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Deputy sues PBC Sheriff's Office, claims he was demoted after complaining of K9 mistreatment

Posted at 2:10 PM, Jul 26, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-27 04:22:46-04

A Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office deputy is suing his department, claiming he was taken out of the K9 unit after complaining about "mistreatment" of the dogs. PBSO says his allegations are completely false.

Sid Garcia, a lawyer for Deputy Justin Rigney, shared video with Contact 5 which he says first set off alarm bells. The video was sent to Rigney by another deputy because he was proud of the K9's training.

But, according to Garcia, Rigney saw something very different in that video.

"You can clearly see the ribs on this dog," says Garcia.

Rigney's wife, Alison Rigney, a K9 trainer and former animal abuse investigators, say that same video, brought her to tears.

You could see all the ribs, the hip bones, the spine was clearly visible. It was clearly not being fed or cared," says Alison Rigney.

Garcia says that same day, Rigney and his wife were at the PBSO K9 training facility and took pictures of another dog they felt looked too skinny.

"It was very very thin, almost emaciated. I could see all the bones and there was no muscle or fat left on  the dog itself," says Alison Rigney.

In the lawsuit, Rigney says he was also contacted by a K9 vendor, who called to complain about a dog that was returned to him by PBSO, stating it was skinnier than when he first handed the dog over.

As a K9 trainer/deputy himself, Rigney claims the dogs are trained on a food based system. But what he witnessed, he felt, was equal to starvation.

"Instead of regular feedings, they were feeding them during the training process. So reward for doing the right thing but that's not enough to fuel these animals," said Garcia.

Alison Rigney says, "It was almost cruel to me to see them feeding him one piece of kibble at a time when he deserved to be fed much more for the job he was doing in the video."

In the lawsuit, Rigney claimed he went to his supervisors and complained, telling them he felt the dogs were malnourished, and needed to be fed more.

PBSO opened an internal review the day of that meeting. Contact 5 obtained a copy of that internal review. Multiple deputies in the K9 unit were interviewed, and none expressed concern over the dog's weight, according to PBSO.

Also in the review, Michele Tucker, of Palm Beach Veterinary Specialists, says she found all the K9s were "bright and healthy as well as active during her assessment." Another memo, from a veterinarian at Forest Hill Animal Hospital, explains "that the K-9s present body conditions are to be expected for immature dogs during a vigorous training schedule."

A PBSO spokesperson says the review was closed, finding no evidence of malnourishment.

Rigney's attorney claims that's only the beginning.

Records show Rigney was placed on administrative leave on May 30, a week after meeting with supervisors. In a letter to his captain, Rigney wrote he was "charged with disrespecting a superior."

Garcia says, his understanding, is that the "alleged disrespect" came "from the meeting where he expressed concerns to his sergeant."

"He was trying to make it clear he had a legitimate concern about how these animals were being treated," says Garcia."There was no disrespect."

Rigney claims he was also told to place his K9 Zeke into PBSO custody, while on leave, and that when he went to pick up the dog at a later date, the dog's cage was not clean, and there was fecal matter in his water.

A PBSO spokesperson did confirm there was an open investigation related to Rigney's administrative leave, but because it is still ongoing, could not provide specifics. She did stress that "K9 Zeke was handled properly."

Records show Rigney, when he returned from administrative leave in June, was then re-assigned, taken out of the K9 unit and put on road patrol. Rigney was also stripped of his corporal title.

A PBSO spokesperson confirmed that Rigney "was re-assigned due to the internal review (into his allegations), which is a management prerogative."

"We believe some people were angry at him for making this report and they took it out on his career," says Garcia. Garcia says under the Whistle Blower Act, you cannot be punished for reporting something you feel is wrong.

Alison Rigney believes nothing has changed when it comes to the treatment of the dogs, "Clearly the pictures speak for themselves."

PBSO provided a statement to Contact 5 in response to the lawsuit, saying "the sheriff has a reputation in the community of being an animal lover, and in fact is involved in insuring that dogs are being treated humanely. He is active with the Big Dog Ranch Rescue. The Sheriff would never allow the mistreatment of any of his K9 unit dogs and has insured they are in the best of health. This deputy's allegations are totally false."

Contact 5 took the photos and video of the K9s provided to us to a third party vet, not associated with the Sheriff's Office. They did not want to be identified but said they felt the "dogs look emaciated," and "are below where they should be in terms of weight."

Justin Rigney is currently at the center of a lawsuit filed by the family of Ricky Whidden.  Ricky Whidden was killed on New Year's Eve. PBSO says Deputy Rigney shot Whidden after he lunged at a deputy with a knife.

Whidden's family says surveillance video caught on a neighbor's camera, shows a different story. They claim Whidden was running away from deputies when he was shot. The family had called 911 because Whidden, who was schizophrenic, says he was having suicidal thoughts.

FDLE investigated the shooting and has completed its investigation. It is now in the hands of the State Attorney's Office, which will determine whether to file criminal charges against Rigney.