Cocoa police handler won't face cruelty charge after K9 Zena found dead in vehicle, state attorney's office says

·5 min read

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Almost a year after the death of Cocoa police K9 Zena, Melbourne police concluded their investigation and determined the vehicle the dog was kept inside for hours did not have a properly functioning cooling system and recommended her handler be charged with animal cruelty.

But a charge against Robin Viera-Gonzalez will not be pursued, Todd Brown, a spokesperson for the state attorney's office, said Thursday.

K9 Zena was found dead in a police vehicle June 23.
K9 Zena was found dead in a police vehicle June 23.

"Based on the totality of the evidence and unfortunate circumstances that led to the K9’s death, we did not believe that prosecution of Officer Robin Viera-Gonzalez was warranted," Brown said in a prepared statement.

At the time of the dog's death, Viera-Gonzalez was removed from all K9-related activities, and an internal affairs investigation was conducted following the outside investigation by the Melbourne Police Department, Cocoa Police Chief Evander Collier IV said.

The chief recommended Viera-Gonzalez be suspended without pay. Viera-Gonzalez has resigned.

"The death of K-9 Zena was tragic for all of us and we did not take it lightly," Collier IV said in a prepared statement. "We have always placed a high priority on the safety and well-being of our canines, and we will continue to do so."

What happened?

Melbourne police responded to the Melbourne campus of Eastern Florida State College June 23, 2021, to investigate Zena's death inside a Cocoa police vehicle, according to the investigation report. Viera-Gonzalez found her at about 12:48 p.m. The vehicle was parked on the south side of one of the college's buildings.

The 70-pound, 2-year-old Belgian Malinois had vomited and defecated and her fur had a "wet, matted appearance," the report said. She had no access to water while unattended.

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Viera-Gonzalez was an instructor for department training happening at Eastern Florida State College the day of Zena's death, according to the report. He had been on campus since about 8 a.m. to teach a class.

Police vehicles have safety devices to keep their canines healthy, including a system that warns the handler and bystanders if the interior temperature of the vehicle has become too hot, the report said. The system automatically activates when a police canine vehicle is turned on.

Malfunctioning system

Tests were performed June 24 to check whether the temperature monitoring system of the vehicle the dog was in was functioning, the report said. The temperature that day was comparable to the previous day's temperature.

Police found during testing that the system powered on when the vehicle was turned on. During their first two rounds of testing, they turned the climate control system of the car off and let the temperature inside the vehicle rise. While an LED labeled "ALARM" lit up inside the vehicle when the temperature inside the vehicle hit 113 degrees and the equipment made a repeated clicking sound as though attempting to make an electrical connection, no audible alarm sounded, and there was no alarm visible to people outside the vehicle.

During the third test, police found that when they turned the vehicle off and removed the keys from the ignition, the safety equipment completely shut down, the report said. Even when the interior of the car reached 118 degrees, no alarms went off, and the equipment didn't make the clicking sounds anymore.

Police concluded the equipment was malfunctioning and the alarms hadn't activated in the previous day's heat when the dog was in the vehicle.

K9 protocol

An Eastern Florida State College security officer told police she was patrolling the area at about 12:25 p.m. the day of Zena's death and said when she saw the vehicle in the parking lot, it was turned off, the report said.

The security officer, who said she worked for Cocoa police from 2008 to 2009, noted that when a K9 vehicle is not running, it's assumed there's no dog inside. So, she didn't approach the vehicle or find it suspicious that it wasn't running.

A Cocoa police commander provided data records for the K9 vehicle and said based on the records, the vehicle had been turned off at 8:14 a.m. June 23, the report said. Records did not show any activity until 12:54 p.m., which is the approximate time Zena was found dead.

Bringing K9s to non-canine trainings isn't an uncommon practice for Cocoa police K9 officers, as they may conduct short training sessions with their dogs throughout a training day, according to the report. When this is the case, officers will check on their dogs at least once an hour.

Melbourne police said in their investigation report that based on the vehicle data log and witness observations, they did not believe Viera-Gonzalez checked on the vehicle or Zena for about four hours and 44 minutes.

Because Viera-Gonzalez turned the vehicle off and left the dog unattended for more than four hours, he "created the very situation by which canine Zena was unnecessarily tormented and killed," police said in the report.

By periodically checking on her and letting her out of the vehicle, "remedy and relief" to the problem could have been provided.

Finch Walker is a Breaking News Reporter at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Walker at 321-290-4744 or fwalker@floridatoday.com. Twitter: @_finchwalker

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This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Police recommend handler be charged after K9 dies in vehicle