Morton’s police chief has responded to last week’s report on the departure of K9 Camo and challenged the accounts of those interviewed by The Chronicle on Camo’s situation and his departure from the Morton Police Department.
Chief Roger Morningstar issued the response in the form of a four-page statement days after the report. No one from the department responded to The Chronicle’s request to comment prior to the publication of the initial report.
The report included allegations that the dog was underweight and showed signs of potential abuse after being returned to its original owner.
According to Morningstar's statement, Camo attacked his handler, officer Tyler Randt-Williams, on Jan. 23, 2021, while Randt-Williams was transferring the dog to his kennel for feeding.
“Camo actually bit someone with his first handler, after which he was in a muzzle when on duty to prevent this from happening again,” Morningstar wrote in the statement. “Knowing of his unique situation, this is why when it came to finding a home for Camo after the incident, my first contact was with Camo’s original owner.”
Morningstar said Camo was reunited with his owner, Sara Riley, the following day.
“After picking up Camo, I was never contacted or led to believe that there were any issues with Camo,” Morningstar wrote.
Camo, a 3-year-old Belgian Malinois and German shepherd mix, first started working with the Morton Police Department in February 2019 after then-officer Chris Fulton expressed interest in working with the dog as a K9 partner to assist in the police department’s drug investigations.
Fulton and Camo became a certified narcotic detection K9 team on April 24, 2019, and the two worked together until Fulton’s resignation in July of that same year. Camo was then partnered with Randt-Williams until the attack in early 2021.
Riddick’s Playhouse and Rescue Center, an animal rescue service in Murchison, Texas, that works with dogs that have been abused, abandoned, injured or confiscated around the country, learned about Camo shortly after the attack and took Camo into their care on March 18.
According to Cory Strauss, a trainer at Riddick’s who worked to re-train Camo, Camo’s high-energy level and protective demeanor were typical in dogs chosen and trained to be K9s. That’s part of the reason why handlers and dogs have to undergo extensive training before they’re allowed to work together, he said.
“If you’re going to handle a high-prey dog like this, you’re going to get bit,” he said. “That’s the life of the job.”
But with Camo’s fearful behavior and his high-level of aggression when he was triggered, Strauss said “you can tell that something happened to him that threw him off … We’re not here to try and bash anybody, but the fact is the writing is on the wall.”
Morningstar stated that to his knowledge, Camo was not abused while he was at the Morton Police Department.
“Officer Randt-Williams at no time ever abused or ‘beat’ Camo,” he wrote. “The only comments I heard from Officer Randt-Williams was that he had to fight Camo off of him when he was attacked to get him back into the kennel.”
Morningstar also challenged allegations that Camo was malnourished, stating that Camo weighed 64.3 pounds during a weight check on Nov. 5 and weighed 62 pounds at the end of January.
Adult males of his breed are supposed to weigh between 65 and 85 pounds.
According to Morningstar, “Camo was provided top-shelf quality food which we were given regularly from a local vendor. His food was given to him at the recommended amounts for his breed. Also, each night Camo worked, a local business in Morton set aside large sausages Camo received nightly. This doesn’t include training, treats, snacks, etc.”
Morningstar said Randt-Williams had been working with a veterinarian to bring Camo’s weight up.
Records from Riddick’s veterinarian showed Camo weighed 50.5 pounds immediately upon his arrival in Texas on March 18.
Riddick’s also had to wean Camo off of a high-dose of trazodone, a mild sedative frequently used to treat anxiety in dogs.
According to Morningstar, the trazodone was reportedly prescribed while Camo was working with Fulton “to help Camo deal with fireworks over the 4th of July weekend.”
While Morningstar said the Morton Police Department never received any requests for Camo’s records, Strauss, who works with the Texas rescue and training center that retrained Camo, said he made multiple attempts to obtain Camo’s records through both the Morton Police Department and the City of Morton, but received no response except a phone call from Randt-Williams, who verbally relayed Camo’s training and history.
A public records request to the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, which maintains the training and certifications of all peace officers in the state, later revealed that Camo and Randt-Williams were apparently not certified to work as a K9 team.
While Camo and Fulton were certified as a K9 team, under Washington state law, a K9’s certification automatically expires if the specific handler and canine who were paired at the time of certification stop working together. Had Fulton and Camo continued working as a K9 team, their certification would have been active until April 2021.
Randt-Williams’ earliest K9 training on file with the state is a certification to work with the Morton Police Department’s new K9, Maverick, which was issued on Feb. 28, 2021.
While it was obvious to Strauss that Camo was trained in narcotics detection, Strauss said Camo’s basic obedience training had been greatly neglected up until that point.
“The way that he (Camo) was trained was not trained properly,” said Strauss. “We had to retrain him.”
Riddick’s, the Sector K9 Foundation and the dog’s new handler, a sergeant with a Texas sheriff’s office, dedicated hundreds of hours to properly training Camo out of his aggressive behavior and put him through K9 retraining so he could be certified as a K9 in Texas, Strauss said.
“We took a lot of precautions with Camo because of all the stories that we heard about him,” Strauss said.
In order to effectively train Camo out of his aggressive behavior, Strauss said he worked to identify Camo’s triggers. Camo's primary trigger, Strauss said, was someone reaching suddenly for his collar or for his leash, which aligns with Morningstar’s account of the incident where Camo attacked Randt-Williams.
But despite his reaction to certain triggers, Strauss reported Camo was “happy-go-lucky” when he was off-duty and intently focused when he was working.
Strauss recalled recent drug training where Camo was able to successfully locate drugs that were well-hidden in challenging environments, like a bathroom with a lot of competing smells, and successfully complete a 300-yard track.
“We put a lot of training into him to make him this true K9 dog,” Strauss said. “It’s been a long road for him and we put a lot of time and energy into this dog.”
Camo’s new handler paid roughly $4,500 out of pocket to be trained as a K9 handler and took personal time off of work to complete the necessary K9 handler’s courses and train with Camo.
“He’s doing it all on his own to help his town out,” said Strauss.
Camo now lives with his new handler and Strauss relayed that the dog “is like one of his kids,” living in his home as a member of the family.
Camo and his new handler graduated Sector K9’s narcotics/tracking handler and criminal interdiction for K9 officers courses on July 31 and are now officially certified as a K9 team.
Morningstar’s full statement can be read along with this story at chronline.com.