WILMINGTON - State police cleared forest ranger Chris Kostoss of any wrongdoing for shooting two dogs that were attacking his rabbits, but the dogs' owners aren't satisfied with that and continue to press the issue with Kostoss' employer, the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Terrence and Yvonne Nichols of Wilmington have hired Lake Placid lawyer Brian Barrett to represent them in the matter. On Thursday, Oct. 10 Barrent sent a four-page letter to DEC Commissioner Joe Martens regarding the incident. The letter was also sent to Essex County Supreme Court Justice Richard B. Meyer, the Essex County Pistol Permit Bureau, Essex County District Attorney Kristy Sprague and Maj. Richard B. Smith, head of state police Troop B in Ray Brook.
"Using excess force to repel a purported dog attack on his rabbits, and actively engaging in a cover-up of his actions, including hiding evidence and lying, while allowing a search to continue that put others at risk, is clearly criminal Official Misconduct under the penal law of the state of New York as well as violate of a myriad of other laws in this state," Barrett wrote.
The Nichols declined to be interviewed for this story, preferring to have Barrett speak for them.
The incident occurred in mid May at Kostoss' residence in Wilmington while he was off duty.
After shooting the dogs, Kostoss told the News he buried them on his property the way he would bury his own dogs. He decided not to tell the Nichols about the incident, even though there were owner's tags on at least one of the dogs.
"I honestly thought that they would be better off thinking that their dogs ran away than knowing that their dogs viciously killed something else and had to be killed," Kostoss said. "I thought their memory of their dogs would be better off, as if they had just run away. I just went through this (this) year where we had a dog run away and most likely get eaten by coyotes, and I think that's a better memory than my dog went next door and killed something and had to be killed."
Barrett said the DEC should investigate the matter and dig up the dogs, in part to have the bullet wounds analyzed to determine the direction of the gunshots. He also said he "anticipates a civil lawsuit being brought on the basis of what we know at this point." He said the lawsuit would be against Kostoss and not the DEC.
DEC and state police became aware of this matter in September. State police conducted an investigation and found that Kostoss didn't commit any crimes, state police spokeswoman Jennifer Fleishman said.
DEC spokesman Peter Constantakes said the DEC is in the process of reviewing the situation "to see if there are any actions that may have violated beyond a crime.
"We haven't found anything at this point," he said.
Kostoss said that he came across two dogs in his yard, attacking three rabbits that he raises for meat.
The dogs had gotten underneath the box-style wire mesh cages that housed the rabbits and started mauling them, he said. They killed two and injured the other.
"They skinned them alive and then eventually ... their stomachs ripped open, and so the entrails and skin and hide were dripping down through the cage," Kostoss said. "They were eating at that."
Kostoss said when he saw what was happening, he scared off the dogs. He then went inside his house and called his wife and told her not to bring their children home because he needed to clean up the scene.
"While I was doing that, the dogs came back and were doing the same thing, pulling at the guts hanging in the cage and eating it," he said. "That's when I decided, enough is enough. I knew that I was legally safe to do this, and it was my legal right to do it, so I took action."
Kostoss read the News the state Agriculture and Markets law that he said made his actions legal.
"If any dog shall, without justification, attack a companion animal, farm animal or domestic animal, or shall behave in a manner in which a reasonable person would believe poses a serious and unjustified imminent threat of serious physical injury or death to a companion animal, farm animal or domestic animal, where such animal is any place where it may lawful be, the owner or caretaker of such animal, or any other person witnessing the attack, may destroy such dog, with no liability in damages or otherwise shall be incurred on a account of such destruction," Kostoss said, reading from the law.
Kostoss also said that he felt he needed to protect his family that includes two young children.
"What if my kids had been here, and I scared (the dogs) off and tomorrow they decide to come back?" he said. "Now I've got a 6-year-old out back playing and two dogs trying to get at the blood that they know is there."
After the dogs didn't return home, the Nichols began searching for them the next day. On at least one occasion, one of the Nichols approached Kostoss to ask if he had seen the dogs, but Kostoss said he told them that he didn't know what had happened to them.
This is one of the big issues the Nichols family has with him.
"Officer Kostoss did not notify the Nichol's family or law enforcement authorities that this had happened," states Barrett's letter. "Indeed, Officer Kostoss engaged in conduct clearly amounting to a cover-up of his actions and acted in an obstructive way so as to cover his tracks. While he remained silent for two months, numerous volunteers gave their time and energy to search for the dogs, and risked their safety by searching in remote wilderness areas, subjecting themselves to possible wild animal attacks, and injuries due to difficult terrain."
Throughout the spring and summer, the Nichols continued to look for the dogs to no avail. Eventually they heard a rumor that Kostoss had killed the animals, and they reported that information to the state police, who started an investigation in September. After an investigation, state police determined Kostoss didn't commit any crimes. They also informed the Nichols family that he had indeed killed their animals.
The Enterprise asked Kostoss why he didn't inform the Nichols family himself about the incident. One of Kostoss' main job duties is performing searches for missing people, for which he has been praised publicly by the DEC at least twice in recent years. In several of those backcountry search-and-rescue operations, Kostoss helped saved people's lives.
"In retrospect, sure, it could have been handled differently, but the animals would still be dead either way," he said.
"I feel bad for everyone involved," he said. "I feel bad for myself. I have to explain this to my children. I feel bad for all parties involved. It's a difficult situation for everybody."