A year later, no charges after NJ official’s dogs died in vehicle
K9 Ember died in the county SUV of Gloucester County Fire Marshal Shawn Layton
Ember and Layton's dog who also died were buried in Layton's backyard
The cause of his death is still under investigation by the Attorney General's office
It's been a year since Gloucester County Fire Marshal Shawn Layton's dog and county K9 Ember died while in Layton's care.
In January, the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office handed off the investigation to the Attorney General's Office. But the status of the investigation also remains unknown.
"It is not the practice of our office to comment on criminal cases. It is not appropriate for our office to comment in a way that would lead people to assume the guilt or to assume the innocence of individuals who may or may not be charged," Attorney General's Office spokesman Michael Symons told New Jersey 101.5 in a statement.
Layton took personal time in the weeks following the deaths of the dogs but returned to the job and still holds the position.
Disheartening and disturbing
Gloucester County Commissioner Chris Konawel pushed for answers when the deaths became known.
"We've had constituents call. Seems like everybody that calls gets the same answer. 'It's under investigation and we cannot comment further.' To me, it's kind of disheartening that a first responder's mysterious death a year later, we don't have any answers. And that to me is the most disturbing part. I don't care who does the investigation, but a year now. We're not solving the Jimmy Hoffa murder."
Konawel is optimistic that the investigation will be completed and the details made public.
"It seems like any time an investigation from our county goes to the attorney general, like a real case like this, it seems like we're about two years do we get any answers. I know there was an incident involving a police shooting in Mantua Township that was about two years before they had made their final summary of what they believe happened," Konawal said.
What is known about the case
Some details have come out about what happened the night the dogs died.
During a September meeting, Gloucester County Commissioner Director Frank DiMarco said that the dogs died while inside Layton's county-issued 2020 Chevrolet Tahoe. It was not made clear how officials knew that the dogs had died in the vehicle.
Layton also buried both dogs in his backyard and created a ceremonial plot complete with a memorial fire hydrant
Was Layton charged in connection with their deaths?
Since the investigation is ongoing, any charges will likely not be announced until they are filed.
Why did Layton bury the dogs in his yard?
Joe Nicholas, a well-known trainer of K-9s who runs a business called Joe Nick Canine Training in Vineland, told commissioners during a meeting in October that he was responsible for the burial in Layton's backyard.
Nicholas said that when he arrived at Layton's Mantua home, Layton was too distraught to speak. The burial site for both dogs included a memorial fire hydrant.
"I took the dogs out of the car. I know what happened. I covered the dogs up. I had someone to go get me a backhoe and dig a hole because I wanted that boy to stop suffering," Nicholas said, referring to Layton's grief. "I wanted that boy to get up off the ground and stop crying. That was the only thing I could do to bring closure."
Investigators from the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office took the bodies of the dogs from the plot as part of their investigation.
Why did Layton wait to report the deaths and what were the circumstances?
The way the dogs died could have affected how quickly Layton was able to report their deaths. The involvement of law enforcement is important because leaving animals in a vehicle in conditions that could result in their death from suffocation or overheating is considered animal cruelty under New Jersey law.
Why did the Democratic-controlled Board of Commissioners not allow the death of the dogs to be discussed as an agenda item?
Konawel, a Republican, said he tried to get the death of Ember on the agenda in September but was thwarted. The deaths were brought up by residents, some wearing orange T-shirts that read "#JusticeforK-9Ember," during the public comment sections during several subsequent meetings. Commissioner meetings are not available on video.
The topic continues to be off-limits for discussion during commissioner meetings as Konawel said he has been told not to bring it up because of the ongoing investigation.
"My step personally here is just to keep calling and keep trying to get answers. Keep trying to keep the issue public until we do get an answer. And that's about as good as I can do at this point. I know, myself, Commissioner Nicholas DeSilvio and even the sheriff have all tried to get answers out of the situation," Konawel said.