By Dan Sullivan, Times Staff Writer
In Print: Friday, March 2, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG — Esther Flesner saw white fur streak past her seconds before she heard the gunshots and saw her daughter’s dog bleeding on the sidewalk.

Phero, the dog many in the Crescent Lake neighborhood knew and loved, was dead.

The shooting occurred when St. Petersburg police responded to an apartment house Thursday afternoon at 421 10th Ave. N after multiple 911 callers reported people yelling, officials said. At least one caller said someone had a knife. Then police heard there was a stabbing.

When officers arrived, they drew their guns, then saw what was described as a pit bull terrier charging them from the back of the house, officials said. Officer Jeremy Hayes fired three times from about 10 feet away.

“He (the dog) just barely got out and I heard BOOM BOOM on the curb,” said Flesner, 87, who owns the four-unit house.

Phero died on the sidewalk.

Police found that a man and a woman had been drinking and arguing, but no one was injured, officials said.

Debra Vachon, 58, Flesner’s daughter, has cared for the dog since her son adopted it four years ago. Vachon, who lives in one of the apartments, was at work at the time of the shooting but came home afterward.

Vachon sat weeping in the back of a sport utility vehicle hours after the shooting as she caressed a yellow sheet that shrouded her dog’s lifeless body.

“He’s not a pit bull, that’s the thing,” Vachon said. “He doesn’t look like a regular dog because they cropped his ears too short.”

Vachon said her neighbors, David Florian and Kelli Applegate, were making the racket that drew police.

She said she allowed them access to the dog, but they did not have permission to let him out.

“They’re just drunk and they’re disorderly,” Vachon said.

Florian had hovered over Phero’s body and cried moments after the shooting.

“That dog would protect your firstborn,” he said hours later as he sat inside a screened-in porch drinking a can of beer with seven empties stacked nearby. “Everybody’s mad at me. If it wasn’t for me hollerin’ the cops wouldn’t have come. They wouldn’t have shot the g- – d- – – dog.”

Hayes will remain on duty while the department investigates, said police spokesman Mike Puetz. Vachon said she didn’t blame the officer.

Phero’s death is the latest in a string of dog shootings involving St. Petersburg police. In 2011, officers were involved in at least seven fatal dog shootings, prompting police Chief Chuck Harmon to change a number of policies for dealing with dogs.

Times staff writer Jamal Thalji and photographer Kathleen Flynn contributed to this report. Reach Dan Sullivan at (727) 893-8321.