Honoring Leo

K-9 units from around the state were in Ocala on Monday to honor the sacrifice of the MCSO canine officer who died in the line of duty.

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Posted March 4, 2024 | By Andy Fillmore, andy@ocalagazette.com

A memorial service was held Monday for Marion County Sheriff’s Office K-9 officer Leo, who was fatally wounded while protecting deputies when an armed suspect opened fired on them Feb 17 in east Marion County.

MCSO Lt. Paul Bloom opened the ceremony calling it a “solemn day” and saying Leo’s life was “cut short but was not short on loyalty and bravery.”

Leo’s handler, MCSO Cpl. Justin Tortora, said he had trained for thousands of hours to face the person others wouldn’t want to face and that his K-9 partner saved lives.

“Because of Leo, three men went home that day,” Tortora said.

Tortora said on the day of the shooting, “We were where we were supposed to be,” protecting people from harm. He called Leo’s action “the bravest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Leo, age 4 ½, is a Malinois who served with MCSO for three and a half years. He was the first MCSO K-9 to be killed in the line of duty, said Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods,

Woods said a section in the central area of the MCSO Operations Center parking lot where the ceremony was held, and flagpoles stand, will be made into the MCSO K-9 Memorial.

“This will be hallowed ground now,” Woods said of the area. Flags there were at half-staff for the memorial.

Woods spoke of the “unique bond” between handler and K-9 and said Leo “gave everything.”

K-9s have served with MCSO since 1967 and the first was Kirk, partnered with Paul Taylor, Woods stated.

MCSO currently has eight K-9 units, according to Public Information Officer Zach Moore.

The incident that claimed the lives of the suspect and Leo occurred on Feb. 17 around 9 a.m. in the 900 block of Northeast 144th Court, about 15 miles east of Ocala.

According to an MCSO release, deputies responded to a call for service involving battery by strangulation and found a suspect identified as Jeremy Bradsher, 44, in the backyard.

“(The suspect) initiated gunfire towards our deputies, injuring K-9 Leo in the exchange. Responding with necessary force, deputies returned fire, resulting in the apprehension of the suspect, who was transported to the hospital, where he was pronounced deceased,” the press release stated.

Tortora praised the assistance of fellow MCSO deputies, the Ocala Police Department and Alachua County deputies, who helped transport the injured K-9 through busy traffic and travel to the University of Florida Veterinarian Hospital.

A team of four doctors at the UF facility, who were present at the memorial, made heroic efforts to save Leo, Tortora indicated.

Leo succumbed to his injuries on Feb. 20 which was his “end of watch.”

Several hundred members of law enforcement from across the state, citizens and local elected officials attended the memorial.

Amanda Aponte and her daughter Addilyne, 5, were among a number of citizens who came to pay their respects to Leo.

Marion, Citrus, Alachua, Putnam, Sarasota, Madison, Seminole, Volusia and Palm Beach were among the counties represented by K-9 units and personnel.

Ocala, Williston, Jacksonville, Gainesville, Ocoee and Lake Mary were some of the city police departments on hand with K-9 units and officers.

The Florida Highway Patrol, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Department of Corrections, Marion County Jail, U.S. Marshall’s Service and Marion County Fire Rescue also were represented.

Deputies Taylor Rayburn and Kyle Schultz represented the Dixie County Sheriff’s Office. One of the deputies likened having a K-9 partner to “having a kid” and “you live, eat and sleep with them” but they would take a bullet to protect their human partner.

Justin Tolbert and K-9 Bodi, Garrett Bechtel with K-9 Xyrus, Lloyd O’ Quinn with Ranger, Cauy Kerley with K-9 Goro and Casey Walsh with K-9 Stern lined up with 34 other K-9 units to pay their respects during the memorial, which included a prayer and the playing of taps by K-9 Cpl Calvin Batts. The MCSO Honor Guard provided a 21-gun salute and music was supplied by MCSO Bagpipes.

Walsh said she wanted to be a K-9 Officer “since she was 5 years old.”

MCSO Chaplain Vern Phillips offered a prayer and called Leo an “example of selflessness.”

Woods presented Tortora with a ceremonial flag that had flown over the Florida capitol building from Congresswoman Kat Cammack, delivered by Jeannie Rickman, economic development coordinator with the congresswoman’s Ocala office.

Tortora said losing his K-9 partner “hurts like heck.”

In a closing tribute, the MCSO Communication Division made a “Final Call” for service to K-9 Unit 5699—Tortora and Leo—which was played over the public address system.

Tortora replied that Leo was “10-7,” or out of service.

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