Lawrence D. Bockar is the first to admit that he isn't perfect. The 67-year-old retired radiologist — "L.D." to his friends — has worked in emergency rooms, served in the U.S. Army and volunteered in various civic associations, but that doesn't mean he's never screwed up. And, yes, he or some visitor to his North City Park Tudor might have neglected to close a gate once or twice, letting his dogs run loose.
"I'm not trying to tell you it didn't happen sometime," he says.
Okay, it might have happened. But that's no reason to condemn his beloved English setters, Phantom and Ripple, whom Bockar has raised since they were pups. (Phantom is now ten years old, while Ripple is pushing fifteen.) His doggies are "calm and loving," he says, soft-mouthed bird dogs of a mild disposition, not vicious attack animals. And they have never, he insists, sunk their teeth into any human being.
Yet when it comes to Bockar and his elderly pooches, there's more than one shaggy-dog tale to be told.
Two weeks ago, Bockar was in Denver County Court, facing charges that his setters had been off-leash and attacked a citizen. It wasn't the first time someone had complained about Bockar's dogs, but this time the complainant was also a county court judge: Claudia Jordan, who's been on Denver's bench since 1994. And the penalty if convicted, Bockar feared, would not be a simple hundred-dollar fine, but the destruction of Ripple and Phantom.
Jordan claims the dogs charged her on a public street last spring, cornered and frightened her. Bockar has an entirely different version of the encounter; in fact, the two sides have disagreed not only about what happened, but when it happened and who was there. The prosecution called a witness in support of Jordan's account and was allowed to introduce evidence of prior citations by animal-control officers. But after a day and a half of testimony, a jury found the defendant not guilty on all counts.
"I knew what the truth was, and one expects in America that our jury system works," Bockar says.
The verdict frustrates Assistant City Attorney Melissa Drazen-Smith, who believes the dogs are an ongoing safety concern. "They've bitten people before," she says. "They get off-property. Then he comes in and plays this 'Awww, the poor puppies' thing, and juries believe him. This is the second time he's been acquitted."
Bockar says he's been targeted by a small group of neighbors who object to his dogs' occasional barks of greeting. "There are people who don't understand dogs and think barking is an affront," he says. "Except for these very few people, who have some kind of vendetta, I've had a wonderful time in this neighborhood."
A New York native, Bockar has lived in North City Park for nearly two decades, including the last five years in his current home, across the street from the golf course. On the morning of May 21, 2009, he was mowing a strip of grass in front of his house —with his canine companions safely behind a gate on his front porch, he insists — when a woman walking down the street approached him.
"She came over to me and said, 'Your dogs are barking at me, and I don't like that,'" he says. "And I said, 'Well, they're behind the fence. That's how they say hello to people.'
"She said, 'I don't care. I don't like that. They have big teeth.'"
That was all there was to the exchange, Bockar says. But a month later, an officer from Denver Animal Care and Control presented him with a summons, signed by Claudia Jordan. She'd called the agency the day of the incident, stating that the dogs were loose, had come toward her barking and driven her into the street. She screamed, but the owner didn't hear her, so she took off her sweatshirt and waved it at the dogs to ward them off until she got his attention. "Told him they should be on leash — they have teeth — he told me that I have teeth, too. Walked home and called 311," reads Jordan's report.
Bockar not only disputes Jordan's account, but he claims the person who complained to him that day wasn't even Jordan, but rather a younger, shorter woman. He didn't meet Judge Jordan, he says, until a neighborhood Denver Digs Trees event five month later: "I introduced myself and put my hand out. She jumped backward and said, 'I wouldn't shake hands with you.' This was no more the person who came up the street that day than I am the Man in the Moon."
Feeling "vexed," Bockar declined a plea offer from the city attorney's office that would have required him to keep Phantom and Ripple penned when outdoors. He insisted on a trial, even though one possible outcome of a conviction could be a court order to destroy the dogs.
Prosecutor Drazen-Smith says she filed no motion to have the dogs declared dangerous — the first step to euthanasia — and that "all of the prior victims and Judge Jordan didn't want to see the dogs destroyed." But that wasn't the impression she gave the other side.
"She strongly implied that the risk of going to trial and getting convicted could be the dogs losing their lives," says Frank Moya, Bockar's attorney.
Former Jefferson County judge Gaspar Perricone presided at trial. The jury heard from a jogger who testified that one of the dogs had nipped him on the butt in 2003 while Bockar was walking them. (Bockar maintains that the man "ran right into the leashes and fell on his rear end," but a judge upheld the citation.) They heard about another incident in 2005 in which Bockar was cited for letting his dogs stray off his property. The doctor was cited again in 2007 for another alleged non-biting "attack," but that case had ended in acquittal.
And they also heard from a neighbor who said she'd responded to Jordan's cries for help last May and whistled to get the dogs' attention. Jordan herself had approached the witness months later and prepared a written statement of her account.
Yet Moya's cross-examination pointed out some troubling discrepancies between the statements Jordan submitted and the neighbor's testimony. Jordan's initial statement to the animal-control officer misidentified the location by a block and didn't mention the witness at all. Her later statement claimed the incident happened on Memorial Day, four days after she'd reported it. On the stand, the neighbor said that the encounter occurred late in the afternoon, while Jordan placed it early in the morning. Jordan claimed to have stood on the corner "for more than five minutes screaming" before Bockar noticed her, but the neighbor said she never saw Bockar at all.
The defense put on a stream of character witnesses. Two mail carriers agreed that Phantom and Ripple treated employees of the U.S. Postal Service with courtesy and respect. A police officer who'd once broken into Bockar's home in response to an errant 911 call found the setters unperturbed by a team of strange intruders. Octogenarian H.E. "Chubb" Hardin, a City Park legend who has a kids' golf course named after him, testified that the dogs were sweethearts every time he strolled across the street to retrieve golf balls from Bockar's yard.
The jury was out little more than an hour, including lunch, before finding Bockar not guilty. Drazen-Smith says the verdict was about minor discrepancies rather than the panel determining that Bockar was more credible than a sitting judge. "Because there were all these inconsistencies, the jury didn't want to find beyond a reasonable doubt," she says.
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It defies logic, she suggests, to believe that so many complainants are exaggerating about the dogs' conduct. "His story was that [Jordan] was making it up," she says. "And the guy before that, and the guy before that. His dogs never get out, they're never off-leash, they never hurt anybody.... This man's dogs are going to get hurt some day. I don't think Dr. Bockar understands that he's actually endangering his dogs with this game he's playing."
Judge Jordan did not respond to requests for comment about the case.
L.D. Bockar says he's relieved and grateful for the verdict but distressed about his strained relationship with those few people who don't understand his dogs.
"I just want to shake hands and have us be good neighbors," he says.