A Brookhaven police K-9 officer and his dog were recovering Thursday after being ambushed by an enormous swarm of yellow jackets Wednesday just as they tried to collar a hit-and-run suspect.
Officer John Ritch was stung at least 50 times and almost immediately had a severe reaction that impaired his breathing, said Major Brandon Gurley of Brookhaven police.
“He’s now talking to us — he is just in a lot of pain,” Gurley said. “He described the hundreds or thousands of yellow jackets that come out and how they went up his pants, his shirtsleeves, in his nose and his mouth.”
The reaction was so dangerous that police transported the officer to Grady Memorial Hospital without waiting on an ambulance, Gurley said. Grizz, a Belgian Malinois, was transported to an emergency vet in Sandy Springs as a “precautionary measure,” because they didn’t know how often it had been stung, Gurley said.
Ritch was released from the hospital Thursday afternoon, and Grizz was already home recovering, Gurley said.
The two veterans and other officers were searching the woods near I-285 and North Druid Hills, where the hit-and-run suspect had fled after colliding with a DeKalb County police car on the interstate, Gurley said.
According to DeKalb County police, officers attempted a traffic stop, but the driver refused to pull over and hit a patrol car before jumping out of his car and running. The Brookhaven K-9 and Richt were brought in to assist with the chase, police said.
The K-9 officer had spotted the suspect in a ravine where he had fallen. The officer and the dog were walking around the ravine when the yellow jacket nest was stepped on, prompting the critters to attack, Gurley said.
“I don’t know if it was the handler or the dog, but one of them stirred them up,” Gurley said.
Yellow jackets, an aggressive type of wasp, build both exposed aerial types and concealed nests, often underground, which can have thousands — or tens of thousands — of denizens. They have lance-like stingers with little barbs and will sting perceived aggressors repeatedly.
The venom is generally only dangerous to people who are allergic to it, but Gurley didn’t think that was the case with this officer. He had been stung nine times earlier this year in another yellow jacket encounter with little ill effect, Gurley said.
The suspect, Brian Gutierrez, 37, was arrested and charged with obstruction, reckless driving, failure to maintain a lane hit-and-run, and fleeing and attempting to elude, a DeKalb police spokeswoman said.
— Staff writer Alexis Stevens contributed to this report.