Joshua Graham Rohrer, a homeless veteran in North Carolina, says he was wrongfully arrested and mistreated by Gastonia police officers, who also tased his service dog Sunshine, sparking support from those who witnessed the incident.
The Gastonia Police Department told Military Times that although Rohrer will go to court for the charges against him, the department is now looking into the incident to “determine if the conduct of our officers was appropriate.”
Rohrer was standing on a median near a Gastonia shopping center with Sunshine on Oct. 13 when a 911 caller contacted police. While Rohrer wasn’t bothering anybody, having Sunshine with him was his way of using sympathy to get money from people, the caller said, according to a copy of the audio call.
Even though Rohrer wasn’t armed or harassing passersby, according to witnesses at the scene, the encounter would ultimately end with his arrest and Sunshine’s death.
Rohrer deployed to Kuwait and Iraq from October 2004 to November 2005 with the Kentucky Army National Guard. He suffers from service-connected post-traumatic stress disorder, and his 2-year-old Belgian Malinois Sunshine was his Veterans Affairs-prescribed treatment, according to an official letter from the VA provided to Military Times by Rohrer.
He said he wasn’t doing anything illegal on Oct. 13.
“I was just standing there, waving at people, when this lady waved me over and offered me money,” Rohrer told Military Times. “I was accused of falsely using my dog to get money from people and asking people for money but that’s not true.”
Rohrer said that as soon as he took the money offered to him, the police drove up, “aggressively, with the lights on and everything.”
The officer asked for Rohrer’s ID card and told him that she’d be giving him a ticket for panhandling. The act, which falls under the term solicitation in North Carolina state law, is considered illegal if an individual verbally panhandles at night, or at any time of day when within 20 feet of a financial institution, outdoor dining area or transit stop.
Rohrer argued that he wasn’t doing anything wrong, and the officer on scene called for back-up. Police asked Rohrer to produce a valid state ID, which Rohrer said he didn’t have, stating that he only had a VA card.
Justyn Huffman and Nydia Conley witnessed Rohrer’s arrest, telling local TV station WCNC that they saw officers surround Rohrer during the Oct. 13 encounter.
“The officer asked him for his ID,” Huffman said. “He wasn’t moving fast enough so he tried to reach into his pocket to get his ID. They slammed him up against the car and they put cuffs on him.”
Sunshine, responding to his distress, jumped up on the hood trying to help him, Rohrer said.
“She was just doing her job, licking me and trying to calm me down,” Rohrer said. “The cops starting yelling at her and me, telling me to get her to settle down but they wouldn’t allow me to physically get control of her.”
Rohrer said Sunshine nipped at one of the officer’s ankles as she was hopping down from the hood of the car, prompting the officer to tase her.
“We’re out here screaming, ‘Don’t shoot the dog! Don’t shoot the dog!’” Huffman said.
Huffman said Sunshine ran to a nearby store with one of the taser prongs dangling off her body while police took Rohrer to the back of the car and “slammed him on the pavement.”
“It was really traumatizing,” Conley said. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”
According to the police report, Rohrer was arrested on charges of solicitation and resisting arrest.
As he was taken away by police for booking, Rohrer said he begged the officers to let Sunshine come with him. He cited a North Carolina statute that affords people with disabilities the right to keep their service dogs with them, especially in cases where the individual’s health is at risk.
“They laughed at me,” he said. “I begged them to bring her to me or to give her to an officer to take with them but they wouldn’t listen, they didn’t care.”
Rohrer never saw Sunshine again. While his friend and fellow veteran Dave Dowell was able to get his hands on the service dog that night, she later slipped her leash and ran away while Rohrer was still in jail,.
He was released the next day after posting bail and facing more insensitive treatment by the police, saying they laughed at him and continually told him how horrible of a person he was, Rohrer claimed. He immediately began searching for his dog. After nearly two days, Sunshine was found in nearby Shelby, where Dowell lives.
She had been hit by a car and killed.
“I begged them not to separate us,” Rohrer said. “They didn’t care about me or about her or about the fact that I needed her.”
Rohrer’s grief over losing Sunshine almost killed him, Dowell said to Military Times. According to Dowell, Rohrer took off into traffic after learning Sunshine was gone, and tried throwing himself in front of any car that he could.
“He absolutely lost his mind,” Dowell said.
Losing Sunshine and facing the allegedly rough and careless treatment of the police left Rohrer feeling hopeless enough that he “just wanted to die,” he said.
After Dowell and Shelby police were able to subdue Rohrer, he had to be treated at the VA Medical Center in Asheville for injuries suffered during the PTSD episode caused by losing Sunshine.
Bended Knee Outdoors, a non-profit corporation in Granite Falls, North Carolina, has been providing Rohrer with housing since his Oct. 16. release from the medical center, Dowell said.
Rohrer said he wanted to share his story to draw attention to how he was treated.
“I’m just blown away that this could happen to a veteran and service dog team, or anybody really, homeless or not,” he said.
“I just lost my ability to believe in and function in society,” Rohrer said. “I cannot function without a service dog and they stole that from me. I don’t know how I’m going to recover from this.”
Dowell and Rohrer said that his case was recently accepted by the Veterans Justice Outreach program, which works “to identify justice-involved Veterans and contact them through outreach, in order to facilitate access to VA services at the earliest possible point.”
The program doesn’t provide legal counsel, but it does help point veterans in the right direction, according to their website.
“He has an army of people behind him now,” Dowell said, “but he doesn’t have his battle buddy anymore.”
According to the Facebook group, “Support Joshua Rohrer and Sunshine Rae,” a protest will take place in front of the Gastonia Police Department Oct. 29.
Rachel is a Marine Corps veteran and a master's candidate at New York University's Business & Economic Reporting program.