the deadly incident and forwarded its findings to the District Attorney’s Office. As of Tuesday evening, no charges had been filed in relation to the case.

The attack occurred on the 1100 block of Nacimiento Avenue in Grover Beach, where responding officers found David Fear, 64, and Betty Long, 85, both seriously injured. Fear later died of his injuries and Long remains in an area rehabilitation facility recovering from a broken pelvis and shoulder.

Two dogs were confiscated: a 2-year-old Belgian Malinois and a German shepherd. The Belgian Malinois was reported to be the primary aggressor, Animal Services Director Eric Anderson has said. The dog — named “Neo,” according to Anderson — was euthanized with Geiger’s consent.

The dogs were Geiger’s pets and not city-owned animals, as Grover Beach does not have a police K-9 program. Geiger was placed on paid administrative leave following the incident and has since released a statement expressing his “sympathies and prayers” to families of Long and Fear.

Geiger, 25, rented a house on Owens Court a block from the scene of the attack. He had recently moved to Grover Beach to join the Police Department in September. Before that, he served as an Explorer with the Visalia Police Department in 2009, served as a provisional deputy in the Kings County Sheriff’s Office from July 2012 to July 2013, and joined the Exeter Police Department as a provisional officer in August 2014.

Kings County Sheriff David Robinson said last week that Geiger, as a provisional deputy, was not an official member of the department’s K-9 Unit, but he would “help out” on training exercises by donning a bite-proof suit for drills. Robinson said Neo had no relationship with his department.

Geiger became a full-time police officer with the Exeter Police Department in July 2015 and was a member of its K-9 Unit at the time of his departure in August 2016, according to the city of Exeter.

Exeter police Chief Cliff Bush confirmed Tuesday that Geiger acted as a handler for Neo during at least some of his time in Exeter, a city of about 10,000 in western Tulare County.

Bush said Neo came to the department with “basic training” and entered a Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) certified K-9 program with Geiger as his handler. Geiger purchased the dog from the city of Exeter before he moved to Grover Beach, he said.

Whether the dog completed the POST training, served as a K-9 officer or failed the program is unclear.

Bush declined to immediately provide more information without first consulting with his city’s attorney and a K-9 Unit supervisor. The Tribune has filed a public records request with the city for information.

Bush called the attack “a tragic set of circumstances.”

Family members of Fear and Long could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.

Jacqueline Frederick, a Nipomo-based attorney representing Long, said the family is still deciding whether to file a lawsuit.

“We’re looking at all potential people, agencies and establishments that may have liability with relation to a trained attack dog living in the general public,” Frederick said.

Ron Cloward, a retired lieutenant with the Modesto Police Department, currently serves as board member for the nonprofit Western States Police Canine Association.

The organization supports local police departments’ efforts to form and maintain police K-9 programs, including providing POST certification, connecting departments with certified breeders, and providing a forum for handlers and trainers in California, Nevada and Idaho, Cloward said.

Cloward said last week that he did not know any specifics of the Grover Beach incident, and didn’t know anything about the dog.

Many police dogs — Belgian Malinois especially — are purchased by police departments from specialized breeders, most commonly from European nations, he said.

He explained that police departments looking to start a K-9 program or expand an existing program will contact his organization to be connected with breeders and training programs for both the animal and the handler. The association provides a warranty for its training programs, Cloward said, and if the dog does not pass, it can be returned to the organization, and either sold to a private owner or returned to the breeder.

In cases where a dog fails training and is purchased from its sponsor city by a private individual, it is standard practice for those police departments to have the new owner sign documents to assume all responsibility, Cloward said.

“If an agency is smart, they’ll do that,” he said.

Cloward said he had only ever heard of one other similar attack by a former police dog. However, he said California could improve safety by better clarifying what training is required of handlers. Though POST requires specific training for the dogs, handler guidelines are left up to individual agencies to determine, he said.

The state of Washington, by comparison, requires handlers to complete a 12-week handler course, he said.

“There are a lot of faults in the system in California,” he said. “We’ve pushed (POST) to improve handler guidelines and haven’t been successful, unfortunately.”

According to several sources who spoke to The Tribune for this article, one of the largest and most popular police K-9 training facilities for Central California police departments is Adlerhorst International Inc., a company that provides a wide variety of certifications for dogs and human handlers.

An administrative assistant at Adlerhorst received emailed questions from The Tribune on Dec. 28, but the company had not provided responses as of Tuesday and the employee did not return another request for comment.

Tribune archives reveal just one other serious dog mauling in San Luis Obispo County since 2005.

In August of that year, two Grover Beach residents were charged with owning a mischievous animal causing serious injury after their black Labrador bit and shook a 3-year-old girl as she played in the front yard of her home. The girl survived the attack.

The crime can be prosecuted as a felony or as a misdemeanor, and though it is not clear which was charged, in that case, prosecutors waited 10 days before filing charges against the owners. Court records for their cases were not immediately available Tuesday.

In February 2015, the son of a Rialto Police Department officer had his leg amputated after being attacked by his father’s police dog, a 7-year-old Belgian Malinois, according to a Los Angeles Times report.

In July 2015, a 7-year-old Orlando, Florida, girl was severely injured when her police officer neighbor’s Belgian Malinois jumped its enclosure and mauled her, according to The Orlando Sentinel. Her family’s attorney, Bill Sublette, said that officer was not criminally charged in the case, but the family is currently suing the city and the dog training facility it used.

Sublette said his client’s case is one of the few he’s seen in which an off-duty police dog attacked a person, but he said he is familiar with other cases in which trained dogs did not respond to commands while in the line of duty, resulting in serious injury.

“I feel like in a lot of situations, it’s like a trophy for a local police department to have a K-9, and I’m not sure they’re always necessary,” Sublette said in a phone interview from Florida last week.

As for his young client, Sublette said she will carry physical and mental scars from the attack for the rest of her life.

“I personally feel like these dogs are ticking time bombs,” he said.