K-9s named in honor of fallen Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office deputies keep memories alive
SHALIMAR — Last year marked the beginning of a largely new K-9 Unit at the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office, and out of the change came a way for the department to keep the memories of fallen deputies alive.
Seven new dogs joined the department to replace K-9s that were retired because their marijuana detection training put them at odds with new state legislation related to hemp products and the legalization of medical marijuana.
Like any new addition, the dogs needed names.
Not just any names, though. The Sheriff’s Office saw it as an opportunity to name the new K-9s after fallen deputies.
“It came from the sheriff and came down to us. We all agreed it was a perfect way to honor these guys who gave the ultimate sacrifice,” Sgt. Tony Kelly said.
The Sheriff’s Office has lost five deputies in the line of duty. Former Sheriff John Monroe Summerlin was killed in an accident in 1921 and almost 87 years passed before the department lost a deputy.
Deputy Anthony Forgione was killed while attempting to arrest a suspect who had escaped from custody while under going a mental evaluation at a local hospital in 2008.
The department lost Deputy Warren Keith “Skip” York and Deputy Burt Lopez a year later when they were shot and killed while attempting to arrest a domestic violence suspect at a shooting range in Crestview.
In 2015, Deputy Bill Myers was shot and killed while serving a domestic violence injunction at an attorney’s office in Shalimar.
“I worked alongside Tony Forgione, who was Forge. That was his nickname,” Kelly said. “Burt and Skip were both partners, and Bill was a longtime friend of mine and we worked together for many, many years.”
K-9 Merlin and Figment began training in January 2020, followed by Skip, Burt and Forge. The dogs’ names were mainly derived from nicknames and shortened versions of the deputies they represent, with the exception of Figment.
Deputy Sheriff Bill Myers’ granddaughter picked out the name especially for him.
“When it came down to naming the dog, the Sheriff’s Office got with the family and the granddaughter,” said Deputy Joey Haun, K-9 Figment’s handler.
One of the things everyone at the Sheriff’s Office remembers about Myers is how much he loved his granddaughter and how he loved to take her to Disney World, Haun said.
Figment, a small purple dragon, is the mascot of the “Imagination!” pavilion at the Epcot theme park at Walt Disney World Resort and his granddaughter's favorite character.
“He’s not named after him, but in memory of something that he loved and enjoyed doing with his granddaughter,” Haun said. “I enjoy that I get to work with a dog that represents that: him, his family, his granddaughter and that whole memory.”
His death is still a fresh memory for many at the department. Myers was an Air Force veteran and had served a total of 26 years with the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office. He retired from the agency after serving 25 years and then returned as a part-time deputy in January 2015 to assist with serving civil papers.
“When he retired he actually came back to work for the Sheriff’s Office to make money and to help take his granddaughter to Disney,” Haun said.
On the day he was killed, he had served the papers to a man at the attorney's office. As Myers was leaving, the man opened fire from behind and struck Myers multiple times in the back and the back of the head. The man fled to a local hotel where he barricaded himself in a room for about 90 minutes.
He was then shot and killed by members of the Special Response Team after leaving the room and displaying a firearm. Kelly said the memory of Myers and others only increases his passion for training the K-9 Unit.
“It obviously plays a very big role in that,” Kelly said.
Although it’s been 100 years since former Sheriff John Monroe Summerlin was killed, Deputy Cutler Petersen, K-9 Merlin’s handler, said it is still important to keep his memory alive.
“I think it’s important to keep any fallen officer close to our hearts,” Petersen said. “I think just naming the dogs is that one extra step to keeping them alive in our hearts.”
Summerlin was killed when his vehicle was struck by a train at a railroad crossing one mile east of Crestview. He had been elected sheriff and was sworn in only three weeks before the accident.
A representative from a state hospital in Chattahoochee had requested that Summerlin help him accompany a man who had been declared insane back to the hospital. An acquaintance of the man also accompanied them.
When they arrived at the subject’s home they retrieved him and a relative. All five men were returning to the Crestview train station to drop off the hospital representative and subject on the next train, but as they approached a railroad crossing the train struck their vehicle.
One of the occupants was able to jump from the car before it was struck, but Summerlin and the three other occupants did not make it out. Summerlin was killed instantly and the other three died from serious injuries a short time later.
“It’s very honoring to know that he’s named after someone and I can hopefully do something good by training him and us working the road,” Petersen said of Merlin. “We carry that deputy's name on and support his family by keeping his name going.”
All the K-9 handlers clocked 480 hours of training with their dogs before heading out on the road last year, and they continue to train every day. Since joining the team, the K-9s have made their presence felt.
Kelly said they have made numerous high-profile arrests and large narcotics seizures.
“One of our dogs fresh out of school was able to do a track and find a guy who had ran from them,” he said.
The K-9 Unit also recently participated in the United States Police Canine Association Certification Trials, and several returned home with awards. Haun and K-9 Figment placed fourth in the 2-Person Patrol Category and Petersen and K-9 Merlin placed second in the 4-Person Patrol category.
The dogs are trained to detect several types of narcotics, with the exception to marijuana, and to apprehend and locate suspects. Training also includes exercises that help the dogs bond with their handlers.
"That’s the foundation of it all, you’ve got to have a strong bond with your dog," Haun said.
“It’s something you can’t really describe,” Petersen said of working with a K-9 partner. “It’s like going to work with your best friend every day. I spend more time with him than I do my own family, so we have something special.”
For many of the deputies working with the new dogs, their names represent something just as special as the bond between them.
“I love it,” Haun said. “Just being a part of the K-9 team is an honor, and when they introduced the fact that we were going to name the dogs after fallen deputies it makes you take on a little bit more of a responsibility feeling, and it’s an honor to be able to do that.”