.Dog Down: Novato police officer shoots neighbor’s dog

On a drizzly Sunday morning in September, a tragic series of events unfolded in Petaluma that ended with two dead chickens, a Novato police sergeant shooting a neighbor’s dog and a long list of unanswered questions.

Debate on social media exploded after KGO-TV broke the news in mid-December. An anecdotal survey of comments showed many people in Sonoma County noting that it is legal to shoot a dog when it kills chickens. Meanwhile, most Marin-based commenters opined that shooting the dog was unreasonable and the Novato Police Department should conduct a full investigation.

Sonoma County and state statutes do permit a person to kill a dog that is attacking chickens on their property, regardless of the proximity to homes and people.

In October, the Novato Police Department reviewed a complaint stemming from the incident and announced that no disciplinary action will be taken against Sgt. Nick Frey, the employee who shot and killed his neighbors’ dog.

Still, some Marin residents are concerned about Frey and his behavior, all captured on video.

The Incident

Anna and Phil Henry, both in their 70s, live on a narrow lane in rural Petaluma. Sgt. Nick Frey, a police de-escalation instructor and head of Novato’s SWAT team, and his wife, Jennie Frey, live next door. Although the two properties each cover about two acres, the houses are situated close together.

The Henrys’ grandchildren accidentally let Huck, the couple’s four-year-old Black Mouth Cur, out of their fenced yard on Sept. 18, at about 10:50am. Huck, who weighed 90 pounds, entered the Freys’ partially unfenced property.

The Freys’ Ring cameras captured audio and video of what transpired after the dog arrived.

Upon watching the six videos provided to the Pacific Sun by the Freys’ attorney, Alison Berry Wilkinson, it became apparent that some footage was missing. Wilkinson admitted that additional footage exists; however, she said it was not released due to concerns for the Frey children’s privacy and “threatened litigation” by the Henry family.

The video sequences begin with Huck in the Freys’ yard and the Henry’s grandchildren can be heard trying to lure him home with treats. Soon a chaotic scene developed with Huck, chickens, Anna Henry, and Nick and Jennie Frey.

Huck chased chickens that roamed freely in the Freys’ yard, while Anna Henry pursued and yelled at him.

Nick Frey came into the yard with a handgun. He shouted and cursed.

Anna Henry caught Huck and leashed him, but he had already killed two chickens. Nick Frey stood next to his neighbor and the dog.

“Those are my children’s birds,” Nick Frey yelled.

Suddenly, Huck turned and pulled. Anna Henry, who underwent hip replacement surgery the previous month, fell to the ground and let go of the leash. Huck lunged behind a large tree that obscured much of the camera’s view. Nick Frey, also behind the tree, immediately took several steps to the side, moving away from the dog.

“Nick, kill him,” Jennie Frey screamed. “Goddamnit. Kill that fucking dog.”

Nick Frey fired three shots. The dog dropped to the ground several feet in front of his shooter. Despite all three bullets hitting Huck, he was alive.

After the shooting

Not surprisingly, the Henrys and the Freys don’t agree on what happened before, during or after the shooting. While the Pacific Sun interviewed the Henrys for their perspectives, the Freys’ version of events comes from email exchanges with Wilkinson, their attorney. In addition, Wilkinson provided two written declarations, one by Jennie Frey and the other from Nick Frey.

According to Anna Henry, Huck pulled away from her because he was focused on a chicken that had begun flapping its wings. The dog ran past Nick Frey to get to the bird and was then shot in the back, she said.

Refuting Anna Henry’s claim, Nick Frey said the dog lunged at him, and he felt threatened, which is why he fired his gun.

Phil Henry, who was in his car at the end of the Freys’ driveway when the shooting occurred, had a clear view of the incident.

“I saw Nick shoot Huck as he was running away,” Phil Henry said. “The tree wasn’t in the way for me.”

After the shooting, Anna Henry said she asked Nick Frey to euthanize Huck because he was suffering. But Nick Frey responded that he’s “not touching that dog,” she said. 

Nick Frey said his wife requested he euthanize the dog, but he declined because it would be illegal.

Believing Huck’s death was imminent, the Henrys stayed with him in the Freys’ yard for an hour. But Huck hung on, and the Henrys brought him to a veterinarian, who examined the dog and took x-rays of the gunshot wounds.

Huck could hear, partially lift his head and responded to pain, according to the veterinarian’s report. Gunshot wounds were found at the back of the dog’s head, behind his right ear and over his shoulder. Based on these findings, the Henrys decided to euthanize Huck.

Wilkerson said she would need to see an autopsy, photos and x-rays to determine that the dog was shot from behind. There are “multiple potential explanations” for the dog’s wounds in these areas, including the downward trajectory of the bullets or “the dog started to turn as he heard the first shot fire.”

About 25 minutes after the shooting, while Huck was still alive in the yard with the Henrys, Nick Frey told Sonoma County Animal Services that he shot and killed the dog, according to a report by an animal control officer.

Nick Frey’s written declaration stated he thought the dog was dead because the Henrys had covered Huck with a blanket.

The Beginning

The Henrys say there was only one previous encounter between Nick Frey and the dog, occurring in late June or early July. Huck barked at Nick Frey when he came outside to place his trash in the cans, which are next to the fence separating the two properties. 

“I pulled Huck away from the fence,” Phil Henry said. “Nick said to me, ‘If your dog ever comes over here, he’s not coming back.’”

The Freys’ attorney, Wilkinson, denies her client used those words, but concedes that Nick Frey did say he would kill the dog to protect his family and chickens. However, Wikinson said it wasn’t a threat.

In response, the Henry’s raised the fence two feet and placed lattice work at the top to cut Huck’s view of the neighbor’s yard. After Jennie Frey texted Phil Henry to thank him for increasing the fence height, the Henrys believed the issue was resolved.

Yet, Wilkinson asserts the Freys had encounters with Huck on “multiple occasions.” The dog attempted to scale the fence to get to the chickens and was “aggressive toward Mr. Frey, barking viciously” at him, Wilkinson said.

The Freys only complained about Huck on that one occasion and appeared to know that Huck wasn’t vicious, the Henrys said. Afterall, when the Henrys’ grandchildren lived with them for six months, the Frey children visited and played with the dog, according to Anna Henry.

“We took Huck to the dog park every day and there were never any issues, “Phil said. “Not with people or other dogs.”

Two weeks after the shooting, the Freys put plastic skeletons of a dog and a human lying on the ground holding a leash in their yard, about where Huck was shot, the Henrys said. Already traumatized by the shooting, the family now felt intimidated, according to Anna Henry. 

“It did not occur to me that the placement of those Halloween decorations might cause mental anguish or distress to our neighbors,” Nick Frey said.

The Aftermath

Sonoma County Animal Services found that Nick Frey was within his legal rights to shoot Huck and closed the case within days. The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Officer concurred with the decision, according to an email sent to the Henrys by an animal control officer.

Anna Henry filed a complaint about Nick Frey with the Novato Police Department on Oct. 12, saying that he had used excessive force and “seemed very out of control.”

Novato Police Chief Beth Johnson responded less than two weeks later, stating the department conducted a review and concluded the incident was out of their jurisdiction.

In an interview, Johnson said she “reviewed everything in its totality,” including the videos. The gun used to shoot the dog was not Nick Frey’s service weapon, another factor which distanced the incident from the police department, she said.

“No disciplinary action will be taken,” Johnson said. “There is not a nexus to his employment, and the labor laws are very specific.”

Interestingly, Nick Frey cited a state law and a Novato Police Department policy when he explained his reasons for declining to euthanize the dog. The law and policy both prohibit a law enforcement officer from euthanizing an animal, unless it is a stray or abandoned and “so badly injured that human compassion requires its removal from further suffering and where other dispositions are impractical.”

Since shooting and seriously wounding the dog had no connection to Nick Frey’s employment as a law enforcement officer, then euthanizing the dog shouldn’t either. 

Novato police department policy also states that lying and unbecoming conduct, both on- and off-duty, are causes for disciplinary action. Johnson said she has no reason to believe her employee to be dishonest. There are different perceptions of an emotionally charged event, she said.

Credibility is at the core of the incident, according to Thomas Tiderington, a police use of force expert with more than 42 years of experience in law enforcement, including two decades serving as a police chief. Tiderington believes the shooting was justified but said he can’t determine if it was reasonable. He questions whether Nick Frey stepped away from the dog “to take the shot” or because he felt threatened.

“What did the officer believe in the moment it was occurring?” Tiderington said. “We don’t know exactly what happened. If he felt he was going to be injured by the dog, there’s no way anyone else could dispute that. He covered his bases by saying he felt he was in danger and protecting the chickens.”

Some of the officer’s conduct was unprofessional, Tiderington said. He cited keeping the skeletons on display as the “most outrageous” act.

“I really question the wisdom of the officer about that,” Tiderington said.

Some members of the Novato Police Advisory Review Board (PARB) also have questions. The board is composed of seven residents who are appointed by the Novato City Council to advise on police department policy. 

One concern is the city failed to inform PARB that a complaint had been filed against an officer, although it is required by a city council resolution. Johnson said the board wasn’t told yet because it meets quarterly. However, the last meeting took place three weeks after Anna Henry filed her complaint and a week after Johnson responded to it.

Another issue is that Novato City Manager Adam McGill denied a PARB member’s request to call a special meeting about Nick Frey, according to an email obtained by the Pacific Sun. McGill’s reasoning is that the board could potentially be called upon to review this personnel matter, and members discussing it beforehand would render them ineffective as a “neutral jury.” 

McGill’s logic seems flawed based on one of the prerequisites to trigger a PARB review of a personnel issue. The citizen who filed a complaint about the officer must also file an appeal of department’s determination within 30 days. Then McGill decides whether PARB will review the appeal.

Anna Henry never appealed Johnson’s decision because no one told her she could. It’s not on the generic complaint form and Johnson’s letter didn’t mention it. The 30-day window expired weeks ago.

Without an appeal, a PARB review isn’t triggered, making McGill’s excuse not to schedule the special meeting a moot point. Furthermore, PARB’s rules and regulations permit the board to call meetings and place items on the agenda.

The Future

Meanwhile, it’s been more than three months since the Henrys lost Huck. Their grief is still close to the surface. Anna Henry spoke to the Pacific Sun only once because she can no longer discuss Huck’s death. During several conversations with Phil Henry, he cried.

The only decision remaining for the the Henrys is whether to file a lawsuit against Nick Frey, but they understand it’s a long and emotional process. Still, they want to hold him accountable in some way.

In an interview with the Pacific Sun, the Henrys’ attorney said they could make a case for intentional infliction of emotional distress. 

“Something has to be done about this officer,” Phil Henry said. “I don’t want Huck to have died in vain.”

Nikki Silverstein
Nikki Silverstein is an award-winning journalist who has written for the Pacific Sun since 2005. She escaped Florida after college and now lives in Sausalito with her Chiweenie and an assortment of foster dogs. Send news tips to [email protected]

1 COMMENT

  1. Seems like just another cop who took out his anger without de-escalating or finding another way out. Everything looks like a nail to a man with a hammer.

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