Buster (copy)

Buster, a Belgian Malinois breed, is the Gage County Sheriff’s Office K-9 unit. The K-9 program may be ending at the department.

Gage County’s drug dog will return to the sheriff’s office after a decision from the Board of Supervisors to rescinded a previous decision to sell the dog to his deputy handler.

Board chairman Erich Tiemann said there were two reasons the board revisited the issue, one being the value of the dog.

Two weeks ago the board determined the dog, Buster, to have a value of $250, based largely on predictions the dog would be unable to perform to his current level under a different handler.

“Since then we talked to the trainer and as we talked about this we talked about it as a piece of property, not to diminish a pet or the importance of a K-9 partner, just strictly in the eyes of the law about how we get rid of property,” Tiemann said.

On June 5, the board voted to allow Deputy Coltin Bebensee to purchase Buster, a 4-year-old Belgian Malinois following an announcement that Bebensee was leaving the department to take a job in Washington County. The pair worked together for around three years, and Bebensee was Buster’s only handler.

The board decided to allow Bebensee to purchase the dog for $250, and the amount was anonymously donated in the days following the meeting. County Attorney Roger Harris said a bill of sale had not been completed, and the board had the right to rescind its previous decision.

Bebensee was disappointed to hear the board rescinded its position, especially after being told he could purchase Buster two weeks ago.

“I guess I’m just disappointed in the county that this wasn’t thought of prior to them telling me they would sell Buster to me,” he said. “…It’s disappointing to be losing my best friend.”

In the last two weeks, board member John Hill said he contacted the dog’s original trainer, who said the value is likely more than 10 times the $250 sale price previously agreed upon.

“The trainer told me almost all dogs are able to be trained to a new handler,” Hill said. “He said they don’t like to be kenneled, they like to do what they were trained to do. He said it’s pretty slim that it wouldn’t be able to be retrained. He thought buster’s value still $3,000-$4,000 to go to law enforcement.

Additionally, Tiemann said the board previously acted without contacting donors who helped launch the K-9 program around three years ago.

Tiemann said he received a list of donors the morning of Wednesday’s meeting, and that donations totaled around half of the total cost of the program, which in addition to the $10,000 purchase price of the dog included training and equipment that pushed the total cost hear $100,000.

Private donations accounted for more than $46,000 of the cost.

Leigh and Marilyn Coffin donated $10,000. Marilyn Coffin attended Wednesday’s meeting where she expressed frustration that the K-9 program was ending, and said the board should have had more information about Buster’s health and potential to work with a different handler before taking action two weeks ago.

“Leigh and I immediately wrote a check for this dog,” she said. “Now it’s like, are there no more drugs in this county? Has that problem gone away because Buster has done such a good job that we don’t need a drug dog anymore? The second thing is my concern is that there had not been enough thought put into if he could be retrained. Until I talk to an expert who says this dog can’t be retrained, I strongly object to it being sold at Walmart prices."

Following Wednesday’s meeting officials said they couldn’t say what will happen with the $250 anonymous donation, or what will be next for Buster.

Discussions indicated someone at the sheriff’s office may be appointed to basically list Buster for sale and handle the transaction, or Buster may be put up for bid, allowing the public, other law enforcement agencies and Bebensee to bid on Buster’s fate.

The only thing that seems certain is that Buster will not continue serving in Gage County. The sheriff’s office doesn’t have a deputy interested in leading the program and Sheriff Millard “Gus” Gustafson previously said he’s written associated costs out of his preliminary budget for the next fiscal year. He also said the Beatrice Police Department was contacted, and is not interested in bringing Buster to the department.

Much of the County Board’s previous discussions have been debates if Buster should be treated as property or a deputy, a piece of surplus or a retiring county worker.

Bebensee said at a previous meeting the dog is dependent on him, and told the board Buster won’t work with anyone else. This raised a debate among board members if the dog has remaining value to the department under a different handler, or if attempting to retrain the dog would be a wasted effort.

Dogs can be retired if they’re no longer able to perform their duties or service. Bebensee pointed out that if the two are separated and Buster won’t work with another deputy, it would justify retirement.

Board members stated they acted quickly on the issue two weeks ago because there were questions how Buster would fare if he was kenneled -- Bebensee has said Buster lost significant weight during previous times he’d been kenneled -- and voted on the issue at that time.

“So many questions have been raised now and just so the public understands, a lot of the reason we moved fairly quickly on this was the representations that this dog, if we delayed an action, would suffer,” Harris said. “That’s what was given to this board and humanely they reacted to that.”

On Wednesday, Chief Deputy Doug Klaus was instructed by the board to reach out to Bebensee, who currently has Buster, to return the dog to Gage County, where Buster will likely be kenneled for weeks while the sheriff’s office decides how to proceed.

“I would recommend you not say, ‘If he’s with Coltin, that’s OK,’” Harris said. “That’s not OK. Coltin’s no longer and employee of this county. He’s no longer the drug enforcement officer. That dog needs to be back with us."

The board voted 6-1 to rescind the previous action, with Terry Jurgens casting the lone vote to stand by the decision to stand by allowing Bebensee to purchase Buster for $250.

After the vote was cast, board member Gary Lytle requested that someone keep an eye on Buster’s condition after the dog is kenneled.

“Somehow, I’m going to ask that if this dog goes into boarding there’s got to be a way to maintain this animal and make sure he doesn’t go into a state where this dog has to be put down because he loses so much weight,” he said. “I don’t want to see that on anybody’s hands.”

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