A former police dog that attacked two people in Grover Beach in December, killing one, had bitten a trainer on the hand during a bite suit exercise six months before his officer owner moved to Grover Beach and took the dog with him as a personal pet, records show.
The dog — a 2 1/2 -year-old Belgian Malinois named Neo — was not taken out of service at the Exeter Police Department after the training incident. When the dog’s handler, Officer Alex Geiger, resigned and bought the the fully certified police K-9 from the city of Exeter for $5,287 in late August, Geiger signed a waiver relieving Exeter of any future liability, records provided to The Tribune show.
Exeter Deputy City Attorney Matt Pearce said in an email Friday that in signing the waiver, Geiger assumed all liability for the dog. Pearce and Exeter police Chief Cliff Bush would not answer follow-up questions about the severity of the bite during training in March 2016, whether it was the dog’s fault or whether the trainer should have had his hand covered.
The dog continued to work on patrol for another six months.
Geiger joined the Grover Beach Police Department in October. He was placed on paid administrative two weeks after Neo attacked Betty Long, 85, on the 1100 block of Nacimiento Avenue in Grover Beach on Dec. 13. Neighbor David Fear, 64, jumped in to help and later died of injuries he suffered fighting off the dog. Geiger’s other dog, a German shepherd, was present at the attack but investigators determined it was not an aggressor.
Long remains in an area rehabilitation facility recovering from a shoulder surgery, her attorney said Monday. Neo was euthanized the day of the attack.
Grover Beach police Chief John Peters said Monday that Geiger remains on leave, and neighbors told The Tribune that he moved out of the house he rented on Owens Court, around the corner from where the attack occurred, on Jan. 15.
San Luis Obispo County Assistant District Attorney Lee Cunningham said Monday that his office is continuing its own investigation into the incident after County Animal Services submitted its findings in late December.
Prior to working for the Grover Beach Police Department, Geiger served as a provisional, then K-9, officer in Exeter from 2014 to August 2016. While at Exeter, Geiger was Neo’s handler, both training and patrolling with him.
City of Grover Beach records show that one month before the attack, Geiger and a senior officer presented a proposal to Chief Peters to create a K-9 unit with a startup cost of about $30,000. Peters said the city never acted on that proposal, and the department “had no interest” in Neo.
In response to a public records request from The Tribune, the city of Exeter provided about 90 pages of documents related to Neo’s service in that department. The documents, mostly records of training sessions, show that Neo lived with Geiger at his home for at least one year before they moved to Grover Beach.
According to a memo from Geiger to the department’s K-9 unit supervisor in March, officers were conducting weekly K-9 bite training at a neighboring police department when Neo was instructed to “engage” an officer named Hayes who was wearing a bite suit.
“Neo engaged like he was supposed to, however he accidentally grabbed ahold of the part of the suit near the right hand and partially Hayes’ right hand,” Geiger’s report reads. Neo was instructed to release the bite — he presumably did — and was placed in the back of a patrol vehicle.
The bite was minor, causing only about a half-inch cut to the officer’s palm that drew blood, the memo says.
Ron Cloward, a retired Modesto Police Department lieutenant who trains police K-9s and serves as a board member for the nonprofit Western States Police Canine Association, said Monday that he’s not involved in the case, but that Neo’s behavior may not have been unusual.
“If their (the trainer’s) hand is dangling out of the suit, they will get them,” Cloward said. “I wouldn’t take a dog out of service because it bit a decoy in the hand.”
Beyond the bite incident, the only other problem Neo had in training was trouble obeying the command to “stay” in two sessions in January 2016, according to records.
In an Aug. 28 purchase agreement between Geiger and Exeter, Geiger wrote that he and Neo had developed a “huge mutual bond” and proposed to buy Neo for $5,287.50. Geiger wrote that he agreed to “hold harmless, defend and indemnify” the city of Exeter and the police union from all liability “arising out of my ownership and control of Neo.”
The dog received training at the Top Dog Training Center in Visalia and received certificates in the center’s narcotics detection and basic patrol courses in November and December 2015, respectively.
The facility does not have a website, but public records online show the company was used by the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office and several Tulare County municipal departments, providing both dogs and training.
California Secretary of State records show the limited liability company was founded in 2004 and has since been dissolved. According to a 2007 article in the Porterville Recorder, the company at that time was a “home-based” training program. Attempts to reach the listed former owner of the center were not successful Monday.