Dog resisted before death by dragging, officer says

With the echo of demonstrators’ dogs barking from the streets below the courtroom, a National Park Service officer on Thursday testified about the last 1.7 miles of a dog’s life, a 4-foot rope around its neck and front paws bloodied as it resisted a death haul up Colorado National Monument.

Ranger Clinton Forte, the government’s lone witness in a preliminary hearing for 37-year-old Steven Clay Romero, testified that a blue rope was fastened in a manner that further tightened around the dog’s neck as more tension was applied to the rope.

Forte said tire tracks, shoe and paw prints left in a light layer of snow on the morning of Dec. 30 tell the story of the dog’s last moments. The rope reached its neck from the back of a red pickup, giving the dog, named Buddy, about 3 feet of slack, Forte said.

“It appears at first he’s able to keep up with the vehicle,” the officer said. “Then either the dog is having difficulty keeping up, or it is resisting. Then the tracks indicate dragging.”

It’s unclear how fast the truck was moving, Forte said.

Buddy’s body was found just beyond a tunnel on the side of the road, where blood was found on the dog’s paws, several of its nails damaged or ripped away. A maintenance worker discovered the body around 4:30 a.m. while ascending the road.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Laird Milburn on Thursday ruled there is probable cause to support a charge of aggravated animal cruelty against Romero. The judge ordered Romero to continue to be held without bond at the Mesa County Jail.

The small courtroom at the downtown federal building was filled with onlookers, and some were forced into the hallway. Assembled media, along with spectators, were herded into the 14 seats of the courtroom’s jury box to make room for the crowd of more than 50 people. Most were demonstrators expressing outrage at the case.

Katie Cool, of Grand Junction, closed the doors Thursday on her real-estate appraisal business so she could hold a sign with a message for Romero in front of the courthouse. It said, “You suck.”

“People need to pull together at a time like this,” she said of her decision. “I don’t know what that fool was thinking.”

Authorities allege Buddy was one of two dogs stolen Dec. 29 from the bed of a pickup in Delta by Romero’s sister, Melissa Lockhart, 32.

Forte testified that paw prints similar to what was found on Colorado National Monument, were discovered in the front yard of Lockhart’s home in Fruita.

A neighbor told officers that Romero was seen leaving the home with the dog around 2 a.m. in a red pickup, which was identical to a vehicle captured on video surveillance at the park arriving at 2:18 a.m. and departing at 2:30 a.m.

The neighbor said he was awakened later by loud music from Romero’s truck, and he saw it return to Lockhart’s home. The same neighbor told officers he feared for his safety after reporting what he saw, according to Forte’s testimony.

“He said Romero brags about beating people up,” Forte testified.

Milburn cited Romero’s extensive criminal history, including failures to appear in court at least six times, in addition to four pending cases in the state court system.

At the time of Buddy’s death, Romero was free on bond, awaiting trial in Mesa County on drug and weapon charges related to his arrest Sept. 12 at a local hotel. Romero allegedly had three baggies of methamphetamine and a shotgun.

Romero faces a maximum 48 years in prison if convicted of a special-offender charge. He’s set for trial in that case in March.

Romero is scheduled to return to federal court Jan. 27 for arraignment in his latest case.


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