Service dog dispute with VA police leaves veteran with injured shoulder, a bleeding dog and federal charge

Former Marine Danny Ralph didn’t get an apology from Veterans Affairs after a federal officer slammed him and his 8-pound service dog to the ground last summer during a visit to the VA medical center. Instead, federal prosecutors charged Ralph, who suffered an injured shoulder and a wounded dog, with a crime.

Witnesses testified all day Tuesday about the heated discussion and takedown that injured both Ralph and his Pomeranian-Chihuahua mix named Shadow, which for more than five years has helped the 60-year-old Vietnam-era veteran deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder.

The testimony finished on Tuesday and U.S. Magistrate Judge John Rodgers said he will rule at 10 a.m. Wednesday whether Ralph is guilty of disorderly conduct.

In a case that seemed to defy common sense, federal prosecutors alleged that Ralph refused to take his dog, which VA police contend was not a service dog, back to his vehicle on July 20. They said when VA police Sgt. Sean Cook asked him to take the dog away that Ralph began yelling expletives and disrupting the daily routine at Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center.

“The Spokane VA hospital is not a dog park,” legal intern Joseph Zimmer argued for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “This case is about Mr. Ralph making the conscious decision to disregard the laws and Sgt. Cook’s order.”

But Lindsey Wheat, a third-year student at Gonzaga University School of Law and legal intern representing Ralph, said Ralph had been at the hospital for an appointment earlier in the day and had taken Shadow with him for hundreds of visits prior to the encounter.

“Danny Ralph did not cause the disturbance. Sgt. Cook did,” said Wheat, working on behalf of the Federal Defenders of Eastern Washington and Idaho. “Without warning, he grabbed Danny’s arm in such a way that causes pain and submission. A man cannot and should not be convicted for involuntarily yelling out in pain.”

The encounter began earlier in the day after Ralph had completed an appointment and was waiting in the parking lot for his prescription to be filled. About the same time, VA police Chief Jeffrey Hayter looked out and saw an unleashed dog jumping up on someone and barking, according to court records.

“In compliance with VA police policy, Chief Hayter determined that the dog was not acting as a service animal,” Zimmer wrote in court records.

Hayter radioed Sgt. Cook to respond and the former Grand Coulee police officer met Ralph at the entrance of Mann-Grandstaff in a confrontation that was caught on video.

Most of the conversation that followed became the crux of the dispute.

Cook, who had begun work as a VA police officer some eight months before, said he met Ralph after he entered the medical center. Ralph was cradling Shadow, who attended the daylong trial.

“When I started to ask about the animal, (Ralph) started yelling and cursing at me,” Cook said. “You could tell he was working himself up.”

Witnesses agreed that Ralph told Cook that he could only legally ask him whether Shadow was a service dog and the nature of the service that he provided. Cook said Ralph explained that the dog helped him with his PTSD, as well as retrieved keys and opened doors.

“It wasn’t acting like a service animal,” Cook testified. “In my mind … he could not open doors. I had asked him to take the animal outside of the facility. He got more agitated. He tried to show me certification that he could take the dog anywhere.”

Cook said he told Ralph that he could cite him for disorderly conduct and Ralph responded by saying, “just give me the (expletive) ticket.”

“He resisted by pulling away. At that point … I used a straight arm bar to gain control of Mr. Ralph,” Cook said. He took Ralph down “for my safety, for his safety and the safety of others.”

But the defense brought four witnesses and none of them heard Ralph use expletives or yell prior to his being taken into custody.

Kathleen Pickering, a nurse who was standing a few feet away getting coffee with Lindsey Moss, noticed Cook talking with Ralph near the door.

“It appeared the veteran was making a comment about coming into the VA with his dog and the officer stopped him,” Pickering said. “He was a little frustrated.”

She then overheard Cook discount Ralph’s service dog certification, saying anyone could purchase one online for $70.

Ralph “put his phone up to his ear. Without provocation, (Cook) grabbed the veteran’s right arm, picked him up and threw him to the ground like a body slam,” she testified. “He started yelling, ‘Help me. Help me. You are hurting me.’ ”

Shadow the dog went flying. Ralph’s friend Roger Wilbur, who testified to essentially the same details as Pickering, said he chased the dog down before she could get run over by a car. He later noticed blood on his shirt and realized that Shadow had a toe nail ripped off during the take down.

Dennis Biallas, 73, of Coeur d’Alene, said he had just finished an appointment and was walking out of the facility when he noticed Ralph and Sgt. Cook talking. Cook slammed Ralph to the ground just as the former Coast Guard member approached.

“As I’m walking into the foyer, I saw the police officer swing him down to the ground and placed him into an arm lock,” Biallas said. “He was yelling, ‘Help me. Help me. You are hurting me.’ I didn’t see (Ralph) do anything wrong.”

After other officers arrived and led Ralph away, Biallas stayed behind so that he could file a report about what he saw. He turned to a female officer, who then asked what Biallas was doing there.

“I told her I wanted to make a report. She demanded that I leave the building,” Biallas said. “She ignored that I wanted to make a report.”

Undeterred, Biallas waited a couple of minutes and went back into the medical center to make sure what he saw was documented. He said he encountered a man who identified himself as the chief of security but Biallas didn’t get his name.

“He asked me, ‘Who are you? What is your relation to the defendant?’ ” Biallas said. “Three times I told him I want to make a report.” Biallas said he had never met Ralph before Tuesday’s trial.

The security chief then started speaking in a raised tone, and Biallas said he started to feel uneasy.

“I felt like I was going to be the next one on the floor,” he said.

As Biallas sat outside the courtroom and relayed the struggle of trying to make sure his statement was submitted, which took six months, Sgt. Cook walked over to ask him about the female officer who initially turned him away after the Ralph take down. Cook said that shouldn’t have happened and asked Biallas to file a report about it.

Biallas turned to Sgt. Cook and said: “There’s no animosity, but I think you lost your temper.”

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