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ABC 6 News Investigates: County K9 bites homeless man

Alice Keefe
Updated: February 09, 2020 11:28 PM
Created: February 09, 2020 10:07 PM

(ABC 6 News) -- In October of 2019, the Olmsted County Board of Commissioners paid out a $650,000 settlement to a homeless man who was seriously injured after he was attacked by an Olmsted County Sheriff's K9 two years earlier. 

For months, ABC 6 News has been investigating what happened to that man, why that K9 is still on the streets and why the incident was kept under wraps. 

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On June 11, 2017 a homeless man, Michael Stiff, was sleeping under a tree in southeast Rochester when an Olmsted County K9 ripped off at least a third of his scalp.

"It was bad I mean, they got him off, they got him off within 15 seconds of him being on, but it doesn't take long for a dog to do some damage," said Olmsted County Commissioner Jim Bier, who sits on the board that approved the six-figure settlement.
Body-cam video from the sheriff's office and the Rochester Police Department shows what happened that morning.

"I got a lot of blood, don't I," Stiff asked officers on-scene.

"We've got a fair amount. We're okay, we're just fine," an officer told him.

"Why did the dog do that to me? I was just sleeping," Stiff replied.

Law enforcement was out that night looking for a woman with an active warrant for her arrest on non-violent drug charges. She had no relation to Stiff. But, early that morning, an officer saw her walk into a Walmart near the wooded area where Stiff was sleeping.

After they couldn't find her inside the store, the search moved outside, with a request for a police K9.

Rochester Police put in the request for the dog, they have eight, but the Olmsted County Sheriff's Office responded instead. K9 Cobra and his handler, Deputy Adam Waletzki, started their search outside the store. 

Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson said he did not know how long Cobra has been with his office, but a Minnesota Data Practices Act request revealed the dog has been there since at least May of 2015, when Dep. Waletzki and Cobra completed basic handler's school with the St. Paul Police Department. Sheriff Torgerson's held the position since 2014 and was re-elected in 2018.

Despite agreeing to do a sit-down interview about what happened to Mr. Stiff in June of 2017, when ABC 6 News arrived, he said he could not say anything about that night. "I can't tell you anything, yeah it's – we're not able to talk about it," Torgerson said. He could not explain why what happened to Stiff was never talked about publicly. 

Body-cam shows Dep. Waletzki and K9 Cobra searching in the woods with other officers. 

An officer can be heard, faintly, pointing out a bag, and seconds later, Dep. Waletzki starts yelling as Cobra barks, finds and latches onto Stiff.

Some of the body-cam video was blurred and some audio was redacted, for portions the Olmsted County Attorney's Office thought to be "offensive to common sensibilities."

"He got some bad injuries. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time," Bier said.

In October of 2019, the county board voted unanimously to settle a claim with Stiff for $650,000. Not the largest settlement the county has paid out in the 18 years Bier's been on the board, but one of them. And the people footing the bill? Olmsted County taxpayers.

"We're self-insured so that comes out of our budget so you know just looking at it probably one percent of a levy increase would be about, I don't know 800, 900 thousand dollars, so this would you know the $650,000 comes out of Olmsted County taxpayers' pockets," Bier said.

Stiff is not the only unintended person K9 Cobra's bit.

In November of 2019, after Cobra tracked down a shooting suspect, while the person was being arrested, he bit an RPD officer.

"I don't think he needed stitches. I mean, he's going to be fine. Got bit in the leg I believe," Rochester Police Captain Casey Moilanen said about the officer's condition at a press briefing on the incident in November. 

When asked if it was rare for someone who was not the intended target of a search to get caught up with a K9, Sheriff Torgerson said it does not happen very often, but when pressed about how many times accidental bites involving county dogs have happened since he's been sheriff, he said, "I wouldn't be able to say."

The Olmsted County Sheriff's Office does not have any documentation of discipline taken against K9 Cobra or his handler, Dep. Waletzki, dating back to 2015.

Sheriff Torgereson said his department has not changed anything in relation to how they respond to calls, or how K9s are trained, since the incident with Stiff. Not only is Cobra still out in the field, he is out with the public.

A post from the sheriff's office Facebook page in December of 2019 shows Cobra and his handler visiting with kids at Christ Lutheran Church in Byron.

With Cobra still on the streets and $650,000 in Stiff's pocket, the only changes the county's made since that incident are to its taxpayers' wallets.

A data request found that since 2015, the Olmsted County Sheriff's Office does not have documentation of any accidental or unintentional bites where a county K9 bit a person who was not the intended target.


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