Judge in MInneapolis dog-bite-death case had issues with his own pets

  • Article by: DAVID CHANEN and SARAH LEMAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 18, 2008 - 12:00 AM

A neighbor of Judge Kevin Burke has repeatedly complained about his dogs' violent tendencies. Some reports were unfounded.

A Hennepin County District judge who recently found a Minneapolis man not guilty of manslaughter after the man's son was killed by the family pit bull has been cited for minor violations involving his own dogs.

Since August 2006, Minneapolis Animal Control has contacted Judge Kevin Burke 15 times about two Australian Shepherds owned by the judge. Most of the calls were for barking, but Burke did receive two warning letters when his dogs bit another dog on a walk and a mail carrier had to use chemical irritant to stop one of the dogs from charging at him. Seven of the reports were marked as unfounded.

Burke said his previous dealings with Animal Control had no impact on his ruling in the case against Zachary King Sr.

In his ruling, Burke suggested that Animal Control could have warned King about the dog's violent tendencies.

However, he added that the agency was not responsible for the death of King's son.

"The county attorney could have objected to me handling the case," Burke said Thursday night. "It never occurred to me that any calls about my dogs would be an issue."

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, in a rare move, tried the case against King Sr.

"Members of my office have appeared before Judge Burke for 30 years," Freeman said Thursday. "I was surprised to learn of Judge Burke's history with Animal Control."

When asked if Burke should have removed himself from the case, Freeman said he had no comment.

Freeman said the Kings' dog Face had bitten seven previous times before the day last August, when 7-year-old Zack Jr. went to the basement to play with him. The dog seized the boy's neck, breaking it, crushing his larynx and severing a key artery. His father was upstairs sleeping at the time.

In his ruling last Friday, Burke wrote that Animal Control knew of the dog's previous bites but hadn't classified it as dangerous or potentially dangerous.

Following his ruling, Burke said Thursday, he had an e-mail exchange with Animal Control and learned for the first time King had been warned and cited about his dog. There had been no evidence about those warnings in the court record, Burke said.

Knowing after the fact that King had been warned, Burke said he isn't sure it would have changed his ruling.

'Dog trying to kill me'

Many of the calls about Burke's dogs have come from a neighbor charged with a domestic assault in which Burke was a witness. That neighbor is David Thibert, who lives with his wife, Mary, next door to the judge and who also owns a dog.

"I cannot walk down my driveway without this dog trying to kill me through the window," David Thibert said Thursday. He said the younger dog, identified in Animal Control reports as Mulligan, routinely throws itself against the door and windows when he walks by, and once broke through the glass.

Thibert said the dog has attacked several people, and twice attacked his dog, a Labrador mix named Sam. "I've called [Animal Control] three, four times a week about his barking," he said, adding that he doesn't know of other neighbors who have complained.

Several neighbors said they have never had issues with the Burkes' dogs or seen them threaten anyone, although Peter Nussbaum, who lives across the street, said the animals are "rambunctious" in a typical dog sort of way.

"It's been an uncomfortable situation for the neighborhood," said Curtis Johnson, a dog trainer who lives on the block and walks the judge's two dogs with a handful of others every day. He called the animals "very fine dogs."

In 2006, Burke received two warning letters, each warning him that future reports about the dogs identified as Mulligan and Caddie could lead to them being declared potentially dangerous or dangerous under state statute and city ordinance.

The report on Sam, the Labrador who was bit during a walk with Mary Thibert, said Mulligan and Caddie charged out Burke's front door. Sam lost a one-inch patch of hair, the report said.

Burke said the King case was one of the most horrific he's had to handle in his 24 years as a judge. When issuing his order, he said he chose his words carefully and stands by them.

"Now my 3-year-old is wondering why people are staking out my house," he said, referring to media gathering on his south Minneapolis block. "People are knocking on my neighbors' doors asking about my dogs."

dchanen@startibune.com 612-673-4465 slemagie@startribune.com 952-882-9016

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