Man arrested in dog-dragging death

Suspect's sister tells investigators he had dog, said he would kill it

A Fruita man accused of dragging a dog to death on Colorado National Monument was ordered on Thursday to be held without bond for the weekend.

Steven Clay Romero, 37, is scheduled for a detention hearing and arraignment Monday afternoon at the Wayne N. Aspinall federal building. Romero, shackled and dressed in a yellow jumpsuit from the Mesa County Jail, where he’s being held, expressed bewilderment at the allegations.

“I don’t get it,” he said, sitting alone at the defendant’s table. Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Heldmyer then rose from her seat, walked toward Romero and tossed a copy of the charges on the table in front of him.

Heldmyer told U.S. Magistrate Judge Laird Milburn she will ask for Romero’s continued detention during Monday’s hearing.

Romero expressed concern about sitting in jail over the weekend and said he’ll be hiring his own attorney. He told the judge he’s an over-the-road trucker for a company in Silverton, and he supports a family.

“So, in other words I’ll be sitting in jail and probably lose my job, too?” Romero asked Milburn.

“Yes,” the judge responded.

According to Romero’s arrest affidavit, about 4:30 a.m. Wednesday a maintenance worker at Colorado National Monument saw tire tracks and drag marks in the snow leading up West Hill, past the Fruita entrance to the park. Two miles later, the worker saw the carcass of Buddy, a German shepherd-blue heeler mix, with a rope tied to its neck.

Video surveillance at the Fruita entrance showed a double-cab pickup entering the park at 2:18 a.m. Wednesday with a dog in the truck’s bed, and the same truck exited at 2:30 a.m.

The affidavit said a Delta man saw a photo of the dog posted online at around 9 a.m. Wednesday, and later claimed to authorities the dog belonged to his friend. The man told authorities the dog had been stolen from downtown Delta on Tuesday.

A Delta police report indicates a witness recorded the license plate of the suspect’s vehicle in the alleged dog theft, which tied back to a home in Fruita, according to the affidavit.

National Park Service rangers went to the Fruita home and found paw prints in the snow in the front yard, the affidavit said. A neighbor told them he saw Steven Romero leave the home with a dog similar to Buddy, the dog in the photo publicized by monument staff Wednesday morning.

The neighbor said he saw Romero leave with the dog around 2 a.m. Wednesday.

According to the affidavit, rangers were given permission to search the home, where rope similar to that tied on Buddy was found in the garage. Hours later, rangers met with Romero’s sister.

“Romero’s sister stated that the dog was in their home and Romero said he was going to kill it,” the affidavit said. “She stated he left with the dog late last night and returned home a half hour later without it.”

When rangers returned to the home, a woman who answered the door was uncooperative and provided a false phone number for Romero, the affidavit said.

The affidavit makes no mention of a law enforcement interview with Romero prior to his arrest, nor does it speak to a motive for the dog’s torture and death.

A news release from monument officials said Romero was arrested Thursday morning at the Mesa County Justice Center after he appeared there on an unrelated criminal case.

Romero faces a maximum three years in prison, a fine up to $100,000 and a year of mandatory parole if convicted on a federal charge of felony cruelty to animals.

Romero was arrested six times in the past seven years by police in Montrose and Grand Junction on a variety of charges, including weapons offenses, traffic violations and drug distribution, according to court records. Five of the six arrests were in 2009. Romero was in Mesa County District Court on Thursday for a hearing on a drug and weapon-related case stemming from a Sept. 12 arrest at a local motel.

According to an arrest affidavit, Romero was contacted by Grand Junction Police Department officers in a room at Monument Inn, 1600 North Ave., and three baggies of methamphetamine were found in his possession. Officers also found a loaded, modified “short shotgun” in Romero’s vehicle and live shotgun shells in his jacket, the affidavit said.

Romero’s case heads to trial in March.

Sentinel reporter Amy Hamilton contributed to this story


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