Illinois Police Dog Comforts Grieving After Loss Of Handler

URBANA, Ill. (AP) — As he approaches his annual employee evaluation, Winston has a lock on “exceeds expectations.”

Consider that since December, the chocolate Labrador had to graduate from therapy-dog school, relocate from balmy Florida to chilly Champaign County, start a new job, acclimate to loving strangers, then abruptly be robbed of his 24/7 work partner and handler.

And since the death of University of Illinois police Lt. Aaron Landers in a traffic crash seven weeks ago, Winston has had to return to work comforting the very people who brought him here to help others, The News-Gazette reports.

“He was pretty mopey for a few days after the (funeral) services,” said Dee Landers, Lt. Landers’ widow. “Once the services were over and we were all at the house by ourselves, he understood there was something different.

“He went through a period where he was having some issues. A couple days after we got him back to work, he was coming around,” said Lt. Tim Hetrick, now assigned as Winston’s work partner. “And he’s back to his old self. He loves coming to work and interacting with people.”

If only grief were so seemingly simple for humans to handle.

In a tribute to their husband and father, Lt. Landers’ family considered what was best for Winston.

“Chief (Alice) Cary and I had a conversation,” his widow said. “She said, ‘You can buy Winston for a dollar and he’s yours and no hard feelings. Or we can work something out where he can come to work a few days a week.’”

Married 27 years to the man she met when they worked together at K’s Merchandise Mart in Champaign in 1992, she already knew the answer.

“I talked to the kids about it,” Dee said. “We kind of decided Winston enjoyed going to work, and that’s what Aaron wanted him to do. They (Alex and Keira) just asked: Can we have it in writing that he lives with us and goes to work? Immediately, the chief just wrote it into a general order.”

And so began the journey for a family’s return to normalcy, whatever that is, without their patriarch. Back to college for Alex, back to middle school for Keira, and back to master’s classes in nursing for Dee while working full-time at Carle Foundation Hospital.

And back to the UI Police Department for Winston.

Hetrick, who lives in Vermilion County, swings by the Landerses’ home in St. Joseph about 6:30 a.m. and takes Winston to the office, a house across the street to the north of the police department, the same place he went with Lt. Landers.

About a week ago, Hetrick was promoted to lieutenant after 19 years on the UI police force and 10 years as a Danville police officer prior to that.

Cary, whom Dee Landers said “has a really good way of seeing things in people and capitalizing on their strengths,” chose Hetrick to head up the Community Outreach and Support Team that Lt. Landers had been chosen to lead about a year earlier.

It was a job that fit perfectly with the master’s degree in social work that Lt. Landers had obtained from the UI in 2016. At age 50 and with 24 years at UI police, he was excited to be putting his vision to work, his wife said.

The team is making inroads in the co-responder model of policing. Social workers are teamed with officers trained in crisis intervention in hopes of having more positive outcomes in calls involving people suffering mental-health crises.

The therapy dogs are just part of the team’s equation, but certainly a component with great public appeal.

When Cary sent Lt. Landers to Florida in December to the Paws and Stripes school “just to observe” therapy-dog training, Dee Landers said she had a good idea her husband would not be coming home alone.

“Chief Cary will never admit she sent him down there to get a dog, but that might have been her subconscious agenda,” she said, adding that she and the children did not object to a new family member.

Hetrick said he believes Cary chose him to fill Lt. Landers’ vacancy in part because he has handled K-9s for most of his law-enforcement career and serves as the department’s K-9 supervisor.

“I’m honored to pick up where Aaron left off and hope I can do justice and make him proud,” Hetrick said. “It’s a big undertaking, and he did a great job.”

As for his new job responsibilities, Hetrick said being Winston’s partner is “100 percent the easiest part for me.”

“He’s just fun to be around and brings everybody’s mood up when he’s in the room and just really probably is the best part of my job right now,” Hetrick said. “I think I’ve only missed one day (getting him) since we started this arrangement and will miss one this week because of a schedule full of meetings.”

That’s not because Winston can’t handle meetings.

“We find that if we want to have the attention of the people we are meeting with, we probably need to leave Winston out of it,” Hetrick said. “They don’t care what we’ve got to say after they see the dogs.”

Dee Landers said Hetrick drops Winston off on his way home from work and if no one is there, he has the garage-door code to let himself in. The Landerses’ other dog, Bonnie, a 6-year-old Belgian-Malinois mix, is there to greet Winston. Both animals are feeling the loss of Lt. Landers, she said.

“They play and eat and sleep in the same room,” she said. “Sometimes they even get up on the couch together.”

Dee Landers is grateful to Hetrick for helping her family through this awful part of their lives.

Both Lt. Landers and his wife are the children of police officers, so they and their children are more in tune than most to the feeling of extended family that pervades law enforcement.

A few days after Keira’s recent birthday, her first since her father’s death, members of the Explosive Ordnance Device team that her father had led brought her a cake and presents.

“It was one of the first times she had had a moment of happiness,” Dee Landers said. “I selfishly gravitate toward the people at the department who knew him really well.”

For instance, she recently attended one of the “COAST cooks” that Aaron instituted for upper command officers to make breakfast for the rank and file.

“I took Winston in for the last COAST cook and kind of hung out and helped with that,” she said. “It’s that tangible piece of him that exists. Just being able to be there and be around those people. There’s a few of them who have never left my side. I see them as brothers and sisters and am willing to support them however they need to be supported. That just won’t change.”

After almost three decades with her “soulmate and best friend,” Dee Landers had a good handle on his character.

“Aaron has always been the type of leader who never searched for recognition,” she said. “He was more about helping those around him succeed and reach their goals and making them better because he knew that true leaders do that.

“He had a vision for where policing could go and changes that could be made that could benefit everyone, especially when it came to mental health,” she added. “He taught critical incident training throughout the state. That was one of his passions. The more he could help people help others, he found it very rewarding and a way to impact policing as a whole.

“Having the model he was working on at the UI just made sense. Part of my job now is to toe the line of his legacy, along with Tim and Chief Cary and the folks at the COAST house, to work to keep that going.”

And Winston, of course.