The ex-wife of a McLennan County Sheriff’s Office dog handler collected a $30,000 settlement this week from the county’s insurance carrier over injuries to her two sons caused by the aggressive dog named Ace, a former county-owned narcotics and apprehension dog.

Penny Walter filed a lawsuit against the county in May, seeking compensation for a dog bite to her older son’s forehead and leash burns along the neck of her younger son, which occurred in June 2015.

Waco attorney Mike Dixon, who represents McLennan County, said the county’s insurance risk pool made the decision to settle the lawsuit with Walter, which was finalized Tuesday in Waco’s 414th State District Court.

“In reviewing the situation, it was pretty apparent that the plaintiff was committed to pursuing the lawsuit, and obviously, the costs of litigation are pretty significant,” Dixon said. “So the risk pool, factoring everything in, decided to settle this case, as it has the right to do. There wasn’t an actual lawsuit at the time the settlement was reached. But the suit was filed as a friendly suit to get court approval for settlements involving minors.”

Walter is represented by Austin attorney Vic Feazell, a former McLennan County district attorney, who did not return phone messages Wednesday.

Ace, who cost the county $15,000, is a Belgian Malinois that also bit the arm of a deputy in what Sheriff Parnell McNamara determined to be an improper training exercise. He was retired by the county in April.

County commissioners approved an agreement to transfer Ace to the United States K-9 Unlimited law enforcement dog training academy in Kaplan, Louisiana. Ace was initially trained at the academy and then was sent back for a remedial session after he became more aggressive and harder to handle.

In the agreement, Dixon wrote that the county transferred ownership and possession of the 3-year-old dog to K-9 Unlimited “without warranty AS IS and WITH ALL FAULTS, if any.” When asked about the reference to faults, Dixon said the terms merely are legal jargon.

“He has been deactivated from service in McLennan County and sent back to a training center,” Dixon said. “The sheriff’s office is going away from bite dogs, that is, dogs that are used in the assistance of apprehension, and going completely to narcotics and explosive detection dogs. There was not a need for him anymore, and the best option was to send him back where he came from, because otherwise the county would still have the obligation and spend thousands of dollars every year to care for him.”

The boys were on a weekend visit with their father, Deputy Esteban Bustillos, when Ace got startled and bit the older boy on the forehead, Dixon said.

“It was not a major injury but required stitches,” Dixon said. “The other boy had a leash burn from getting caught up in the dog’s leash while the dog was running. He had a burn across his neck, but neither one had permanent injuries.”

McNamara reprimanded a former office K-9 handler 18 months ago after an internal investigation revealed the corporal’s tactics transformed Ace, the once-sociable, skilled narcotics dog, into a vicious animal that bit a deputy twice on the arm.

Investigation launched

Deputies launched the internal investigation after Ace’s aggressive behavior was so concerning to the training staff at the Louisiana training academy that they sent Bustillos, Ace’s new deputy handler at the time, home early from what was supposed to be a five-week school.

According to reports, a trainer at the United States K9 Unlimited dog training academy said Ace exhibited “major behavioral issues,” including lunging at Bustillos and trying to bite others around him.

“Somehow, Ace developed some issues, and they need to be fixed,” trainer Debbie McLean wrote to sheriff’s office administrators. “At the current point, there is a very high possibility that Ace will injure someone. There were no issues with Ace when (Cpl.) Joseph Ballew certified last January 2014. From many, many years of experience, our trainers can acknowledge that allowing people to pick on or constantly tease the dog causes traits such as these.”

Ballew, a 10-year sheriff’s office veteran, was Ace’s handler before the dog and the department’s other K-9, Impulse, a 6-year-old German shepherd, were transferred from the patrol division to McNamara’s Organized Crime Unit.

Ballew elected to stay in patrol so he wouldn’t have to take a pay cut, so Bustillos took over as Ace’s handler, McNamara said at the time.

Ballew’s training methods and other incidents involving Ace, including his twice biting the arm of Deputy James Wolfe in the patrol office on Washington Avenue, were criticized by supervisors and others in the internal investigation, leading to the sheriff’s reprimand.

McNamara said the reprimand was for training Ace in an unauthorized area on the day Wolfe was bitten. His injuries were minor, and Wolfe declined medical treatment, McNamara said last year.

Ballew denied the findings in the internal report last year, calling it “completely one-sided.”

He said at the time that he would not do anything detrimental to the dog or its training.

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