published Saturday, June 21st, 2014

'She answered the call': More than 200 gather for police dog's funeral in Walker County (with video)

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    Honor guard members carry the remains of K-9 deputy Tanja at the Walker County Civic Center.
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ROCK SPRING, Ga. — The funeral procession drove on U.S. Highway 27 beneath a huge American flag suspended from the ladders of two firetrucks.

A lone bagpiper played.

Four police officers in dress uniform lifted a glass ark bearing the departed's ashes from the hearse and carried it into the Walker County Civic Center.

There were clues, though, that Friday morning's memorial service was for a dog, a full-fledged deputy with the Walker County Sheriff's Office.

Like the line of police dogs and their handlers that awaited the hearse. The K-9 units had traveled for hours from Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina.

More than 200 people gathered at 11 a.m. for a solemn, roughly hourlong ceremony to honor Tanja, a Dutch shepherd who died June 13 after she was mortally wounded, Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson said, by a shotgun blast fired by Steven Lee Waldemer.

The 58-year-old Idaho man, wanted on charges of aggravated sexual battery, was holed up in a travel trailer in a remote part of Lookout Mountain near Menlo, Ga., and wouldn't come out as deputies and other law enforcement personnel surrounded him, Wilson said.

So Tanja's handler, Deputy Donnie Brown, pried open the trailer's screen door and let Tanja in. Waldemer shot the dog with a blast that grazed Brown in the face, authorities said.

"She answered the call," Wilson said. "She died protecting her master."

The sheriff gave an emotional speech during which he quoted the Bible, Mark Twain and referenced "Greyfriars Bobby" a Skye Terrier that reportedly spent 14 years in the 1800s guarding the grave of his owner in Edinburgh, Scotland.

"God got it right when he put Donnie and Tanja together," Wilson said. "One of my officers is hurting. One died in the line of duty."

Wilson knelt and presented a folded American flag to Deputy Brown, who sat in the front row with his wife and their three children. The sheriff announced that Tanja would get both the sheriff department's Purple Heart and its Medal of Honor.

Floyd County, Ga., Sheriff's Deputy Mike Williams understands how painful losing a K-9 partner must be.

"They are part of the family. They're not just a pet," said Williams, who came to the ceremony with his K-9 partner, Snickers, a 110-pound, 2-year-old bloodhound.

Williams dabbed at his bloodhound's drool with a handkerchief he carries for just that purpose.

"You know that's family when you carry a slobber hanky for your dog," said Floyd County sheriff's Chaplain David Thornton, who later spoke during the memorial.

Friday's service cost the sheriff's department very little, Wilson said, thanks to donations such as the hearse and use of the civic center. The sheriff's department purchased a spray of flowers, he said.

It's been some 80 years since a Walker County sheriff's deputy has been killed in the line of duty, Wilson said. That was on Aug. 11, 1934, when Deputy Sheriff D.C. "Doss" Alexander was slain in Chickamauga.

"The Bible tells us human life is greater than all animal life," Wilson said. "I pray to God I never have to bury a human officer."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.

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about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.

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