Fact Check

Stephanie Mohr Appeal

Was policewoman Stephanie Mohr unjustly jailed for loosing her police dog on criminals?

Published Jan. 19, 2006


Claim:   Policewoman Stephanie Mohr was unjustly jailed for loosing her police dog on criminals.

Status:   Multiple — see below.

Example:   [Collected via e-mail, 2006]

My name is Stephanie Mohr, and I used to be a police officer with the Prince George’s County Police Department in Maryland. I’ve sent you a photograph of my little boy, Adam. It’s all I have of him right now.

Because instead of tucking Adam into bed tonight, and leaning down to give him one last butterfly kiss...I am sitting in a jail cell. A jail cell where I’ve been sentenced to spend 10 years of my life for a "crime" I didn’t commit!

Please — let me explain.

I received over 25 letters of commendation and two awards during my years on the police force. But to the bureaucrats at the U.S. Department of Justice, that doesn’t matter. To them, I’m just a white police officer whose police dog bit an illegal immigrant on the leg in 1995.

You may have heard about my case on TV. On the night of September 21, 1995, I was on patrol with my police dog, Valk. The area I patrolled, Takoma Park, had been suffering a rash of burglaries. My partner, Sgt. Anthony Delozier, and I got a call for backup from an officer who had spotted two men on the roof of a nearby store. We knew we had likely found the perpetrators.

When we arrived, the situation was tense. The suspects, Ricardo Mendez and Herrera Cruz, had been ordered down from the roof and told to face a wall. They were shouting back and forth to each other in a stream of Spanish.

And then it happened.

Mendez made a move as if to flee the scene. In accordance with my training, I released my dog, Valk, who was trained to perform the standard "bite and hold" move. He did so, biting Mendez on the leg and holding him until I and the other officers could handcuff him.

Both of the suspects were charged with 4th degree burglary. Cruz pled guilty and was deported to Mexico. Mendez was convicted of illegally entering the U.S. and selling crack cocaine and was deported to San Salvador. As for me, I was relieved to get two dangerous drug dealers off our streets.

So imagine my shock — five years later — when the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would indict me for "violating" Ricardo Mendez's civil rights by allowing my police dog to bite his leg!

Mendez, a criminal and an illegal alien, had been fleeing the scene of a crime, and it had been my duty to release Valk and apprehend him. But the bureaucrats in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice chose to ignore the facts; they were looking for cases of "police brutality", and I was exactly what they wanted: a white officer whose police dog had bitten a minority.

My fellow officers and I testified in court that I had done my job by the book. And it was true: the P.G. County police training clearly states that if a felony suspect makes a move, we are authorized to release our police dogs.

The jury agreed and voted to acquit me 11-1. And that’s when things really got ugly.

Civil rights groups were furious. Everyone from Amnesty International to the NAACP declared the arrest "racist" and demanded further investigation. The Justice Department insisted on a second trial because of the one lone juror who had sided with the prosecution. They got it.

The second trial was a circus. The government flew in Mendez from San Salvador and Cruz from Mexico at taxpayer expense to testify against me. They stacked the jury with minorities who would be sympathetic to illegal immigrants. They drummed up minority witnesses who accused me of using racial epithets against them — without a shred of proof!

Their strategy worked. I was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison — for apprehending a drug dealer!

For over two years my son has been without his mother. I think about Adam every minute. It is an unimaginable pain — maybe something only a mother can feel. I'm not there to crawl in bed with him in the middle of the night when he has a bad dream. I’m not there to wrap my arms around him when he falls down. I feel so small, helpless... and alone.

But there is one ray of hope that I am clinging to with all my heart and soul: The Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund (LELDF).

If you’ve heard of LELDF then you know it’s the best friend a police officer could ever have. LELDF helps defend good officers who have been unfairly prosecuted for their split-second decisions in the line of duty. They’ve helped Officer Chuck Schwarz, in New York; Officer Scott Smith, in Connecticut; and Officer Wyatt Henderson, in Florida. And it was LELDF who helped Stacey Koon when the Rodney King-sympathizers tried to throw him in jail back in 1991.

Now, with your help, the LELDF will be doing what they can to help me.

It will be an uphill battle. The appeal alone has cost upwards of $35,000. And there are legal fees for expert witnesses, legal research, and other court fees. To make things worse, I was forced to resign after my conviction, and now in prison I have no means of earning money to fund my case.

I have already missed over two years of my little boy’s life. I missed his fourth and fifth birthdays. And I can’t bear to think how many more precious moments I will miss — moments that every mother treasures but that I will never see!

That’s why I am going to swallow my pride and ask you the hardest question I’ve ever asked another person: Will you help me get home to Adam by sending a tax-deductible contribution to the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund to help them fund my appeal?

The U.S. Department of Justice has unlimited federal tax dollars to spend on their case against me. But I must rely on the generous hearts of people like you to help clear my innocent name and send me home to my son!

Any gift you can send — be it $20, $35, $50, $100, $500 — is tax-deductible. By clicking here, your tax-deductible contribution will help fund my appeal as well as help other good officers who are being unfairly attacked.

This is my last chance to gain freedom. For me, your $20 gift could be the difference between clearing my name and being there for my dear son — or spending the next eight years in prison, innocent, while Adam grows up without a mother. He will be a young man by then... almost 14. And I will have missed the years when a little boy needs his mommy the most.

Thank you so very much for taking the time to read my letter. Just knowing you’ve done that much gives me hope — hope that I will get home to Adam before it’s too late. With your help, Adam will never spend another Christmas without his mom by his side.

Yours truly,

Stephanie Mohr

P.S. If I can be sent to prison for doing my job, then sooner or later every police officer in this nation will be at risk. By clicking here and contributing, you can help LELDF defend those good officers. Won’t you please help me clear my name and get home to my son by supporting LELDF today? I truly appreciate any help you can spare. From the bottom of my heart, thank you!

Origins:   The above-quoted appeal is a fundraising letter sent out by the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund (LELDF), an organization that describes its mission as providing "assistance to law enforcement officers when it is necessary for them to defend actions taken in the line of duty to enforce the law." The LELDF finances its programs through contributions from individuals. According to a 2004 report in The Daily Record, the LELDF's "most recent filing with the state shows the fund spent about 18 cents for each dollar collected to defend police officers — up from 7.5 cents in


The fundraising letter appears to have begun circulating in e-mail in January 2006, but USPS-delivered appeals describing the case of Officer Mohr and soliciting funds for the LELDF have been arriving in people's regular mail at least since 2002.

A policewoman such as the one described in the appeal is indeed serving a prison sentence for a civil rights violation. However, the devil is in the details, so readers will have to make up their own minds as to whether her conviction and subsequent incarceration were merited or unjust.

On 21 September 1995, Cpl. Stephanie Mohr sent her police dog after a suspect named Ricardo Mendez, resulting in Mendez's being severely bitten, the dog tearing out part of his lower leg. One of the officers with Cpl. Mohr reportedly beat the other suspect, Jorge Herrera-Cruz. Mendez was subsequently deported (he had been in the U.S. illegally), and Herrera-Cruz returned to El Salvador. In August 2001, Mohr was sentenced to ten years in prison for unlawfully releasing the canine on Mendez, and she is currently serving her sentence in a federal prison in West Virginia.

Her conviction is controversial. While fundraising efforts in her name present the matter as one of an exemplary officer unjustly accused, tried, and convicted, news articles about this case and other dog attack incidents involving Mohr paint a very different picture.

Although the letter quoted above describes the two suspects overpowered by Mohr and other officers as "dangerous drug dealers," every news story we sifted through referred to the pair as burglary suspects or homeless men. (Indeed, there was some belief that burglary charges were cooked up against these men only after they had been injured at the hands of police. Those conspiracy charges were not proved in court, however.) Supporting the supposition that Herrera-Cruz and Mendez were homeless men making a temporary abode on a roof (rather than burglars who scrambled atop a building for the purpose of finding a way to break into it) is an account from The Washington Times that noted: "When apprehended, the two men said they were homeless and were only sleeping on the roof. Police searched the roof and found sleeping gear, a box for toothpaste, a package of deodorant and clam shells."

What is not disputed in news accounts is that both men were down off the roof and had their hands pressed against the wall when a police dog was set on them. However, even if we accept Mohr's account of the event ("Mendez made a move as if to flee the scene. In accordance with my training, I released my dog"), her unleashing the dog is still problematic, because in her testimony in U.S. District Court, Mohr admitted under cross-examination that police guidelines call for using force (including police dogs) only for self-defense or to protect others.

The canine attack on Mendez was not the only instance involving charges of Officer Mohr's unlawfully turning her dog on suspects. She has had four civil lawsuits brought against her by others similarly treated. Three of those lawsuits were settled out of court (with county attorneys agreeing to pay settlements to the injured), and one went to trial, with Mohr being found not liable. According to the suits filed by each of those men:

  • On 2 August 1998, 24-year-old Jason Tyree was leaving a building after visiting a friend when he heard barking dogs and a police order to come out with his hands up. Tyree initially complied, but he ran back inside when Mohr released her unleashed police dog. He then surrendered and followed orders to lie face-down on the floor. The dog bit Tyree on his legs and arms, causing nerve damage, a lengthy hospitalization and two surgeries.
  • On 3 August 1997, 16-year-old Kheenan Sneed was sleeping in a neighbor's hammock when he was bitten on the leg by Mohr's dog and beaten by Mohr and another officer. The officers told Sneed's mother they were looking for a suspect who had tried to break into a nearby store. No charges were filed against Sneed.
  • On 26 August 1996, Bryan Diggs ran from police after they approached him concerning a possible stolen car. An officer fired three shots at him, striking him in the thigh. Diggs crawled into a wooded area and called out that he had been shot. Mohr arrived on the scene 15 minutes later, whereupon she ordered her dog to attack Diggs. He was bitten repeatedly on his left arm. He later was convicted of unauthorized use of a vehicle but was acquitted of charges of resisting arrest and assault on a police officer.
  • On 24 April 1997, 16-year-old David Jones stole a car, then led police on a high-speed chase. After Jones' car ran out of gas, two officers broke the driver's side window, hit Jones in the head with their batons, pepper-sprayed him, and yanked him out of the car. Once Jones was outside the car, the officers reportedly continued to beat him, tried to blast pepper spray into his mouth, and handcuffed the teenager face-down on the street. Mohr arrived and allegedly let loose her dog, which bit Jones once in the upper left arm. Jones said that Mohr told him, "You must want to die" before setting her dog on him.

At her first trial, Mohr was acquitted of conspiracy charges laid against her, but the jury deadlocked on a deprivation of rights charge. At her second trial, evidence of similar acts she committed while handling a dog was admitted, and she was convicted on the latter charge.

Barbara "dogged pursuit" Mikkelson

Last updated:   19 January 2006

  Sources Sources:

    Castaneda, Ruben.   "File Alleges Canine Officer Was Abusive."

    The Washington Post.   14 May 2001   (p. B1).

    Castaneda, Ruben.   "Indicted Officer Sued Before for Alleged Canine Assaults."

    The Washington Post.   22 September 2000   (p. B1).

    Castaneda, Ruben.   "FBI Probing Canine Unit."

    The Washington Post.   4 April 1999   (p. A1).

    Hurley, Lawrence.   "Former Police Officer Raising Funds for Charitable Legal Defense Fund."

    The [Baltimore] Daily Record].   29 April 2004.

    Manning, Stephen.   "Officer Found Guilty of Setting Police Dog on Homeless Men."

    Associated Press.   15 August 2001.

    Wagner, Arlo.   "Trial Begins for Officers Accused in Dog Attack."

    The Washington Times.   28 February 2001   (p. C1).

    Associated Press.   "Civil Suit Against Officer Settled in Police Dog Attack Case."

    28 August 2001.

    Associated Press.   "Officer Testifies That She Believed Dog Attack Victim was Trying to Escape."

    10 August 2001.

    Associated Press.   "Juror: Weak Details Undermined Police Dog Case."

    12 April 2001.

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