El Paso K-9 featured on 'Live PD' retires
K-9 Johnny Cash became a local four-legged celebrity when he and his handler, Sgt. Jesus Melendez, were featured on the now-canceled reality TV show
By Daniel Borunda
El Paso Times
EL PASO, Texas — El Paso's famous crime-fighting dog, K-9 Johnny Cash, has retired from the El Paso Police Department.
The energetic 6-year-old Belgian Malinois became a local four-legged celebrity when he and his handler, Sgt. Jesus Melendez, were featured on the now-canceled reality policing cable TV series "Live PD."
"Live PD" video crews rode along and filmed officers with various police and sheriff's departments across the nation.
K-9 Johnny Cash retired last week after five years with the Police Department.
The retirement of his loyal partner is "heartbreaking" yet heartwarming because of the community support K-9 Johnny Cash has received, Melendez said.
El Paso police dogs train, work and live with their human partners. Melendez has been with the EPPD for 15 years and remains on the job. His dog still lives with him.
"It’s hard for people to understand the bond that you have," Melendez said. "There’s an attachment. You work with each other, live with each other and you feed off each other’s energy.
"Sometimes we are out there in situations and I think to myself we wouldn't have found the person (police were searching for) if he hadn't been there or maybe I don’t go home that night if it hadn’t been for him."
K-9 Johnny Cash was about a year-and-a half old when he began training with Melendez as a police dog and handler team. The dog was initially named "Jango" but Melendez opted to rename him in honor of the late, great country music legend.
"Basically, to me, he’s the top dog and Johnny Cash was the ultimate country bad boy singer — I just think the name fit," Melendez said.
"The Man in Black" Johnny Cash has an infamous link to El Paso, where he was arrested and spent a night in the county jail on a pill possession case in 1965.
K-9 Johnny Cash worked citywide assisting patrol officers searching for drugs and tracking and locating elusive criminals.
"When it’s time to work, he is focused. It's 100% work," Melendez said of his former partner. Outside of work, K-9 Johnny Cash is just like any other dog who loves to play, snuggle and get belly rubs.
A dog named K-9 Johnny Cash
Cash's first capture was a man wanted for domestic violence who had fled from an apartment and was believed to be hiding in a ponding area, Melendez said.
"The guy was maybe a football field away from where everybody believed, in an area nobody had searched. He was hiding inside a dumpster," Melendez said.
K-9 Johnny Cash found him within two minutes and the man surrendered with his hands up without a problem. "It was so exciting," Melendez said.
'No quit in the dog'
In another standout incident, K-9 Johnny Cash tracked a crime suspect for over 90 minutes in a ravine behind the University of Texas at El Paso, Melendez said.
"It was January. It was muddy, there was a lot of stagnant water that had ice on it," Melendez recalled, describing how they had to crawl through the brush.
Johnny Cash stayed on the hunt "until basically the guy ran out of the area to hide and came right back to us," Melendez said. The man couldn't believe he got caught.
K-9 Johnny Cash "was just so focused, so determined. There was no quit in the dog. ‘I’m going to do the job until I can’t do it anymore,' " Melendez said.
'Live PD' fame
K-9 Johnny Cash was in the first episode featuring El Paso police, which aired on Oct. 6, 2017, on the A&E cable network.
On the episode, K-9 Johnny Cash, Melendez and other officers searched an empty home during a burglary call. The team also was featured in other El Paso episodes.
The popularity of the police dog named after a country music outlaw exploded.
"My mind was blown with just how much attention he got," Melendez commented.
From the archives: 5 takeaways from 'Live PD' in El Paso
The dog received letters from around the world, including places such as Alaska, Canada and Norway, Melendez said.
El Pasoans would stop and ask to take photos. There were visits to schoolchildren. "Hey, that's Johnny Cash," people would say on the streets, coffee shops and restaurants, even if they didn't recognize Melendez.
One of the questions TV show viewers often had was why K-9 Johnny Cash sometimes wore a basket-weave style muzzle.
Melendez explained the muzzle was utilized depending on the threat level, crime and suspect in each situation. For example, it could be considered excessive force if a police dog were to bite someone on a simple trespassing incident. But the dog still can defend himself with the muzzle.
Melendez said he was grateful for the attention and support shown to K-9 Johnny Cash and other police dogs.
"The dogs — they put their lives on the line for us and that's something that I don’t think they get enough credit for," Melendez said.
K-9 Johnny Cash, his shiny badge dangling from his collar, got the celebrity treatment during a visit Wednesday to El Paso Police Headquarters — posing for photos, petted by detectives and playfully, yet forcefully, nudging a sergeant.
"The thing about being a (police dog) handler is that it’s not about you, it’s about the canine. I actually loved that people took to the dog," Melendez said.
EPPD Officer Andrea Zendejas, who also gained a nationwide following on "Live PD," posted a tweet congratulating K-9 Johnny Cash on his retirement.
"You’ve been a good boy and took real good care of your Dad & all of us, and for that we are most grateful," Zendejas tweeted. "Now it’s time for you to relax and enjoy the rest of your life!"
"Live PD" was canceled in June amid the George Floyd protests against police brutality and racial injustice and a scandal that emerged this year over the Central Texas death of Javier Ambler II after Williamson County deputies used a Taser on him four times in a confrontation filmed by a crew of the TV show in 2019.
House Bill 54, a proposal before the 87th session of the Texas Legislature next year, would ban police and sheriff’s departments from contracting with camera crews to create reality TV shows.
Melendez is dealing with no longer having his pawed partner riding alongside him.
K-9 Johnny Cash also is adjusting to retirement. Melendez said his dog sometimes gives him a look, seeming to ask, "When are we going to ride again?"
"It’s heartbreaking now that I have to leave him at home and make the drive (to work) without him. It’s a big adjustment," Melendez said, adding he makes sure to take his pal on runs and play with him for exercise and fun.
At home, K-9 Johnny Cash hangs out with the Melendez family’s other pets — a Saint Bernard, chocolate Labrador, a Chihuahua, a miniature poodle and a turtle.
At the end of his final workday, K-9 Johnny Cash was honored with a police tradition. Melendez, his voice cracking with emotion, broadcast K-9 Johnny Cash's retirement over the police radio on their ride home.
"I started to cry," Melendez recalled. "I stopped talking (on the radio) and said, 'Let’s go home.' "
(c)2020 the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas)