COLUMBIA, SC — More than a police dog died Dec. 16, 2011, as an armed robber fired seven shots during a police manhunt through a North Columbia neighborhood.
While no Richland County Sheriff’s deputies or Columbia Police Department officers were hit by bullets, scars remain.
Sheriff’s deputies still cry as they remember Fargo, the K9 who was killed. The trauma of gunfire causes hesitation when they are called to track criminals.
Worried families question whether the officers should keep working in those jobs, said Richland County Sheriff’s investigator Warren Cavanagh, whose was Fargo’s handler and who saw muzzle flashes just yards away as he pursued the suspect that night.
“Who did he have that gun drawn for?” Cavanagh said of the man who fired the gun. “Yes, there was a dog that was killed, but he was killed doing his job and that was protecting these officers that night.”
The lingering effects of the 2011 shootout and manhunt were on display Monday in Richland County Circuit Court, as the man who caused it pleaded guilty to five counts of attempted murder and one count of unlawful killing of a police dog.
Maurice McCreary, 24, admitted he shot at the officers and killed the dog and apologized for his actions. In exchange for his guilty plea, an armed robbery charge and an attempted murder charge were dropped. He faced life in prison without parole if he had gone to trial.
Judge Robert Hood sentenced McCreary to 35 years in prison.
Hood gave McCreary the maximum 30-year sentence on each attempted murder charge but decided those would be served concurrently. He also gave McCreary the five-year maximum sentence for killing a police dog. That sentence is to be served after the other 30 years.
The hearing was filled with emotion as officers described the trauma of being fired upon and the pain of losing the dog. Several officers, including Sheriff Leon Lott, had to pause to fight tears as they spoke about the violence that unfolded that night.
McCreary had robbed someone at gunpoint during a deal over a rifle at a store on Monticello Road near Eau Claire High School. Police were called, and the manhunt began.
During the hunt, McCreary twice hid only to jump from his cover and shoot at the deputies, who had been joined by Columbia Police Department officers.
In one instance, McCreary hid behind boards leaning against a fence, said Assistant 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Goldberg, the prosecutor. There, he left behind a mask and a knife with a 5-inch blade.
Cavanagh, Fargo and Deputy Adam Oxendine followed McCreary as he ran through a yard and over another fence into some woods. Cavanagh and Oxendine saw muzzle flashes from McCreary’s handgun after he climbed the 6-foot fence.
Cavanagh was the first to go over the fence and Oxendine helped get the dog over. When Oxendine jumped, he tore a knee ligament.
The second ambush happened in a field on Rugby Road, which is off of Monticello, where sand berms were piled along the perimeter.
McCreary was hiding behind a sand berm, and Fargo, who had been released from his leash, found McCreary. The dog bit and held on, Goldberg said.
As McCreary tried to run with the dog biting him, he fired his gun. Two shots struck Fargo.
Cavanagh called Fargo off McCreary and began looking for injuries. As he checked his dog, McCreary again fired at the officers.
Cavanagh saw that the dog had been hit and rushed him to an emergency veterinarian’s office.
As Fargo fought for his life, McCreary continued to lead more than 200 officers on a nine-hour manhunt that was one of the largest in the Richland County Sheriff’s Department history. Columbia police, the S.C. Highway Patrol, the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division and the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department joined in.
McCreary was found asleep in a shed behind a home near Monticello Road.
Cavanagh explained the long-term effects on the officers involved in the chase and their families. Cavanagh said he has tracked hundreds of suspects during his career and, on that day, McCreary was doing more than trying to escape police as he set up ambushes and repeatedly fired at officers.
Cavanagh said he and the other officers now have a hesitation when they are called to track a criminal.
“That get up and go takes a little longer now,” he said. “There are questions of ‘what if? What if something like this happens again?’”
Cavanagh also told the judge about parent-teacher conferences where officers have been told that their children have expressed worry over their parents’ jobs.
“There are families who are torn up right now.” Cavanagh said. “They are the ones who question whether their loved one should do this job again and again and again.”
As for McCreary, he apologized for shooting at the officers and for killing Fargo. He told the judge he accepted responsibility.
“Being bit by a dog, I did freak out and I did shoot at the dog,” McCreary said. “I just ask that you accept my apology. It was never my intention to go out that night and shoot at officers and have a shootout.”
A church pastor, a cousin and an uncle also pleaded for mercy on McCreary’s behalf. They each apologized to the officers on behalf of the family, and each looked at McCreary as they told him they loved him and would continue praying for him.
Before handing down the sentence, Hood opened his remarks by telling McCreary how much worse his situation could have been.
“The grace and mercy God gave you is none of the officers were hit that night,” Hood said. “You would be facing the death penalty.”
Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.