Florida Keys News - Islamorada/KL Free Press
Wednesday, December 5, 2012
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Thanksgiving fracas ends with dead dog, hard feelings

TAVERNIER -- In many neighborhoods, Thanksgiving morning is about last-minute cooking, parades and family.

But there was no such tranquility on Tavernier's Hood and Florida avenues two weeks ago, where the fatal mauling of Mike Orfino's Chihuahua by a neighbor's dog set off a bizarre ruckus.

When it was over, Jim and Barbara Sukow were fined $100 by animal control for allowing their boxer-mix Tater to run free and ultimately kill the 15-year-old Chihuahua Jack. Animal control also put Tater under a 10-day home quarantine that ended this past weekend.

But despite accusations involving hammer axes, fists and an ill-intentioned motorist, the neighbors agreed not to pursue any criminal charges against one another.

According to statements from those involved, Tater, who had gotten loose with another of the Sukows' four dogs, attacked and killed Jack, who was also unleashed, on the street. Orofino said that he was putting a turkey in the smoker when he suddenly realized what had happened. By then it was too late to save Jack.

Orofino and others say the Sukows' dogs have a reputation for being aggressive.

"That's why I'm keeping away," said neighbor Bonnie Glade, who says she makes sure to give their home a wide berth in her travels around the mile marker 91.7, bayside, neighborhood.

But despite such talk, Thanksgiving was the first time animal control had been called to the Sukows for an aggressive pet incident. Jim Sukow said Tater, 2, has only been involved in one other aggressive incident and that was when someone came up to their fenced property.

"He's not a deadly animal at-large," Sukow said last Friday. "He's probably back home right now sleeping on my couch."

In either case, that reputation of the Sukows' dogs among neighbors was likely a factor in the hot altercation that followed the mauling of Jack.

That dispute didn't involve Orofino. Instead, neighbors Marty Rheppard and Frank Calabro, who says he was threatened by the Sukows' dogs before Tater went after Jack, were at the center of it. Here's how witness Kris Pyers described what she saw:

"I heard screeching and screaming and walked out to the street to see a woman [Barbara Sukow] running into her house chased by a shirtless man [Rheppard] with an axe or an axe handle. Then he turned and joined his friend [Calabro] who was heavyset and wearing a green sweatshirt and the two of them turned on the woman's husband [Jim Sukow]. The man with the sweatshirt punched the husband on the left side of his face with his right fist. The shirtless man kicked him and raised the axe to strike him but his friend stopped him from striking with the axe."

The axe, in fact, was a hammer axe, said Sukow, not an axe of the tree-chopping variety. Various other witnesses and participants, including Barbara Sukow and Rheppard himself, described it as hammer. In either case, in their statements to the police, Barbara said she never feared for her life and Jim said he wasn't afraid for his safety at all. They decided not to press charges.

In his own police statement, Rheppard said that Jim Sukow wasn't guilt free in the post-mauling fracas. He said that he was chasing the second dog, not Barbara, with a hammer when Jim drove up and attempted to run into him.

"He has been warned before when his dogs got out," Rheppard wrote in his statement.

On that front, all the residents of Hood and Florida avenues might be able to find common ground.

"People need to make every effort necessary to keep their dogs in their own yards and that was where I was at fault," Jim Sukow said.

He added that he didn't try to run Rheppard down, but instead had slammed on his breaks and skidded when he saw that his wife was in danger.

rsilk@keysnews.com

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