NJ politics: County’s hottest issue is mysterious death of official’s dogs
A trainer who donated the K-9 that died in the back of the Gloucester County fire marshal's vehicle this summer told county commissioners that he was the one who buried Ember in the official's backyard and slammed fellow Republicans for creating "conspiracy theories" about the incident.
The acknowledgment is the latest twist in a case that has become one of the most discussed and inflammatory political issues before November's election in this South Jersey county.
Ember and another dog belonging to county fire marshal Shawn Layton died on Aug. 12. Officials were slow to acknowledge the deaths, which did not appear to have been reported to law enforcement until the animals had already been buried on Layton's property.
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.
According to a New Jersey Globe story, County Administrator Chad Bruner told County Commissioner Director Frank DiMarco about the deaths a day later on Aug. 13.
Layton and county leaders are Democrats. Republicans have highlighted the K-9 investigation in their criticisms of their opposition.
Layon, who also was elected to the Mantua Township Committee, has not been charged with a crime, although the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office, which is being overseen by an appointee of the state attorney general, is investigating. The prosecutor's office removed the bodies as part of their investigation.
The dogs were buried in Layton's backyard complete with a memorial fire hydrant but DiMarco has refused to answer questions from County Commissioner Christopher Konawel, a Republican, about the burial.
The man who buried Ember
Joe Nicholas, a well-known trainer of K-9s who runs a business called Joe Nick Canine Training in Vineland, told commissioners during Wednesday's meeting that he was responsible for the burial.
Nicholas said that when he arrived at Layton's Mantua home, Layton was too distraught to speak.
"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."
Donated K-9 still belonged to trainer
Nicolas also told the commissioners that Ember was still his dog. A 2020 post on the Gloucester County Facebook page said Ember was donated by Nicholas in 2020. Nicholas said he continued training Ember at no charge to the county.
"My dog. Still under my name. Not the township's. I love that dog. It's my name. It's my dog. We worked with this community and I trained him," Nicolas said during the meeting.
Nicholas said that he conducted his own investigation into Ember's death but "promised" the prosecutor's office he would not reveal details until theirs was complete.
Ember's death in political campaign
Nicholas described his anger at subsequent media coverage about the dogs' deaths and accused "political people" of "smashing" Layton's reputation. He said Layton deserves respect, which was met with applause from the audience.
He showed pictures of the 80 K-9 dogs valued at $475,000 he has donated over eight years to New Jersey communities including one with Layton the day Ember was donated.
"I'm a Republican. And you Republicans slapped me in the face. Tomorrow look in the mailboxes. I will no longer be a Republican. I'm gonna do what my friend Jeff Van Drew did. When I helped him with his dog when he was a Democrat, I still helped because he needed help. This is nothing but politics. I am begging. Stop. Do what's right."
Indeed a flier went out paid for by the Gloucester County Democratic Committee with a message from Nicholas denouncing Republicans.
Konawel, however, said Nicholas was never registered as a Republican.
The deaths were further politicized by a political group called South Jersey Strong in a 30-second television, according to New Jersey Globe.
The ad shows a TV news report about Ember's death and says her death was caused by being left in a hot car.
“Two months after the tragic death of K-9 officer Ember, we still have no answers, only silence, from the Gloucester County Democrats," says the ad for Tom Narolewski, Adam Wingate and Steve Pakradooni.