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Fla. K-9 deputy shot in neck while tracking suspect recounts ambush

“It’s nothing short of amazing I’m still here,” Cpl. Matthew Aitken says about being shot in the neck, leg and wrist when ambushed


Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Jake Viano, left, Cpl. Matthew Aitken, center, and Sheriff Bob Gualtieri are seen at a news conference held at the sheriff’s office headquarters in Largo on Thursday. Aitken and Viano spoke about a March 12 call in which a burglary suspect shot Aitken, and Viano returned fire, killing the suspect.

Michaela Mulligan

By Michaela Mulligan
Tampa Bay Times

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — One thing Cpl. Matthew Aitken tells his K-9 students is their dog is not their friend — or even a partner.

But after a shooting on March 12, there is no denying Taco, the deputy’s K-9, has become his brother, he said.

On Thursday, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri released body camera footage from Pinellas K-9 deputy Aitken, 40, and Sgt. Jacob Viano, 49. The footage shows the two tracking 23-year-old Zion Bostick with Taco in the Lealman area of St. Petersburg around 7 p.m. on March 12. Bostick shot Aitken three times and Viano returned fire, killing Bostick.

Aitken and Viano also spoke to the media Thursday about the night’s events and its aftermath.

According to Gualtieri, a witness saw Bostick attempting to get into several cars. Bostick ran from the scene and ended up at a nearby church. Aitken and Taco responded to the area, Gualtieri said.

Viano, a former K-9 deputy and Aitken’s former K-9 instructor, heard the call on the radio. Viano and Aitken talked, and Viano decided to leave his assigned area to help Aitken search for Bostick.

“Basically, I knew our resources might be dwindling,” Viano said at a news conference Thursday. “So I thought, let me go back. I’m just going to help with the perimeter.”

Gualtieri said it’s usual for another deputy to accompany a K-9 deputy. It’s likely one reason Aitken is alive.

“This for where, for those unexplainable reasons ... that things lined up right, as opposed to wrong, and led to Cpl. Aitken’s life being saved,” Gualtieri said.

Body camera footage from Aitken and Viano’s devices shows Taco reacting to a metal fence in a backyard. In the video, Aitken lifts Taco over the fence and Aitken follows. Body camera footage from Aitken shows Bostick behind a building. Aitken yelled for Bostick to show his hands.

Aitken said at the news conference Thursday he expected Bostick to run when he went behind the building, something he’s seen suspects do hundreds of times. Instead, Bostick fired three shots at the deputy.

Body camera footage shows Aitken immediately hit the ground as more shots are fired in the background.

Viano had been a few seconds behind Aitken when Bostick fired his weapon.

Footage from Viano’s body camera shows Taco, who had been released by Aitken, immediately lunge for Bostick after the shots were fired. Viano then fired multiple shots at Bostick, who died at the scene.

Gualtieri said Aitken initially was not breathing and required CPR. Aitken was shot in the leg, wrist and neck. He was released from the hospital days later.

Aitken has not seen the body camera footage, and he chose not to watch the footage Thursday.

“I passed out, and I woke up screaming for Jake, because Jake has been my mentor all through K-9,” Aitken said Thursday. “And I thought Jake was dead.”

The two have known each other for 15 years, he said.

“Things lined up the right way in a very bad situation, and with the slightest changes to the events, Cpl. Aitken simply would not be here today,” Gualtieri said.

Bostick, 23, had been arrested 18 times — on 34 felony and 22 misdemeanor charges, Gualtieri said. Bostick had not appeared in court the week before the shooting, where he was due to be sentenced to a mandatory five years in prison.

“It’s nothing short of amazing I’m still here,” Aitken said.

Aitken told the media he’s had some complications in his neck and some swelling in his spine that is causing nerve issues. However, three doctors have told him they see no reason why he won’t make a full recovery.

Aitken said working in the K-9 unit is a dangerous job. He and his family recognize the danger, but they swallow it, he said. They trust that the dogs are going to do what they do.

“My hope is within six months I’ll be back working with Taco again,” Aitken said.

Taco is Aitken’s second K-9. His first is 13 years old now and lives at Aitken’s home. In training, deputies are taught that their dog is a subcontractor to find suspects, Aitken said. A deputy has to have that separation, he said, because there may be a time when they release their dog and the dog doesn’t come back.

“That’s what we say,” Aitken said. “Deep down, what we don’t talk about at parties — I mean, that dog is my brother.”

Aitken saw Taco for the first time since the hospital on Tuesday. He called the meeting intense. Aitken’s wife and 9-year-old daughter miss Taco. The dog will be going home on Friday, Aitken said.

The shooting has changed Aitken’s relationship with Taco, but Aitken said he will continue to train Taco to do the job he’s been assigned.

Aitken thanked the entire K-9 unit at the sheriff’s office for training Taco. He said he’s confident every dog in the unit would have done the same thing.

“I would not be here, and I would argue that Sgt. Viano would not be here ... both of us are eternally grateful for that dog,” Aitken said. “So, yeah, my relationship is never going to be the same.”

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