Retired K-9 Kona, formerly of the Liberty County Sheriff's Office, has been at the center of a controversy roiling the election for Liberty County sheriff.

Retired K-9 Kona, formerly of the Liberty County Sheriff's Office, has been at the center of a controversy roiling the election for Liberty County sheriff.

Credit: Liberty County Sheriff's Office

Jake Shore, The Current

A retired Liberty County Sheriff’s Office drug dog got dropped off at the local animal shelter last week. The female Dutch Shepherd quickly got adopted and is living in a good home. 

What should have been a good news story however has become one of the more wild Coastal Georgia primary election issues of 2024 and the focus of online misinformation during a hotly contested race for Liberty County sheriff.

In a news release on Monday, Liberty County Sheriff William Bowman said his agency learned last week that a deputy dropped off his retired K-9 named Kona at the county animal shelter. The release said the agency was not notified by Liberty County Animal Services, nor would have agreed to a retired police dog “being treated in this manner.”

“Sheriff Bowman, who loves animals, and recently adopted two dogs from the aforementioned shelter, immediately ordered an internal investigation into the incident,” the release said. 

Bowman’s response came after a swarm of social media posts over the weekend alleging that K9 Kona had been mistreated by the deputy who had adopted her upon retirement. Some went so far as claiming the deputy, who works for Bowman, dropped Kona at the shelter “emaciated and lethargic.” Similarly, social media commentators, one of whom is the wife of a former deputy, accused the sheriff of shuttering the K-9 unit in December.

Bowman not only pushed back against rumors his agency tolerated the abuse of a working dog, but also his release revealed that two former K-9 unit supervisors resigned while being investigated in March for falsifying training records related to police dogs in their care. The department has asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council to consider possible criminal charges, according to the sheriff’s office.

William Bowman

Liberty County Sheriff William Bowman (left, foreground), July 20, 2023, Hinesville, GA.

Credit: Justin Taylor/The Current

The rumors, however, have only grown since the sheriff’s department released the statement — although officials who have interacted with Kona say there isn’t truth to the claims of abuse.

Bowman has been the target of criticism by three Democratic challengers competing in the May 21 primary election and a Republican challenger in the November general election. A person who identified herself on Facebook as the wife of one of the two former deputies, David Abbgy, who is under investigation, has been posting allegations of K-9 abuse and that the unit had been diminished. 

“We hate what has happened to the K-9 unit, something that brought the sheriff’s office closer to the community,” she wrote. Other posters have claimed the K-9 unit was shut down entirely.

Lt. Phillip Bohannon, spokesperson for the sheriff’s office, said the agency’s K-9 unit has never been shuttered. He confirmed that the division had been the focus of an internal affairs investigation after reports surfaced that “Lieutenant Corey Nadeau and Sergeant David Abbgy, the supervisors of the K-9 Division, had forged training documents to recertify the working canines within the Sheriff’s Office.” But the division still exists and is operating, he said.

As to K-9 Kona, who worked for the sheriff’s department for two years as a “dual purpose” narcotics and bite police dog, Liberty County Animal Services Director Steve Marrero said she was neither emaciated nor lethargic when dropped off by her former handler. 

The sheriff’s department said it is investigating the circumstances around Deputy Travon Tolson’s surrender of Kona at the shelter. Marrero said she was healthy when she arrived at the shelter on April 29. Kona was playful and high energy — “like a dog,” he said. 

Abbgy’s wife wrote on Facebook that Kona was emaciated and mistreated, since her husband left the agency.

Kona the Dog.

K9 Kona in December 2021.

Credit: Liberty County Sheriff's Office K-9 Unit

“She was 20lbs lighter than the last time she went in for a checkup. We were heart broken for her,” she wrote. “This never would have happened under Corey and David’s supervision.”

Marrero said Kona weighed 52 pounds in late April, which he described as a normal weight for a police dog.

“They’re K-9s. They will typically be thinner than your companion animals,” Marrero said, “They’re working animals.”

Kona was at the animal shelter for less than a day before being picked up by other members of the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office. Kona has since been adopted by an ex-police dog trainer, according to Bohannon.

According to Marrero, Tolson giving up Kona has been blown out of proportion. He said Tolson was assigned a new K-9 after Kona retired in December 2023. 

Tolson came to the shelter on April 29 to try to find other options to re-home Kona to another law enforcement agency or to a nonprofit that takes in retired law enforcement dogs, Marrero said.

“He was very distraught. He was in here bawling and crying because he didn’t want to get rid of Kona,” Marrero said. The animal services director said Tolson knew he was “not going to be able to take care of” Kona and his new K9. 

To take responsibility and work with the county to find other options, “that’s pretty commendable,” Marrero said.

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with The Current.