For nearly two years, pet owners from the low-lying Louisiana parish of St. Bernard have accused sheriff's deputies of having wantonly killed dozens of dogs they forced evacuees to leave behind during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, without regard to the dogs' size or the potential threat they might pose.
One owner said her family was forced at gunpoint to leave its dog behind. Another owner said residents became frantic when, they said, they overheard one deputy claim that "once everybody's gone, we're going to have target practice tonight." They claim in court papers that deputies were under " authorization...of their superiors and employers.
Two deputies have already been indicted by a grand jury in New Orleans on charges of felony, aggravated cruelty to animals. The Louisiana attorney general's office is investigating and this morning lawyers for a group of owners will file a comprehensive complaint in federal court in Louisiana seeking class action status for their clients.
For the first time, the St. Bernard Parish sheriff's office has acknowledged to ABC News' Law & Justice Unit that an internal investigation has been launched.
In an interview last week, Sal Gutierrez, who represents the sheriff's office, defended the department's handling of a clearly difficult evacuation. Gutierrez said the shells left behind in the schools did not necessarily come from the weapons issued to department deputies. He denied allegations that orders to kill the dogs came from superior officers, calling that claim "false." He said that if the investigation turned up any wrongdoing by deputies, the St. Bernard sheriff would take appropriate disciplinary action. If something false has been alleged in the lawsuit, he said he would consider countercharges of defamation of character. He said that he and the sheriff were animal lovers.
In December, the sheriff's office released a statement declaring that any actions taken had been done with "the utmost care, caution and belief of its necessity," according to the newspaper New Orleans City Business.
But Gutierrez told ABC News that until the internal investigation was complete, he could not adequately answer all the charges. "I can't tell you we don't have a renegade or two," Gutierrez told ABC News.
"If you're talking about a rabid dog roaming the streets trying to attack, that's understandable to try and find and euthanize a dog," said plaintiff attorney Randall Smith. But, he said later, "some of them were poodles, miniature dogs, tied up, most outrageous[ly] in schools, no way a threat to anybody."
One of the key pieces of evidence in the civil case is expected to be video footage shot by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer David Leeson Jr., who said he witnessed dogs being shot while filming in the area after Katrina for the Dallas Morning News.
"They shot the dog I was trying to help right in front of me," he told reporters at the time.
On his video, posted HERE on the newspaper's Web site, gunshots can clearly be heard.
Mike Minton, a former sergeant from the St. Bernard Parish sheriff's office, acknowledges shooting dogs but says it was done for humane reasons. Gutierrez told ABC News that Minton was "let go" from the department and was "no longer an employee." Minton, one of the two deputies indicted in December on animal cruelty charges, did not return a call from ABC for comment.
"It was a massacre. It was a shooting gallery," said Mark Steinway, co-founder of the animal rescue group Posada Safe Haven. Steinway was among those who discovered the animals' bodies at three school evacuation centers, gathered evidence and urged the Louisiana State Attorney General's Office to launch an investigation.
"We documented as best we could as a crime scene," he said. "It was obvious [the dogs] had been chased around. There were so many rounds of ammunition and so many holes in the walls and so many random shots to body cavities and legs, areas where you know the animals were trying to get away from these guys."
Steinway described one harrowing discovery he made in the one of the parish schools that he said exemplified the wantonness with which the animals were killed.
"Somebody carefully tied up these two dogs in one of the rooms and shot them, and didn't even shoot them at close range in the head to put them out of their misery,'' he said. "They backed up and started shooting, with a shotgun started firing. Pellets all over the floor, bullet holes in the wall. It was a slaughter."
'Please Do Not Shoot Her"
Some of the pet owners who spoke with ABC News said they had waited until the last minute to evacuate for good reason. One woman's daughter had just had a major surgery. Another had a medical condition that prevented him from driving and an elderly father too weak to drive. The waters rose rapidly and communication was difficult at best. Many residents were rescued from their rooftops, their animals clinging to them.
On Aug. 28, 2005, with floodwaters roaring through St. Bernard Parish, officials announced St. Bernard's High School as a shelter of last resort, according to court papers obtained by ABC News.
Three days later, on Aug. 31, officials evacuated the high school shelters and took residents to the Algiers Point ferry landing. As residents were separated from their animals and moved out of the shelters, many desperately scrawled messages on the walls of the school rooms.
"There is 1(sic) very nice dog in there. Please do not shoot her. Her name is Angel," read one message. Another, with a name and phone number, read, "Call me please. I want my pets back."
"In this room are six adult dogs and four puppies. Please save them! Kit."
'Everybody, We're Under Water'
Plaintiff John Bozes said his black Labrador, Angel Girl, had saved his family's life. Floodwaters had reached the top of the door of his parish home, he told ABC News.
"I walked to the door right there, I go to put my hand on the knob to open it, she got between me and that door and nudged me back. When I looked back I saw water coming through the top of the door and I said, 'Oh boy, we're in trouble.'"
"Everybody, we're under water!" he hollered to his family, who climbed through the attic to reach the home's roof. They were evacuated to St. Bernard's High School, where he said they were told to evacuate without the pets.
"It was a mandatory evacuation -- we either go to jail or get shot, or we leave our pets behind."
Then, he said, he and other owners heard a deputy say, 'Man, once everybody's gone, we're going to have target practice tonight.'''
"There was so much commotion after that statement was made," he said. "We stood our ground and said, 'We're not leaving them.'"
"Next thing you know, we're either leaving … or you get shot."
Bozes' father, Paul, said he thought about Angel Girl all the time. "I hope I'm not wrong in saying this, but from the bottom of my heart -- if I see that boy or the man that shot her, they better have a lot of people around to keep me from hitting them."
"These are animals," John Bozes said, "but they have brains just like you and I. They have feelings like we have. … Tough animals, wonderful animals, lovable animals. And to have somebody shoot for no reason at all, I don't think no animal in that school would have hurt somebody, especially Angel. She was too lovable."
John Bozes and his sister were separated from their three dogs -- Angel Girl, a pit bull named Honey and a Husky mix named Bullet -- when they were evacuated. The dogs were taken to Beauregard Middle School and St. Bernard's Parish High School.
"Bullet, the Husky mix, was found dead in the corner of Beauregard Middle School," according to the complaint. "The cord from the Venetian blind on the nearest window had been tied to Bullet's collar. Angel Girl and Honey were found together, also in a corner. Angel Girl had been tethered to the Venetian blinds on a nearby window. Honey was not tied, but lay at Angel Girl's side."
Plaintiff Joyce Stubbs was told she could not bring her dogs, Max and Lucky, with her when she was evacuated from Beauregard High School, so "she poured bottles of water and soft drinks into a large ice chest for her dogs to drink," according to court documents. "She also put out a lot of food where the dogs could readily access it."
"Stubbs and her children spent a long moment saying goodbye to her dogs. A Sheriff's deputy approached them and pointed a shotgun at her son's face and threatened to shoot him if they did not leave the dogs. He also pointed the shotgun at their small dog Lucky," the complaints reads.
'I Live With This Every Day'
Judy Migliore and her husband spent three days going from rooftop to rooftop with their daughters and their poodle, Gidget, which she said means "small" in Hawaiian. Migliore said they called the dog Gigi. When it was time to go, Migliore said she pleaded with a deputy to let her take the poodle.
"I begged. … I was crying. I said, 'Please, she'll never, never touch the ground. She'll stay in my arms the whole time.' He said, 'Ma'am, we can do it either nicely or not nicely,' and he said, 'I'm prepared to handcuff you.'
"I turned and looked at my husband and I said, 'I can't! I cannot leave her,' and the deputy I knew came up at that time and he said, 'Miss Judy, give her to me and I'll see what I can do.' I gave her to him because I couldn't and he turned and give her to the deputy and that was the last time we seen him," she said, referring to the deputy.
"I kept thinking … she going to be terrified that I wasn't holding her, she was going to be terrified of bad weather and other dogs because of big dogs. Pit bulls, Great Danes, huge dogs. … I knew she was going to be terrified. … And I kept thinking, 'I'm leaving her.'"
"I live with this every day in my thoughts and in my heart because she was our baby, and there's not a day goes by that I don't think of her."
Two weeks later, Migliore said, her brother-in-law went back to the school where they Gigi, but he was turned away. One daughter went online to animal rescue sites and another daughter visited shelters. They knew the poodle would be easy to identify. Gigi was pure white, with freshly clipped nails painted red and a brown collar with a St. Francis of Assisi medal around her neck.
On Oct. 9, according to the complaint, a rescue worker informed the family that Gidget had been found shot in the head .
Presented with some of the allegations made in court documents and to ABC News, Gutierrez, the attorney for the sheriff's department, said that he would like to depose the plaintiffs under oath.