Clayton County police officer and K-9 handler Sgt. James Williams said his truck is a little quieter these days. The kennel at Williams’ home is also empty.

There is a void left by his departed partner, K-9 officer Waro, who was shot and killed when a suspect hiding in the woods fired at the officers closing in on his location earlier this month.

“On Sept. 2, Waro reminded me that day to trust him,” Williams said at a memorial service Wednesday morning. “Because of what he did, I’m able to go home to my family. I’ll be able to see my newborn child in December because of what he did.”

Working with Waro was a blessing Williams said he’ll never forget, and the fallen K-9’s remains will always have a place of honor in his family’s home. One day, after Williams and his wife welcome their baby girl later this year, the officer hopes to teach her to love dogs as much as he does.

“I’m sure she will be very thankful for what Waro did because now I’ll get to see her,” Williams said.

Waro died after being shot in the back by a teenager during a search near the 8200 block of Tara Boulevard, Jonesboro police said after the incident. Officers had responded to a suspicious activity call in the area involving three men at a hotel, and all three fled when authorities arrived.

Stephon Ford, 17, ran into the woods, leading Jonesboro police to request K-9 assistance from the Clayton police department. Waro and Williams responded, and the K-9 was able to track and locate the suspect within 10 minutes, Clayton police Chief Kevin Roberts said at Wednesday’s service.

The suspect then allegedly pulled out a handgun and fired in the direction of the officers. Waro was hit, but no other officers were injured. Police returned fire, killing Ford during the exchange.

While the life of a K-9 officer can be hazardous, Waro’s death at the hands of a suspect was relatively rare in Georgia. Waro is only the third police dog killed by a suspect in the state over the past 10 years, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page. Heatstroke was the most common cause of death for K-9s in Georgia during that time, claiming at least seven lives.

Waro is also the second Clayton K-9 officer to die in the line of duty this year. On May 25, K-9 Wade suffered a medical emergency in a patrol car at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, according to police.

K-9 officers killed in the line of duty are typically afforded the same pomp and circumstance as their human counterparts.

Waro’s memorial included a police procession from a funeral home in Griffin to Rum Creek Park in Jonesboro, where Williams and his partner trained on a weekly basis. The service featured eulogies from Williams, Roberts and uniform patrol division commander Maj. Anthony Thuman.

The county’s honor guard presented a folded American flag to an emotional Williams, and scores of officers from the police department and other law enforcement agencies stood at attention as a bugler played Taps.

The service was also attended by Clayton’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer Matthew Murchison, Fire and Emergency Services Chief Tim Sweat and Morrow police Chief Michael Crumpler.

“The Southern Crescent always comes together in times of crisis,” Roberts said as he thanked the dignitaries in attendance.

Born in 2019, Waro was a German Shepherd plucked from Slovakia after trainers determined he was well-suited to police work, Williams said. The name Waro is a shortened version of the dog’s much longer Slovakian given name. He was initially trained by Tarheel Canine in Sanford, North Carolina, before he was bought by Clayton police and turned over to Williams.

When the handler met his new partner, he said the K-9′s former trainer had two words for him: “Good luck.”

“He was a lot like me: stubborn,” Williams said. “But every handler out here understands that the No. 1 thing they tell you is to trust your dog. When I started to trust Waro, I realized I started making more apprehensions, I started finding more drugs, I started finding more missing people. ... It became easier because I trusted my dog.”

During Waro’s two-year career in Clayton, he helped apprehend 35 suspected criminals and take nearly 50 pounds of methamphetamine off the street, Roberts said. In one case, Waro picked up a scent trail more than an hour old and was able to locate a missing person within minutes.

“K-9 Waro is to be recognized and honored for his tireless and loyal contributions,” Roberts said during his eulogy. “He has our sincere gratitude and heartfelt thanks for his outstanding performance. I say rest in peace, my fellow officer, and this community should say the same. Rest in peace.”

Although the loss of Waro is still fresh in his mind, Williams said he plans to remain on the K-9 unit and hopes to handle another dog in the future. He described the unique skill sets provided by police dogs as a “very important asset to the people.”

But he’ll never forget Waro.

“I thank him. I love him. That love was unconditional, that he always gave me,” Williams said. “I know he will always be with me.”

Williams finished his eulogy with a Bible quote from the book of Isaiah.

“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here I am! Send me,’” Williams said. “That’s what Waro did.”

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