One of Beni's first collars hits Neil Hoover's memory right off the bat.
The St. Joseph County police corporal chuckles over the 2003 recollection when he and his K-9 partner were called to track down a drunken driver who had wrecked his car then run on foot into a woodsy swamp.
“Myself and the firemen had a hard time getting back there because it was so swampy,” Hoover recalls. “I let Beni go to find the guy.”
But it was dark. Visibility was nonexistent.
After a few minutes, Hoover got concerned over the whereabouts of his German shepherd partner.
“I called out for him,” Hoover says, “and I hear in the distance, ‘He’s over here.’”
Figuring “it must be our bad guy,” Hoover yelled out, “Don’t move or he’ll bite you.”
There was a feeble reply.
“I can’t move.”
Hoover’s chuckle turns into a laugh over the sight he and firefighters found that night.
“Beni is sitting on the guy’s chest with one paw on each shoulder and his face just staring into the guy’s face, eye to eye,” Hoover says.
Then his voice cracks over the phone Monday night.
“I got home (from work) Friday night and Beni looked a little bloated,” Hoover says.
When Beni started panting laboriously then collapsed in the Hoovers’ kitchen, Neil knew something was seriously wrong.
Beni died Friday night before Hoover could make it to a veterinarian’s emergency room in his squad car with lights and sirens blaring.
An exploratory procedure later revealed a tumor near Beni’s stomach.
“It’s just like you losing a human partner,” Hoover says.
Beni’s death is the second to hit the sheriff’s department’s K-9 unit this year.
Rex, a K-9 who worked with St. Joseph County police K-9 handler Cory Brothers, also died in 2011.
In Beni, the county lost a retired K-9 who underwent two knee-replacement surgeries in two months in 2010, then returned to the job a few weeks later - just in time to nab a robbery suspect after a car pursuit.
While Hoover and St. Joseph County police spokesman Sgt. William Redman called Beni “the most successful K-9 we’ve ever had,” Sheriff Michael Grzegorek lauded the team of Hoover and Beni as “... really an asset to the department.”
“We consider Beni one of our officers just like anyone else,” the sheriff says.
“It’s very sad news when you get it, when you lose one of the K-9 officers. We all feel it.”
The Hoovers lost a family member.
Beni resided with Cpl. Hoover and wife Sara, their children Sophia, 5, and Gavin, 7, and Oz, the trained German shepherd K-9 officer Hoover took in after Beni was retired in June.
When Beni wasn’t tracking criminals with Cpl. Hoover, Sara, a second-grade teacher at Beiger Elementary School in Mishawaka, demonstrated Beni’s K-9 training and his friendly demeanor to students.
“It’s hard, I can’t stop crying,” Sara Hoover says.
“I’ve had dogs all my life ... but this is completely different. Beni’s more than a pet, so much more. It’s one thing when you, say, you lose a dog, but everybody knew him.
“It’s affecting the whole family.”
Even Oz appears to be in mourning.
“He’s been sleeping in Beni’s bed,” Hoover says.
Beni’s ashes now rest in the Hoovers’ Mishawaka home in a special urn they bought in the Germany section of Epcot Center - a German beer stein with a depiction of a German shepherd going to school in a police uniform carrying books.
Grzegorek plans to recognize Beni and Cpl. Hoover at the department’s next merit board session.
“We’ll have a plaque made for them,” Grzegorek says.
Sara Hoover had cards made up in Beni’s memory.
The cards, similar to baseball cards parents can customize for their kids, include the official patch of the St. Joseph County Police Department with a photo of Beni over the dates: 2001-2011.
A poem titled “The Life of a Police Dog” is written on the back of the card with the first four lines:
“You brought me home ... One sunny day ... With you for years ... I would surely stay.”
The poem takes Hoover back to 2003, when he was a four-year cop eager to take on his first K-9 partner and Beni was 2 and fresh out of K-9 training in Germany.
“You can’t fit somebody in a spot where he’s going to take away memories or feelings,” Hoover says.
“It’s just that Beni touched lives in many different ways. And being a first-time handler with a brand new dog and having that ability to have a dog that’s as successful as he was, I may not ever encounter that again.”
Hoover takes a deep breath.
Staff writer Jeff Harrell: