Attorney Richard Gierloff admits he's had some dogs for cases during his legal career. But until a black, male chow named Gunner trotted into his life, Gierloff had never defended an actual canine in a court of law.

The tale of Gunner's recent reprieve from a date with a Maricopa County executioner includes a chewed-off finger, a pet psychologist, a case of "reasonable doubt," house arrest and, eventually, a scalpel.

The story begins in the early-morning hours of May 13 at the Tempe residence of then-roommates Wendi Tillman, her sister Tami Jo Tillman, Rachel Darretta and David Cody.

Key details are in dispute, but a Tempe police officer's report speaks of being dispatched "reference a dog bite" to a residence on South Poplar Street.

Officer J. Pippin first saw Rachel Darretta in her front yard; she had a bloody towel wrapped around her right hand. She also had suffered bites to her left forearm and her right calf.

Pippin noted that two growling black chows repeatedly attempted to approach Tempe firefighters as they treated Darretta. One of the dogs was Wendi Tillman's dog, Gunner; the other was the victim's. A third chow, also owned by Darretta, remained in the backyard, the police report continues.

Rachel Darretta told the police officer that Gunner had attacked her in the house and bitten off part of a finger. Bloodied and frightened, she'd escaped the chow's grasp and called 911.

Darretta insisted she hadn't provoked the dog. "She added that she has two chows of her own and knows how to act around them," Officer Pippin's report says, "as they are temperamental."

As police and emergency personnel sorted things out, roommate David Cody coaxed Gunner inside the house. There, the 2 1/2-year-old dog suddenly bit Cody on the forearm. Finally, animal-control officers took the chow into custody as firefighters rushed Darretta to Scottsdale Memorial Hospital.

A firefighter later found the tip of Darretta's right pinkie finger on a stairway inside the house, but doctors were unable to reattach it.

Despite the incriminating evidence--part of a finger--Gunner's owner insisted her dog is more bark than bite. A Tempe city judge disagreed after considering evidence at a May 25 civil hearing that bore the title "Determination of Viciousness of Animal."

The judge ordered Gunner to die by lethal injection. Animals, unlike people, are not given the choice in Arizona of death by poisoning or in a gas chamber. But even canines--or at least their owners--retain certain rights of due process.

Wendi Tillman's mother, Arlene Tillman, sought help from Phoenix barrister Richard Gierloff, who appealed the case to Maricopa County Superior Court.

It seemed like an uphill struggle, but Gierloff mounted a ferocious defense. Many of his clients have been charged with serious, violent crimes. But unlike the chewing chow, most are able to spin an alibi in defense or mitigation.

Authorities kept Gunner in solitary confinement as Gierloff pieced together a legal appeal. One month passed, then two, as the attorney did his homework and negotiated with Tempe-based prosecutor Geraldine Mattern.

"I raised a 'reasonable doubt issue,'" Gierloff says, his tongue slightly in cheek. "Gunner had been in the front yard in close proximity to the victim when the police arrived. The victim seemingly showed no fear of Gunner at the time. The victim's dog was in the backyard, by itself. The police never did check the third chow--Rachel's dog--for possible forensic evidence."

Like what, a bloody paw?
"Who knows?" Gierloff replies. "Who knows?"
In late August, animal-control officers apparently contacted court officials for a status report. On August 22, Superior Court Judge Alan Kamin released Gunner into the custody of Wendi Tillman's mother until disposition of the case.

The judge ordered Gunner into house arrest, carefully fenced and locked in Arlene Tillman's east Phoenix yard.

More time passed. In October, prosecutor Mattern suggested that Kay Cox, who operates a Gilbert-based enterprise named the Pet Counselor, be called in as an expert witness to resolve the dispute.

Cox's three-page report, issued November 1, refers to her visit with Gunner earlier that day. Before she probed the chow's mind, however, Cox interviewed Wendi Tillman. Tillman raised the possibility that Rachel Darretta's mystery chow--the one in the backyard--had been the perp.

"According to Wendi, Rachel's male chow showed a very aggressive streak and had killed Wendi's cat and attacked Gunner," Cox wrote. "It might be interesting to find out about the personality of Rachel's male dog and where it is at this time."

After the debriefing, Cox asked to meet with Gunner, who literally put his best foot forward.

From the report of the pivotal moment:
"Gunner came inside, greeted everyone, including [Arlene Tillman's] poodle, then he ran to Wendi and licked her hand. When I called him, he came and was friendly. I got up and walked around, calling him to follow. He did. I told him to sit, and he just stood and looked at me. I told him again, and touched his rear.

"He sat and gave me his right paw. I said, 'So you are right-handed, are you?' He looked confused, but wagged his tail and sneezed. I asked for his paw again. He started to give me the right paw, then looked at me and raised his left paw. I praised him and gave him a treat, but I didn't release the treat, so he had to chew it in my hand. He did so eagerly, but gently . . ."

Gunner had given a lifesaving performance. After conducting other tests, Cox concluded that the chow is not a natural born killer.

"This does not mean," she wrote, "that he would allow someone to abuse him or that he would not bite given certain circumstances. But I found no aggressive behavior at all throughout all the tests I put him through."

Cox recommended that Gunner take group obedience classes and that the Tillmans slowly reintroduce the dog into society. She also suggested that Gunner be neutered, pronto.

Gierloff says he is confident that Judge Kamin will adopt Cox's recommendations.

Gierloff has moved on to try a murder case involving Homo sapiens only. The Tillmans continue to look after Gunner, who apparently is none the worse for wear after his near-fatal brush with the long paw of the law.

At press time, Gunner wasn't shooting blanks--yet.


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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin