Joshua Rohrer went everywhere with Sunshine, his service dog.
As a Kentucky National Guard intelligence soldier, Rohrer deployed to Iraq in 2004 and 2005, facing what he called constant attacks in Saddam Hussien’s hometown. After leaving the Guard, Rohrer was diagnosed with PTSD and other disorders and received a service dog as part of his treatment through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
He named the dog Sunshine.
In October 2021, a run-in with police in Gastonia, NC ended in Rohrer under arrest and Sunshine dead. Sunshine was hit by a car hours after fleeing the scene when an officer used a taser on the service dog.
Now Rohrer has filed a federal lawsuit against the police officers involved in the arrest and the Gastonia Police Department, alleging excessive force, intentional infliction of emotional distress, retaliation, and defamation. Roher maintains that his arrest was unjustified and overly violent.
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The suit also chronicles more than two dozen Facebook posts made in the months since by officers inside the department — along with the judge who oversaw the case — that Rohrer says add up to a campaign of harassment against him.
“During the arrest — and despite knowing of Mr. Rohrer’s disabilities — the officers unnecessarily escalated the situation, forcing Mr. Rohrer against their car and then to the ground and tasing the unthreatening Sunshine, who ran off and was later killed by a car,” the suit alleges. “Mr. Rohrer was devastated by the death of his beloved companion Sunshine and attempted to take his own life. He continues to suffer from the injuries the officers inflicted on him.”
A spokesperson for the Gastonia police department told Task & Purpose they could not comment on a pending lawsuit.
“The City is aware of the lawsuit,” said Mary J. Elliot, Gastonia’s director of Communications and Marketing. “We are reviewing the details of the filing. It is not City policy to comment on pending litigation.”
The city, Elliot said, had not been served with the lawsuit on Thursday, June 6.
After fleeing the scene of the arrest — witnesses described the taser tongs still stuck in the dog as it ran — Sunshine was found and taken in by a friend of Rohrer. But while Rohrer was still in jail the next day, Sunshine escaped the friend’s property and was struck and killed by a car.
Deployed to Tikrit
According to a post Rohrer left on Facebook in August 2022, close to a year after his arrest, Rohrer joined the Kentucky National Guard in 2002 as an intelligence analyst. He was deployed to Forward Operating Base Danger in Tikrit, Iraq in June 2004.
As the home of Saddam Hussien, Tikrit was the scene of intense fighting throughout the early years of the Iraq War.
“As you can imagine it was a constant target for Saddam and the insurgents. We fought for it just as hard as they did because controlling Tikrit was as much a psychological victory as it was a military victory for everyone,” Rohrer wrote. “We were under attack day and night by rockets, mortars, gunfire, and Vehicle Bound Improvised Exploding Devices. The flashing of explosions, the sound, the smell of gunpowder in the air, changed me in ways I would never imagine. In addition, my job in Intelligence made me responsible for the safety of thousands of my brothers and sisters. Sometimes we were right in our information, and painfully at times we were wrong. If we were right, I went on to the next task. If we were wrong, I constantly questioned things as I felt like I had blood on my hands.”
After returning to the US, Rohrer said, he was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and spiraled into addiction and alcohol abuse, before landing in Gastonia, where he “camped” with Sunshine.
A 911 Call For Panhandling
On October 13, 2021, a driver near the busy Gastonia shopping center called 911 complaining that Rohrer was using Sunshine as a prop to elicit cash from drivers.
“They’re using this dog to make people feel sorry for them, to give them money,” the caller told 911 operators according to audio obtained by WBTV. “They have this dog laying in the middle of the, he’s on the median. That poor little dog is laying on the median right there at the red light. He could get ran over.”
Rohrer denied to the officers and in the lawsuit that he solicited money but admitted he accepted cash when offered by drivers. At least once in the past, the lawsuit claims, a police officer had given him money.
In the bodycam video of the arrest, police grab and wrestle with Rohrer after asking him for ID. He appears to be offering only an expired VA identification card when police grab him.
In a chaotic few seconds, one officer tackles Rohrer against the police car as a second officer tells Rohrer to “call off your dog.” Sunshine can be seen circling between the two officers but does not bark or appear aggressive.
The same officer then says “he just bit me.”
The officer handcuffing Rohrer says “I don’t think he’s gonna bite me” before Sunshine jumps on the hood of the car to be closer to Rohrer.
The second officer immediately tasers Sunshine and Rohrer erupts in anger. Both officers tackle Roher, forcing him face-down on the nearby pavement to be handcuffed.
“The force used during the arrest caused Mr. Rohrer physical injuries including a torn meniscus in his knee, a severely sprained lateral collateral ligament, a blood clot in his leg, and bleeding and contusions on his face,” the suit claims. “Mr. Rohrer needed to use a wheelchair and a walker for months after the incident, and Mr. Rohrer continues to suffer from lasting mobility issues and ongoing leg pain that interfere with his daily life and make it difficult for him to walk for long distances.”
Within days, the Gastonia police Facebook page began receiving posts and comments in support of Rohrer, questioning his arrest and blaming the department for Sunshine’s death.
At least one of the police officers who arrested Rohrer, Cierra Brooks, commented on the case on Facebook, writing on October 23, 2021, “Gaston County people in such an uproar about that damn dog getting tased without knowing the facts but where was the same energy for the Gastonia officers that were attacked a couple of days ago and almost lost their lives??? I’ll wait.”
Brooks also wrote, the suit maintains, that those defending Rohrer were “dumb as hell still talking about that dog incident,” and concluded: “But whatever … Y’all still bothered and I’m still living, counting down the days until I’m at Mardi Gras.”
In the months since, the suit says, those behind the Gastonia Police Department’s official Facebook account have kept up “a relentless campaign of harassment, abuse, and defamation [of] hundreds of disparaging, false, and taunting public comments.”
The suit cites dozens of posts under the official Facebook account which appear to inaccurately claim that Rohrer pled guilty to charges from the arrest, when in fact all charges from the arrest were dismissed (he pled guilty, the suit says, to an unrelated driving charge on a different day).
“The City’s comments attack Mr. Rohrer’s character, lie about what happened that day, and intentionally mislead the public about the fact that the criminal charges against Mr. Rohrer were dismissed,” the suit says.
Perhaps most oddly, the judge in the case may have gotten in on the online act.
According to Rohrer’s suit, Gastonia Magistrate Mark Oakes, who oversaw the case, posted a statement on Facebook that read in part: “Veterans are also required to follow law and ordinances. They don’t get a free pass. In fact, they should be in the front of the line of law abiding citizens sir I know more about this case than you. I promise. Vets are not above the law. They must abide by it too. You refuse to acknowledge it I see but the truth still remains. Play in your own sandbox romper room you are what is skewed about society – low information loud mouths again low information loud mouth is what you are. You’re too young to understand the romper room comment obviously. Go change your diaper.”
Oakes initially set a $3,000 bond for Rohrer after his arrest, specifying that it be paid in full by Rohrer or a close relative, not — as is typical in virtually all low-level arrests — by a bondsman or member of the general public. Rohrer’s mother eventually bailed her son out. Charges from the arrest were dismissed soon after.
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