Anchorage dog shooter Jason Mellerstig has now given a partial account of the events leading up to the killing of a neighbor’s Labrador retriever in her yard in an upscale city neighborhood last week.
The account is largely contradicted by an eyewitness to the immediate aftermath.
But first Mellerstig’s explanation to how the shooting near Campbell Lake took place as told to a reporter for the Alaska Dispatch News on Tuesday:
“As Mellerstig prepared to load his 3-year-old son into a car seat on the passenger side (of his truck) shortly before 3 p.m., he said Skhoop ran down the lawn toward them.
“‘This dog came tearing down the yard at a full rate of charge — teeth bared, lips snarling,’ Mellerstig said. ‘In that three-second span, I had a half-second in which to make a decision to guard my son’s life; I made a decision to guard my son.’
“Mellerstig said he tried yelling at the dog, but when that didn’t work, he drew the handgun he was carrying, a 9 mm Glock pistol with a 10-round magazine.
“I had to make a split-second decision,’ Mellerstig said. ‘I yelled, ‘Stop!,’ the dog didn’t stop — I shot to stop the threat.'”
This account raises more questions than it answers. Among them:
- Does Mellerstig, a pilot for a small regional airline in Alaska, always carry a handgun?
- If not, why did he decide to strap one on before taking his son to school?
- Did he see the dog in his neighbor’s yard?
- If so, why didn’t he get into his truck through the roadside door instead of walking into the yard to use the passenger side door?
- Where exactly was the three year old when the dog came across the lawn?
- And what exactly does “preparing to load” the child mean?
- Was the boy already in the car seat, in Mellerstig’s arms or at Mellerstig’s side when the man decided to draw his gun?
Mellerstig may have good answers to all these questions, but he did not respond to craigmedred.news when he was contacted on his Facebook page before it was taken down. He has not responded to an email. And a phone he once used rings but does not answer.
Were the gaps in Mellerstig’s story as told to a newspaper scribe not enough, there is a bigger problem. An eyewitness to the aftermath of the shooting puts Mellerstig in the road on the driver’s side of his truck near the rear taillight as a fusilade of shots came to an end. Mellerstig’s son was at that time said to be standing next to the driver’s side door.
The witness, a commercial pilot who has just completed his flight physical and reported his vision at 20-15, asked that his name not be used because his wife is terrified. But he said he has given the Anchorage Police Department a detailed statement, and he agreed to talk about what he saw.
He was in his garage up the street about 200 feet from the shooting when he heard the shots start. Prior to that, he heard no shouting as Mellerstig has claimed. The witness said he exited his garage as the shooting started and was in a position to have a clear view of the street within three to five seconds.
“I heard bark, bark, bark. Bang, bang, bag,” he said. “All I witnessed was the aftermath. I saw Dave (Brailey) running down the yard. I saw the guy in the street. He was near the left tail light (driver’s side) of the truck. The child was near the driver’s door. And he had the gun pointed down at the curb.”
The witness could not see the dog. He said his view of that was blocked. He could, he said, see that Mellerstig was wearing a hip holster and had a goattee. The witness watched Mellerstig holster the gun. He said he later read Mellerstig’s account of what happened in the ADN.
“Absolute bullshit” was how he described the report.
After the shooting, the witness said Mellerstig walked forward along the driver’s side of the truck, picked up his son, went around the front of the truck to the passenger side of the vehicle, loaded the child and drove away.
“The kid wasn’t crying,” the witness said. “He wasn’t upset.”
Mellerstig told KTVA.com that after the mid-afternoon shooting he had to leave to take his three-year-old to school. But when Mellerstig returned 20 minutes later, the neighbor who was now watching what was happening through binoculars, noticed Mellerstig’s son was still with him.
Little of what Mellerstig told the newspaper seemed to make any sense, the man said:
“It sounds like he’s just sort of trying to cover his ass. I told the police what I saw.”
Shooting fast-moving targets
The issue of how this shooting went down only gets more complicated beyond the questions as to how it began and the observations of the neighbor as to where Mellerstig was located when the shooting ended.
The distance from the home of Skhoop’s owners to the street on which the shooting took place is less than 50 feet. A Labrador going full speed can easily hit 20 mph. Petworld.in claims 30 mph, but to be conservative this story will stick with 20.
A dog at “full charge,” a speed somewhere near 20 mph, would cover 29.33 feet per second. By that calculation, if it started at a dead run from the Brailey home, it would be off the Brailey property and well into the street in two seconds. But the police report says the dog was shot and killed on the Brailey property.
Given Mellerstig’s 3-second timeline for the shooting, either things were happening significantly faster than Mellerstig thought, the dog wasn’t in “full charge, ” or it was already starting to brake to a halt at the property line.
Another neighbor of Brailey’s who regularly walked her dog past the Brailey house said it wasn’t unusual for Skhoop to rush her invisible fence and then stop.The neighbor added that when Skhoop did this she could appear threatening. This would dovetail with Mellerstig’s statement that the dog was coming with “teeth bared, lips snarling.”
The danger of a dog with “teeth bared, lips snarling” is not to be underestimated. If the dog is close, it can lash out and hurt someone in a flash. These lunging attacks usually happen very fast at close range as in this video of a dog attack on a policeman: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TwoOvVah_oc
It would be hard to fault Mellerstig opening fire in such a situation, but this is not the sort of attack he describes. He describes shooting a charging animal, which is no easy task. Fast-moving animals, even grizzly bears six- to eight-times the size of Skhoop, are hard to hit when charging, and Mellerstig said he’d never shot at any animals — just targets.
(Full disclosure: The author once missed a charging grizzly bear with a handgun at a distance of 6- to 8-feet, owns a Labrador retriever and has owned many before, has killed just about every animal that can be legally killed in the state of Alaska, and has no reservations about shooting anything or anybody (sadly) in a true self-defense situation.)
If Mellerstig hit a dog running at full speed, it was a good piece of shooting. If he did it while surprised in the act of trying to get a three-year-old into a car seat, it was one hell of a piece of shooting. And if Mellerstig was trapped between the side of a truck and a dog he thought was going to tear him apart, as he claims, it’s a justified shooting.
But how then did he get from the passenger side door of the truck to near the left rear tail light on the driver’s side in time to be seen with the gun pointing down at the curb before he holstered it? as the witness observed.
There are many “ifs” in Mellerstig’s story, and Brailey raised more in an interview today. Brailey charged that the story Mellerstig told the ADN was concoted after the fact. Brailey pointed to his photograph showing Brailey outside the door of his pickup just after the shoooting and asked, “Where’s the dog?”
A whole different version of events
Skhoop is clearly not visible in the photo of Mellerstig next to the passenger door. That is because the dog was shot 6 to 8 feet behind the truck, according to Brailey, who added that “I didn’t have the heart to take a picture of my dead dog” but that Anchorage Police do have photos. The position of the dog as described by Brailey jives with the account of the eye-witness.
Brailey also said the police report, which said the dog died in Brailey’s yard, is wrong. This somewhat contradicts Brailey’s earlier statement to craigmedred.news saying the dog died in the yard. Brailey said today that Skhoop died with her head on the curb.
The position of the dog, however, also contradicts Mellerstig’s story. If he shot an attacking Skhoop while at the passenger side door of the truck “preparing to load his 3-year-old son into a car seat,” as he told the ADN, the dead dog would have needed to slide or crawl under the truck to end up with its head on the curb or the street. Brailey’s photo taken just after the shooting clearly shows Mellerstig’s truck parked with the passenger side tires on the Brailey lawn.
If Mellerstig was at the passenger door of the truck when he shot Skhoop, the position of the dog’s carcasss would indicate it was trying to run around the truck, not attack Mellerstig, at the time.
Brailey has his own explanation for how Skhoop ended up dead at the edge of a quiet neighborhood street. He believes she was lured to the limit of the invisible fence surrounding her yard and executed.
Brailey was home at the time of the shooting and rushed around his house into the front yard as the shooting started. The photo of Mellerstig was, Brailey said, taken no more than 10 seconds after the shooting. Brailey doesn’t remember seeing a child anywhere, but the child might have been buckled into his seat before the admittedly shaken homeowner decided he should take a photo.
Brailey believes Mellerstig left the scene of the shooting in his truck after the photo was taken and before police arrived so he could later make the claim he was outside the passenger door loading his son when the incident started.
“He’s lying,” Brailey said. “He’s totally lying.”
The fog of war
Witnesses often see things differently even if they don’t have personal interests to protect, and all too often get things wrong in situations where adrenaline is flowing. Sorting out who is telling the truth and who isn’t can be extremely difficult, and sometimes stories vary because everyone is telling the truth as best they can remember it.
All of which could make the events leading up to this shooting almost as important as the shooting itself.
The Braileys said Skhoop was out in the yard earlier in the day and barking so much at the commotion across the street — the Mellerstig’s were still moving in, across and one house down — that they brought the dog inside for time.
Did Mellerstig not notice the barking dog across the street? Did he assume it was still in the house as it had been earlier in the day and innocently head for his truck?
Or did he expect the dog to be there and head for his truck armed and intending to confront Skhoop?
Much of this story makes little sense, including Mellerstig’s description of what can only be fairly summarized as a “vicious dog.” Others agree Skhoop would bark and appear aggressive but everyone seems to agree it was a normal, territorial display, and she stayed in the yard. Here’s how Tasha Bergt, a neighbor of the Braileys and a well-known Alaska skier and runner described the dog in a comment on this website:
“I think evidence over many years of peaceful neighborhood living should carry some weight. (Another neighbor) reflected on Skhoop being a great neighbor dog for her whole life. We knew Skhoop well. She was a really good dog. This is all so unbelievable.”
Of the dozens of people, if not hundreds by now, who have commented on this and other websites, none has described an incident in which Skhoop charged through the invisible fence that trained her to stay in the yard.
“In the countless times I’ve walked by the dog, she’d always either stayed where she was and watched us walk by or charged at full speed, barking and snarling,” neighbor Sonya Fisher said in an email. “I’m sure I was nervous the first time I experienced that even though from my experience handling dogs I could tell it was a territorial display.”
Yes, Skhoop had been designated a Class I dog by animal control a year ago and was supposed to be kept in the yard. But the Class I tag can get hung on almost any dog that gets loose and barks at someone who tries to catch it. And the invisible fence at the Brailey’s apparently did work to keep Skhoop contained.
None of which is meant to suggest Labrador retrievers are benign.. They do bite people. There is no doubt about that. They are reported to have seriously injured 56 people and killed three over the past 32 years.
Still, Labs are the most popular breed of dog in the country mainly because they are so friendly. They are almost everywhere, and those 56 serious injuries would amount to less than two per year nationwide.
It is safe to say the risk of a Lab attack is pretty low, but maybe Mellerstig — who appears adamant in his belief he was shooting in self-defense — didn’t know this. Maybe he doesn’t know how to tell a Labrador from some of the thinner haired Alaska huskies one sees these days.
The world is a place where perceptions sometimes matter as much as reality. Where one person sees a goofy barking dog that just can’t shut up, another sees a threat.
We will likely never know for sure what happened in this case other than that there was an encounter and someone’s beloved dog died. But the one thing the incident ought to make everyone think about is the responsibility of gun ownership.
Once the bullets hit flesh, it’s hard to put things back together again. Mellerstig says he would like to make up with the neighbor whose dog he killed, but it is hard to imagine that happening at this point. It’s unclear if Mellerstig can even make up with a neighborhood reeling at the idea of someone opening up among the houses with a semi-automatic handgun.
And yet, in some ways, sad and angry as many people are about this shooting, we should probably all take solace in the fact Skhoop was a dog.
A guy named George Zimmerman thought he was doing the right thing in self-defense when he shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012. Martin, a young African-American, died. Zimmerman was tried for murder and acquitted, but his life has been a train wreck since. Martins’ family was left crushed. The acquittal further split a nation already struggling with race relations and the right to bear arms.
The act of killing anybody or anything in the belief of self-defense is not something to be taken lightly. It’s likely Mellerstig would be a happier man today if he’d kept his 9mm Glock holstered, loaded his son into the truck from the roadside safely away from Skhoop, and driven off. Just as it’s certain Zimmerman life would be better if he’d just walked away.