ATLANTA, Ga. (CBS46) – One week after the Rockdale County sheriff’s department announced a K9 deputy would not face criminal charges in the deaths of three of his personal dogs, a CBS46 investigation has uncovered why.
Last week, the department said an internal investigation into Deputy Eric Tolbert had been conducted regarding a “cruelty to animals’ incident.”
A search warrant “discovered unsanitary conditions and the improper disposal of his personal dogs, which was in violation of Georgia law,” the department said. A CBS46 investigation had already uncovered Tolbert threw the bodies of his three American bulldogs into a trash can.
Department investigators also sought a misdemeanor arrest warrant on Tolbert but the department said “judges refused to sign the warrant citing lack of probable cause and a conflict of interest, with the Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office investigating the incident, instead of utilizing the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.”
The Rockdale County District Attorney’s Office is declining to prosecute the case citing lack of evidence, the department said. A criminal investigation has been closed, and an internal administrative investigation found Tolbert in violation of two department policies. As a result, the deputy was suspended for 32 hours without pay and has lost his designation as a K9 handler.
Three dead dogs
Rockdale County Sheriff’s Investigator Colleen Jones was assigned this case after Deputy Tolbert made a Facebook post announcing the death of his three American bulldogs, making a remark that the heat was “no joke.”
Investigator Jones went to Deputy Tolbert’s Conyers house and rang his Ring doorbell. Here is their exchange:
Jones: “Hey. It’s Investigator Jones outside if you can come out and meet with me, please.”
Tolbert: “I’m not in town. What’s going on?”
Jones: “I’m out here to talk about your dogs. You have two, three dogs that passed away?”
Tolbert: “Yes I do.”
Jones: “Okay. Where are those dogs?”
Tolbert: “Um I didn’t have a way to bury them so I trashed them.”
Jones: “You did what with them?”
Tolbert: “Put them in the trash.”
Over the next few hours, investigators searched Deputy Tolbert’s property. They took custody of his county issued police dog, Aegis, who he left in a cage in his backyard.
They also looked inside his uninsulated shed where they found a small portable air conditioner and dirty crates lined with feces and mold.
“God Almighty, it stinks,” Jones said, as she walked around the property.
In a recorded interview at the sheriff’s office a few weeks later, Deputy Tolbert admitted after his first dog died, he put a small portable air conditioner in the shed. However, an internal investigation determined the unit was “not sufficient” for such a large enclosure. Within a day, the portable air conditioner failed and the other two dogs died, as well.
“Getting back to the air conditioner, did you read a manual at all?” a Rockdale County sheriff’s employee asked.
“I read it enough, as far as to assemble,” Deputy Tolbert answered.
“So, you didn’t read the part that possibly said something to the effect of not using it as an air conditioner?” the employee asked.
“Nah, I didn’t,” Deputy Tolbert answered.
No warrant, no arrest
At this point, Investigator Jones thought she had enough evidence to bring charges. But Rockdale County Judge Nancy Bills disagreed, refusing to sign an arrest warrant and, according to case notes, because she felt the sheriff’s office should have turned the investigation over to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). Bills called the case a “conflict of interest” for deputies to work a case involving one of their own.
It’s a decision the sheriff’s department continues to back.
When asked why the office didn’t turn over the Deputy Tolbert investigation to the GBI, LeJohn Tate, chief of staff for the Rockdale County sheriff’s office, said, “We do have the ability to investigate our cases. We do not have to turn it over to the GBI. We have a criminal investigations division. We are a fully functioning Sheriff’s office.”
Tate disagrees with Judge Bills’ opinion there was a conflict of interest.
Deputy Tolbert responds
CBS46 Investigative Reporter Rachel Polansky went to Deputy Tolbert’s house twice. The second time, he was backing out of his driveway. He initially said he didn’t want to talk with us but continued answering our questions.
“My agency said they’ve done an investigation and they deemed that I was fit to return back to duty,” Deputy Tolbert said. “There was no ill intent behind it or anything trying to harm my animals. Those were my animals. I loved all of them.”
Polansky: “Shouldn’t you have known better as a K9 handler not to keep American bulldogs in an uninsulated shed?”
Tolbert: “Well, the shed was getting cool so I figured it was okay. Since I’ve had them, it had never got that hot.”
Polansky: “It was a June day in Georgia. Shouldn’t you know better?”
Tolbert: “Right, but it never got that hot so, ya know, they had been fine before.”
Polansky: “Why did you put the dead dogs in a trash can?”
Tolbert: “My yard is heavily wooded. I couldn’t dig, so I didn’t know any other option.”
After the Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office closed the case, Deputy Tolbert received a four-day suspension without pay and was moved from the K9 unit to the patrol division. But he also avoided criminal charges, something animal law expert Claudine Wilkins doesn’t understand.
“It’s very similar to putting a dog in a hot car,” said Wilkins, who founded Animal Law Source. “The temperature heats up quickly and to leave them there and go off to work for hours is absolutely irresponsible and reckless. So the level of knowledge and responsibility is a bit higher than the average person if you’re a K9 officer.”
Wilkins said there was enough evidence to bring state animal cruelty charges against Deputy Tolbert.
“Heat exhaustion is failure to provide shelter,” Wilkins said. “So at a bare bones minimum, this seems to me as a misdemeanor case in Georgia, under state law.”
The penalty for an animal cruelty misdemeanor in Georgia is up to one year in jail and a fine. Failing to provide an animal with “sanitary conditions” or “ventilation” and improperly disposing of animals both violate state law.
Tate defended the department’s actions.
“With the investigation that was conducted, the disciplinary actions that were rendered is what we found being fitting for that particular investigation,” he said.
The Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office has begun changing protocol for police dogs, now directing K9 handlers to bring police dogs indoors if the outside temperatures are higher than 90 degrees or below 40 degrees.
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