Investigator Erik Johnson appeared nervous.
The veteran cop had one eye on his phone and the other on a nearby escalator, pacing back and forth while scanning the crowd.
“We’re waiting for Sandy Marcal with Vested Interest in K9s,” Johnson explained. “This will be the first time she’s been in Arkansas.”
While it was the first time Johnson and Marcal met in person, theirs was a bond created through service and strengthened by tragedy, and the pair greeted each other like old friends.
But the real reason Marcal had traveled all the way from Massachusetts came next, when Johnson opened his police car’s gate and out jumped his partner, Gabo.
For the 8-year-old German shepherd, it was just another day, but for Marcal, the meeting meant more than she could put into words.
“I’m so happy to see you,” she said as she crouched down to hug the dog, her eyes wet and her voice full of emotion. “You’re a miracle, you know that?”
It was a meeting months in the making and one Johnson was acutely aware would never have happened were it not for Marcal.
“Her nonprofit was who provided the ballistic vest for Gabo,” Johnson said. “He ended up getting shot, Dec. 11, wearing that vest.”
The day that would come to be known as the day Gabo nearly died started like any other.
“It was actually a training day – we were doing canine training that day,” Johnson said. “I had left training to go run an errand. I heard a shots fired call, where somebody was wounded.”
Brenda Thomas, 56, was suspected of shooting 41-year-old Dennis Mardis at the Gladiola Manor Apartments in Jonesboro, police said. Mardis, a maintenance employee at the complex, was checking on Thomas' well-being as she had not been heard from for some time, when he was shot, officials said.
“He was shot approximately five times … in the neck and shoulder area,” Johnson said.
Mardis was airlifted to a Memphis trauma hospital after being shot multiple times, where he would go on to be treated and discharged.
Back at the complex, police tried to convince Thomas to surrender.
“We spent the afternoon and the early part of the evening trying to negotiate with this lady just to even make verbal contact with her and attempt to get her out of the apartment,” Jonesboro Police Chief Rick Elliott said. “But she never did converse with any of the negotiators or try to make any kind of contact.”
Police threw a phone into Thomas’ apartment, but she would not answer, Elliott said. They also deployed a robot with a camera on it, which entered her home and showed police she was still holding a gun, he said.
“She was just kind of pacing around,” he said. “At this point, we knew that there was something possibly going on mentally and you know … she was obviously troubled … but more important, we thought that she was probably going to shoot again because she was pacing, had the weapon in hand.”
They eventually filled the apartment with tear gas, but she still refused to leave, according to police.
“She put on some goggles. ... And just continued to pace around with a gun in her hand,” Elliott said.
The time had come to make a decision no one wanted, but believed was inevitable.
“I’m on a SWAT team. I wanted my team guys — my officers, my family — to go home to their families,” Johnson said. “So I made the hard decision to, to go get him.”
Gabo would be sent in.
Work for a police dog can be all-consuming, but it’s a role Gabo excells in.
“He doesn’t like to lie around the house,” Johnson said. “He doesn’t like to just sit around. He’s very work-driven. He loves to go to work.”
Seven of Johnson’s 10 years with the Jonesboro Police Department have been spent with Gabo, and the pair’s work together reflects that longevity.
“Gabo has been my best friend, my family, my partner for the last seven years,” he said. “We get up and go to work every day together. We go home every night. We go on trips. We stay in hotels together. We’re just inseparable. When he hurts, I hurt.”
And so when the decision to deploy Gabo on Dec. 11 was made, it was not made lightly, he said.
“I had one of the other handlers that was with me call the vet … sorry,” Johnson said, growing emotional at the memory. “I knew in my heart what was going to happen. It was the longest walk, to walk 150 yards to my truck.”
There, Gabo was waiting, ready to do whatever his partner needed.
“[I] open up the back door, reached in and started petting Gabo,” Johnson said. “[I] pet Gabo, told him I was sorry for what was going to happen. Told him I loved him. God. Told him I loved him and told him I was sorry for what I was going to do to him.”
The pair made their way back to the apartment complex, along the way spending time with the police department’s chaplain and ensuring a nearby vet was aware he needed to be ready to treat potentially critical wounds. When the time came to enter the apartment, Gabo didn’t hesitate.
“This is where it gets bad,” Johnson said. “Gabo goes down a short hall and is met by her. She puts the gun on him and pulls the trigger.”
Gabo was undeterred, even after being shot at point-blank range.
“I tried to reel him in, but he’s too determined to do the job,” Johnson said.
Gabo ultimately suffered five gunshot wounds. Thomas then shot at officers who tried to enter the apartment and they returned fire, shooting Thomas, police said. Thomas was brought to a local hospital, but she did not survive.
Gabo was rushed to the vet, who had raced with his own dog to the office, knowing it would likely be needed to provide blood.
“The whole time we’re driving to the vet … Gabo just stood in the back of our vehicle and just looked out the window like nothing was wrong,” Johnson said. “Get to the vet and pull up … he’s in obvious pain and he’s bleeding everywhere, but he walks through the hall … he turned and he jumped on the table.
“He just did it on his own.”
Gabo spent several hours in surgery, where it was realized how important a role his bulletproof vest played in keeping him alive.
“It was determined that the vest he was wearing stopped the bullet that would have entered his heart, lungs and would have subsequently killed him,” Elliott said. “Now, Gabo did receive other gunshot wounds to him in the shoulder, leg and through his side, and they’re very, very serious wounds. One of them went through his liver.”
But those wounds were treatable, and before long, Gabo was moved into recovery. Johnson stayed with him through the night.
“I wasn’t leaving my partner,” he said. “So the staff there set me up with pillows and blankets, told me if I needed anything to call. Once everybody left I just opened his kennel and just laid there on the floor next to him for hours.”
During that long night, Johnson’s thoughts turned to the woman whose mission in life saved the life of the dog asleep next to him.
“I reached out to Sandy and just let her know what had happened, and to thank her,” he said.
Johnson’s message left a deep impression on Marcal.
“You don’t forget someone messaging you on social media and telling you their dog’s been shot five times,” she said. “That’s not something you forget.”
Vested Interest in K9s was born out of necessity, according to Marcal, who founded the organization in 2009. An animal lover to her core, Marcal was deeply concerned by what she said were the many difficulties countless law enforcement agencies run into to allocate funds to outfitting their working dogs with potentially lifesaving equipment.
“In the past, I had done fundraising for many animal shelters … and I learned that vests for police dogs were a luxury,” she said. “It wasn’t something they just got. And in Massachusetts [where Marcal is from], the departments I checked with, the concern was budgetary.”
With a background in finance, Marcal began fundraising to outfit police dogs with vests about 20 years ago, but eventually decided to dedicate her full time to the cause.
“I’ve been an animal lover my whole life, and animal welfare has been one of the things I’ve advocated for my entire life,” she said. “So, to see these dogs put in harm’s way, and doing something they love to do … that’s something that inspired me to leave another line of work and want to do this on a full-time basis. I feel like this is where I belong.”
Since its founding, the 501c(3) nonprofit has also provided dogs in law enforcement and related agencies with 800 K-9 opioid reversal Narcan kits, more than $80,000 in K-9 medical insurance and more than $25,000’s worth of K-9 medical first aid kits. And it has donated more than 3,500 ballistic vests, which are engineered to withstand bullets and other sharp objects, to working dogs across the country.
“The vests that we provide to the dogs are bullet- and stab-protective, made in the USA, and they cover all the vital organs of the dog and they’re NIJ-certified,” Marcal said, referring to the National Institute of Justice, which has been setting the nationally accepted standard for body army worn by law enforcement and corrections officers since 1972.
Officers and law enforcement agencies interested in outfitting their dogs with vests and the other resources Vested Interest in K-9s provides can apply through the organization’s website. They’re then matched with a private sponsor and, in the case of a vest, typically receive it within eight weeks, Marcal said. To date, the nonprofit does not have a waiting list, she said.
“I’m an advocate for vests for every dog across the county that goes to work,” she continued. “They need it and they deserve it. They are officers, just like their two-legged counterparts.”
After an emotional meeting, Gabo, Johnson and Marcal headed to the Jonesboro Police Department, where they were met by Chief Elliott. The group had a grim but important item on their to-do list: view the vest Gabo was wearing the night he was shot.
Johnson had put off examining the bloodied and tattered vest until recently, and as it was removed from an evidence bag and laid across a table, it appeared to still pain him.
“She was a great shot with that weapon,” he said quietly.
The group took in the vest, a bullet recovered from the shooting and the photos Johnson captured of Gabo’s time at the vet. The reminders of what brought them together in the first place were sobering.
“We’ve had other vests that have saved other dogs, but the departments have not been as open as you are and have not been able to allow us to talk about it,” Marcal said to Elliott. “You were nice enough to give Erik that option to talk about what happened.”
“No, absolutely, it’s festered on me,” Elliott replied.
Each vest provided by Vested Interest in K-9s comes with the name of a police dog killed in the line of duty stitched across it. The vest Gabo wore the night he was shot memorialized a K-9 officer named Rocco.
After packing up that vest, Elliott could be heard saying Rocco had been watching over Gabo that night.
“It’s an officer down,” Elliott said of Gabo, emotion in his eyes as he spoke. “One of my officers was shot. As a chief, that’s not a good feeling. It was hard on all of us. … We were very lucky that night.
“Gabo is a true warrior.”
Two months after he was shot, Gabo returned to work.
“I didn’t think he would ever come back to work, or I always thought that he’d be just sick all the time,” Johnson said. “But he progressed pretty rapidly in the recovery. He was acting like nothing was wrong by the second day.”
Gabo received a hero’s welcome when he reported for duty, and the department he was returning to had seen a serious change in the wake of his injury. He would no longer be the only working dog on the Jonesboro Police Department to be outfitted with one of Vested Interest in K9s’ protective vests, as the nonprofit made sure of it.
“If it wouldn’t be for that vest, he wouldn’t be here today — I want other dogs to have that opportunity,” Johnson said. “I want them to have the best opportunity to come out safe, just like Gabo. Yes, he got shot. Yes, he got hurt. But he was also saved by his vest.”
To learn more about Vested Interest, click here.