ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Arriving in a procession of almost 20 vehicles, about two dozen law enforcement personnel and 35 civilians bid farewell Friday to Otto, the Hillsboro Police Department’s K-9 drug dog that died of natural causes May 3.
Law enforcement officers from at least seven communities and McConnell Air Force Base-including five of the K-9 variety-gathered on the east side of the Scout House in Memorial Park at 11 a.m. for a solemn tribute to the popular canine.
Hillsboro Police Chief Dan Kinning said he wasn’t surprised by the strong turnout. In fact, it could easily have been much larger.
“We had gotten a lot of condolences,” Kinning said. “A lot of departments sent us teletypes saying they wanted to be there, but it was May Day and All School’s Day in McPherson. Plus it was the kick off for the River Festival in Wichita, so the highway patrol and a lot of departments were tied up.”
The service included brief comments from Officer Jessey Hiebert, Otto’s handler, plus written messages of condolences from Attorney General Carla Stovall and U.S. Rep. Jerry Moran, and a brief meditation from John Ryding, HPD chaplain and pastor of the Zion Lutheran Church in Hillsboro.
Ryding noted the unusual nature of the gathering-a first for him in 24 years of ministry. He said Otto was “faithful and dependable, and will be missed by all.”
Two memorial plaques were presented to the department, one from Kansas Specialized Dogs, the organization that trained Otto for duty, and one from the Peace Officers Association.
The service ended with a “final call” for Otto radioed via the PA system in HPD’s K-9 unit vehicle. It noted the dog’s three years of service and called for Otto to “rest in peace.”
Ryding followed the final call with “Taps.”
As they dispersed, more than a few of the law enforcement officers wiped tears from their eyes. Several comrades and guests shared words of condolence to Hiebert afterward, some with a handshake, others with an embrace.
Kinning said his department had originally planned on marking Otto’s passing with “a little prayer” and by presenting a memorial plaque to Hiebert.
“It kind of took on a life of its own,” he said.
The event received media attention far beyond Hillsboro. KAKE-TV 10 was on hand to cover the memorial program. Earlier in the week, the Wichita Eagle had carried an article about the emotion surrounding Otto’s death.
Kinning said he also had been interviewed by a reporter from the Kansas City Star. Reportedly, the story had gone out over national news.
“I wasn’t expecting that much media attention,” he said. “I know the Eagle had been looking for a small-town story and this sort of fit the bill for them.”
Kinning is aware that not everyone in the community understood or appreciated the groundswell of attention Otto’s death generated.
“It was more than just a dog,” Kinning said. “It was a police officer, by law. Also, it was a member of the community. Everybody knew the dog, especially the children. I think if school hadn’t been in session, we probably would have had a good turnout of children.”
He said the gathering was never intended to be a “funeral.”
“It was a memorial for the officers and whoever in the community wanted to say good-bye,” he said.
A fund has been established at Emprise Bank in Hillsboro to receive contributions for acquiring a new K-9 officer for the department.
Kinning said Otto’s trainer has already offered to donate a replacement dog. Such dogs normally cost between $5,000 and $10,000.
If this particular dog is selected, Kinning said about $3,500 still will be needed to train it for duty. About $1,400 had been donated by Monday afternoon.
If the money can be raised, Kinning thinks the local K-9 unit could be back in service in as little as three months.
Otto’s remains have been cremated and the ashes likely will be placed in Hiebert’s custody, Kinning said.