K9 officers Eros (left) and Eli (right) died this week. Eros was retired for almost a year, and Eli died after tracking a suspect in Snellville.
Photo: Gwinnett County Police Department
Photo: Gwinnett County Police Department

Gwinnett police mourn two K-9 officer deaths in one week

Gwinnett County lost two K-9 police officers this week.

K-9 Eli, an 8-year veteran of the Gwinnett County Police Department, died Thursday evening after tracking a suspect in Snellville. Eli and his handler, Officer Matthew Bonnano, were called to assist Snellville and DeKalb police in tracking a suspect in eastern Gwinnett. The suspect allegedly hit his ex-girlfriend’s car with his own vehicle and was following her “aggressively” on Highway 78 before fleeing on foot, Snellville Assistant Police Chief Greg Perry said.

Christopher Bartley, 26, of Decatur, is wanted by Snellville police on warrants for fleeing and eluding and obstruction of a law enforcement officer. It is unclear if he has warrants in DeKalb County, where the pursuit began.

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Bonnano and Eli tracked the suspect for 30 minutes. As they were walking back to Bonnano’s car, Eli “fell to the ground and began acting strangely,” a Gwinnett County release said. Eli was conscious when he was transported to a nearby veterinarian, but died shortly before 5 p.m. after receiving emergency treatment.

K-9 Eros had been retired for nearly a year before he died this week. Cpl. Brandon Townley, who served as Eros’ handler for five years before the dog’s retirement, noticed Eros wasn’t eating for about three days, and had stopped drinking water by Tuesday. At a Wednesday vet visit, Townley and his wife learned Eros had cancer that had likely spread throughout his body. The only options that would keep him alive would also keep him in pain, and Townley and his wife felt it would be more humane to end Eros’ pain and euthanize him.

Eli is the department’s first on-duty K-9 death. He was 9, old for a police dog, and may have retired in six months, said Cpl. Michele Pihera, a department spokeswoman. The preliminary results of a University of Georgia necropsy suggested the death was heat-related and that Eli had no biological abnormalities, but the final report will not be available for up to two weeks, Pihera said. Three other K-9 officers have died in Georgia in the past five years, and all three deaths were heat-related.

Eros, who was also 9, was a German shepherd, a breed with an average life expectancy of 9 to 13 years. Eli was a Belgian Malinois, which has an average life expectancy of 14 to 16 years.

The bond between K-9 officers and their handlers is intense. The dogs and human officers work side-by-side every day and live together.

“These dogs mean more to us than the public probably understands. They are a tool for the department to use, but to the handler and the other handlers who work with them daily, they are partners,” Townley said. “They are not just an asset that gets a number and means nothing but a piece of property. They do everything with us. We spend more time with them than our own children.”

Townley first met Eros when he was assigned to be the dog’s handler at a training facility in North Carolina. Eros, then 3, had already been trained in the fundamentals, but had to learn how to work with a handler.

“He was a terror. He barked a lot, all he cared about doing was bite work or apprehension work. He didn’t care anything about me,” Townley said.

But after months of training, the pair formed a strong bond. For five years, Eros found missing persons, apprehended suspects and detected drugs and guns.

Eros lived with Townley and his family, and became a protector of the Townleys two girls, often nudging them when they would go on the swings because “he thought they were in danger” and jumping with them on the backyard trampoline. He stuck to Townley like glue, always wanting to be by his side.

“If I walked out of a room, he would follow me to the next room,” Townley said. “If I got out of the car, he would sit by the window wanting to know where Daddy went.”

It was that closeness that alerted Townley that Eros’ health had taken a sudden turn. In addition to not drinking, Eros stopped following Townley around the house, two red flags.

The closeness between handler and K-9 was also likely what allowed Bonnano to act fast when Eli suddenly fell to the ground and began acting strangely Thursday, Townley said.

“We can sense when something’s wrong, like the dog that died (Thursday) on duty,” Townley said. “(Bonnano) recognized something that was wrong with the dog and they tried emergency procedures to save that dog. They know that dog inside and out.”

Handlers are relied on to decide when it is appropriate to bring a dog into the field, examining factors like weather and the dog’s behavior. Eli was behaving normally until after tracking the suspect Thursday, Pihera said.

Eli was also a beloved member of his handler’s household, Pihera said; Bonnano was with family Friday.

“When he got into the police car with Officer Bonnano, he was ready to work as a police dog,” Pihera said. “But once he got home, he could turn work off and be a family dog.”

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The man was found next to his car

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