Mary Beth Sallee, Reporter
Jobe Publishing, Inc.
The Hart County Jail and its former employee, James Kersey, have recently come under scrutiny due to the questionable treatment and condition of Ragnar, the jail’s K9.
On January 27, a post was made on Facebook by a “concerned K9 professional” regarding the poor health and condition of Ragnar.
The post included before and after photos of the K9: a before photo of Ragnar prior to being sold to the Hart County Jail in 2019 and after photos of Ragnar upon his temporary return to original trainer Clint Hestand in September 2020.
The photos displayed an evidential change in the physical appearance of the dog, including what appeared to be a significant decline in weight, as well as sun-bleached and matted fur.
The Facebook user stated in his post that Ragnar was in “great health and weighed 90+ pounds” at the time of his purchase by the Hart County Jail, but that the dog then “weighed 45 pounds…due to gross malnourishment” when he first arrived back to Hestand.
The Facebook post was shared over 800 times, drawing attention and outrage from several Hart Countians, as well as many other individuals from across Kentucky and Tennessee.
A story about Kersey and Ragnar first appeared in the March 21, 2019 issue of the Hart County News-Herald. According to information in that story provided by Hart County Jailer Israel Bergenson, Ragnar is a German Shepherd that was purchased by the local jail using commissary money. Ragnar was purchased from Clint Hestand, owner and training director of K9 Tactical Performance in Tennessee.
Bergenson further stated in the 2019 news story that Ragnar was purchased as a way to help prevent drugs from entering the jail.
The News-Herald reached out to the gentleman who had penned last week’s Facebook post about Ragnar. Requesting to remain anonymous for this news story, the gentleman stated that he was made aware of Ragnar’s condition by Hestand while the K9 was under Hestand’s most recent supervision.
“The only reason I posted that was because I train with them, and I seen that dog, and I had seen him before Clint sold him (to the jail),” he stated. “…It’s very frustrating. That would probably be the best way to say it. He (Ragnar) didn’t deserve that. He can’t feed himself, so to speak, and all the trust these dogs put in us, they’re willing to give their lives at any moment for us. For somebody to do that, it’s not only disheartening, it angers me to be honest. I feel like that anyone with a K9 holds responsibility of making sure the K9 is taken care of properly and has proper training.”
Hestand also provided the News-Herald with his viewpoint of Ragnar, the dog’s condition, and the situation.
According to Hestand, he was contacted by Kersey around July of 2020 to see if he would be interested in purchasing the K9 back. Kersey had stated that Ragnar was not being utilized at the jail due to the COVID pandemic.
At that time, Hestand did not have room for Ragnar in his kennels. However, shortly after, one of his K9 handlers, Ridge Long, was looking for another dog.
That’s when Hestand contacted Kersey, asking if Ragnar could be brought to Tennessee for him to see how much work the K9 would need to be ready for Long. As stated by Hestand, Kersey said that Bergenson agreed to this plan.
On the day for Ragnar to be picked up, Hestand was at work and Kersey was out of town. That’s when it was arranged for Long to meet Kersey’s brother, Jacob, in Glasgow to pick up the K9.
Once Long saw Ragnar, he immediately texted Hestand a photo of the dog.
“I instantly texted him back and said, ‘That ain’t my dog,’” Hestand said. “And Ridge (Long) said, ‘Look at his head, Clint.’ I looked, and I couldn’t believe it.”
“I ended up calling Ridge,” Hestand continued. “He was in tears on the phone. He was actually crying. I told him to bring him on down here, so Ridge loaded him up and brought him down here to the house.”
Ragnar arrived at Hestand’s home on a Sunday evening in September of 2020.
Hestand said that his wife, Barbara, saw the K9 and cried.
“She felt so sorry for him,” Hestand said. “She got a pan of food out, and that dog, when she sat it down in front of him, he ate that pan of food so fast that it started blowing out of his nose. Then he went over to the corner of the driveway and threw it back up because he had been starved, completely starved to death.”
When Hestand, a Lieutenant with the Lafayette Police Department, arrived home from work, he said he couldn’t believe his eyes.
“They had him in a carrying crate,” Hestand said. “I opened that crate up, and he (Ragnar) came out. I just went down on my knees. I’ve been a police officer for 35 years. I see a lot of stuff and everything. I’ve got a pretty thick skin, but when I seen that dog, I got down on my knee, and I hugged him. There were tears running out of my eyes. I cried because of the shape that dog was in…For me to cry over something is very unusual, but I cried.”
“He was once a jet black dog…and he was sun-bleached red,” Hestand added. “He hadn’t been brushed in who knows how long, just dead coat hanging off of him all over…He had been let go so long, his face was sunk in…He was the worst looking specimen I had ever seen. I just could not believe that that was my Ragnar dog.”
The next day, Hestand took Ragnar to Evetts Animal Clinic. According to Hestand, veterinarian Geoff Evetts, D.V.M., would not give the dog any shots until he regained health.
Hestand said the dog smelled awful, and he questioned Evetts about this.
“The vet said that it was the smell of death,” Hestand said. “This dog was right on the verge of dying. He probably wouldn’t have lived another week or a week and a half at the most in the condition that the dog was in.”
Hestand also took Ragnar to be groomed by Stacey Romines, owner and groomer of All Paws Pet Parlor.
Romines, who has over 20 years of experience as a professional groomer, 3 years of experience as a veterinary technician, and 2 years of experience as a canine trainer/psychologist, hand-wrote a six-page letter describing Ragnar’s condition upon arriving to her to be groomed.
“When Lt. Hestand arrived with K9 Ragnar and got him out of the vehicle, I was truly shocked,” Romines said in her letter. “The once perfect example of health was now the complete opposite of that. From first glance, K9 Ragnar’s condition was horrifying, as was his coat condition. Upon closer, hands-on inspection while bathing and brushing him, I could not only see but feel his entire topline skeletal system, also ribs, humerus, pubis, patella, and tibia bones. His face was sunken in around the skull in front of his ears and behind the mandible.”
“His eyes were glazed over,” Romines further wrote. “His toenails were down to completely nothing. His coat condition was dry, sun bleached red, with extreme amounts of undercoat dead hair all over. There were mats in the coat as well. There was urine bleaching and burns on his paw pads. His ears were extremely dirty with wax and dirt inside. I can honestly say that in all of my years, I have never witnessed a dog in this condition that was owned and living with an owner.”
Evetts also penned a letter. Both letters from Evetts and Romins have been delivered to Bergenson.
As a K9 handler and trainer, Hestand said he also had to completely retrain the dog.
“I felt so sorry for him that I started leaving my patrol dogs here at the house, and I was carrying Ragnar with me just to get him back up to snuff,” Hestand explained. “I’d get him out, and I’d do stuff with him throughout my shift…He’s just a drug finding machine.”
However, Hestand also stated that he believes Ragnar will always suffer from what could best be described as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
“Ragnar jumped into the car to sniff the dope, and there was a McDonald’s hamburger in there,” Hestand recalled. “He grabbed that hamburger and swallowed it, paper and all, before I could get it out of his mouth. That was the first thing I noticed being a problem as far as workability is because now anytime he smells food, he thinks that he should eat it because it may be the last bite of food he’ll ever get.”
“Because of the abuse he went through, it’s kind of like having PTSD,” Hestand continued. “When I say that, I’m talking about he wants to eat the food when he’s searching (for drugs)…The dog will be useless for work because of the PTSD he is suffering through. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if something’s been starved to death, if there’s food laying around, their natural instinct is going to be to eat. That’s the way I would be.”
While Hestand said that he could possibly retrain Ragnar to not eat the food he finds or to not follow a food smell, he would have to use tactics on the K9 that he believes the dog doesn’t deserve.
“I can train the dog to not eat the food…but I’m gonna have to put an electric collar on him and stimulate him every time he smells of the food,” Hestand said. “I will have to give him a little jolt to let him know that’s not what he’s supposed to be doing, but I don’t feel that that dog deserves that…It’s a shame that the dog feels like this may be the last bite of food he ever gets.”
Because of the PTSD and what Ragnar has undergone, Hestand said that he suggested to Bergenson to medically retire the K9. Hestand also said that he told Bergenson to forfeit the dog to him and his business, K9 Tactical Performance, and let Ragnar live out the rest of his life on Hestand’s farm.
According to Hestand, that’s when Bergenson stated that he could not just hand over Ragnar because too much money had been invested by the jail into the dog. Also, the K9 is legally county property.
That’s when Hart County Attorney Mike Nichols stepped in.
“The trainer down in Tennessee (Hestand) was holding the dog and, from what I understood, was not going to give it back,” Nichols said. “You know, the dog is county property just like a vehicle or a piece of machinery at the county road department or one of the Sheriff’s cruisers. “
“I can’t giveaway, I can’t authorize county property to be kept by a private citizen,” Nichols continued. “I know I was quoted on the thing (Facebook post) as saying that, and I stand by that…That’s what that guy was trying to do, get me and Israel (Bergenson) to let him keep the dog, and I do not have it within my power to give away county property.”
Nichols said that when it comes to social media, there are often half-truths and non-truths.
“Now, having said that, two wrongs don’t make a right,” Nichols said. “If the dog’s been abused, law enforcement can investigate cruelty to animals just like they can investigate county property being misappropriated. I’m not against that, whatsoever. I do not support animal cruelty.”
Nichols also stated that Hestand was given the opportunity to make an offer for Ragnar.
“He (Hestand) asked if he could bid on it (Ragnar) to purchase it,” Nichols explained. “I told him, ‘Yeah, send a written estimate, fax it to me.’ I gave him my fax number on a Tuesday or Wednesday. Then, instead of doing what we had talked about doing, he decided to go the social media route.”
“If he wanted to purchase the dog from the county, we could’ve discussed that,” Nichols added. “What he and I spoke about on the phone the other day, then he chose not even to do. At no point did he fax up here anything in writing or verbally or email or text or anything, no communication…(If he did) then I would have taken it to Fiscal Court, and they could have voted it up or down. We have to do that. We just can’t give away county property, so that’s the frustrating side to me.”
As far as investigating the possibility of animal cruelty in the case of Ragnar and Kersey, Nichols said that he is not aware of any charges or investigation at this time.
“I gave him (Hestand) the number to the state police post in Bowling Green, and if he thinks a crime occurred, report it,” Nichols said. “…If he thought a crime occurred, he could have reported it. Don’t cry wolf now saying we did something wrong, and then try to leverage getting a free dog out of it.”
Hestand agreed that Nichols did refer him to contact Kentucky State Police if he so felt that animal cruelty had occurred.
“But that’s not my responsibility to charge someone,” Hestand said. “It’s their dog, and they let me know real quick that that’s their dog and the county’s dog. Well, if it’s your dog, then you need to be charging the person responsible for abusing and mistreating county funds.”
Hestand also stated that he did, in fact, ask Bergenson to turn Ragnar back over to him and his business since he was the one to nurse the K9 back to health.
“I was able to nurse Ragnar back into good health,” Hestand said. “When I received him, he weighed 52 pounds. When I released him back to the jailer (Bergenson), he weighed 96 pounds. Ragnar had gained that much weight from September 5 (2020) until today’s date (January 29, 2021).”
As far as purchasing Ragnar back, Hestand said that he had told Bergenson that he would see if he could find a handler, but Ragnar is a five and a half year old dog. Handlers prefer to begin with a younger dog.
“I truly felt that the dog should have been retired here,” Hestand said. “You know, I would have carried him with me to work and back and forth and stuff…He swam in my pond here behind my house. I got on the four-wheeler and run him around my property…You get out of it what you put into it…They made it clear to me that that’s their dog, and evidently they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do.”
On January 29, Ragnar was transported back to Hart County and is now under the personal supervision and care of Jailer Bergenson himself.
On February 1, Bergenson posted a video to his personal Facebook page. In the video, Ragnar can be seen with Bergenson as the jailer addressed the situation at hand.
“Anyone who knows me knows I do the best to operate the Hart County Jail in a humane manner, and I also believe in the humane treatment of animals,” Bergenson said. “That’s the reason I volunteer for an organization called ARK (Animal Rescue Kare). I never have neglected an animal.”
Bergenson then stated that Ragnar was purchased by the jail from a Tennessee trainer (Hestand). He also referenced the former jail employee (Kersey) who was trained in Tennessee to be the handler for Ragnar.
“…My handler (Kersey) kept him at his home and would bring him to the jail to locate the illegal drugs that prisoners may have tried to sneak into the jail. That’s what we had him for,” Bergenson said. “Then when the COVID-19 hit last year, the Department of Corrections were shutting down a lot of the prisoner work programs, so this reduced the possibility of prisoners bringing drugs into the jail. There was no need at that time for Ragnar to come into the jail.”
“I trusted the jail handler (Kersey) to properly care for Ragnar as he was trained,” Bergenson continued. “In August (2020), the jail handler had told me that Ragnar was acting sick and not eating very good but that he had been treating him for worms. I told the handler to take Ragnar to the vet, and the handler told me that he was unable to get Ragnar into the vet at the time and that he was treating him for the worms.”
Bergenson said that he had spoken to Kersey a while after that and was informed by him that Ragnar had started eating again.
“During the ongoing COVID crisis creating uncertainty if there’s even going to be jail work programs anymore, I directed my handler to contact the Tennessee trainer (Hestand) to see if he would be interested in buying Ragnar back,” Bergenson said. “The Tennessee trainer said he would probably be interested, so we made arrangements to get him back down to Tennessee.”
“In September (2020) when the trainer in Tennessee got him (Ragnar), he contacted me about Ragnar’s health,” Bergenson added. “I told the Tennessee trainer to do everything necessary to restore Ragnar’s health.”
According to Bergenson, in that same month of September 2020, the employment of Ragnar’s handler (Kersey) ended, and he was no longer an employee of Hart County Jail.
“I stayed in contact with the Tennessee trainer about Ragnar’s recovery from September to January, and he was doing good,” Bergenson said. “Last week, I reached out to the Tennessee trainer to tell him that I was going to be down in a couple of days to get him (Ragnar), and that’s when the Tennessee trainer told me that if I didn’t surrender Ragnar to him that he was going to put this on social media. I told him that I had no right to give him county property.”
Bergenson further stated that Hestand was offered a chance to submit a written bid for Ragnar, but instead a “…story with multiple exaggerations was posted on Facebook…”
“I would never neglect a dog or allow anyone to neglect any animal,” Bergenson said. “I just wouldn’t put up with it if I knew about it. I trusted a jail and trained employee to take care of Ragnar. I’m not throwing anybody under the bus. I take responsibility for this, but I just wanted to ensure the citizens of Hart County that Ragnar will be in my possession, and he will be humanely treated.
Bergenson said that he will post updates on Facebook about how Ragnar is doing and that anyone is welcome to visit at anytime to see the K9.
Not only does Bergenson volunteer for ARK, the county’s nonprofit animal welfare organization, but he is also ARK’s current Board of Directors Chairman.
June King, ARK Board Member, issued a statement regarding Bergenson and Ragnar.
“Israel Bergenson is a man of integrity with a genuine love for all animals,” King said. “Animals mean much more to Israel than Kentucky law defines as property. I am proud to have worked closely beside Israel since 2015 in the founding of ARK, and he currently serves ARK by working tirelessly towards the benefit of Hart County animals in need.”
Hestand also stated that he believes Bergenson to be an honest man who just happened to place trust in a person who obviously could not be trusted.
“I don’t have anything bad to say about Israel (Bergenson),” Hestand said. “I think that he was taken advantage of in this situation…Israel is a good man, and I have a great deal of respect for him. I think that Israel put his trust in someone who let him down terribly. That’s how I feel about that.”
“Jacob (James’ brother who transported Ragnar to Long) is also in a bad position because that’s his brother, and you gotta take up for your family and everything,” Hestand added. “Jacob actually saved the dog’s life by bringing him to my handler (Long). I’ll hand it to him that way. Jacob was sincerely apologetic. He said, ‘I did not know that this dog was in this kind of shape.’”
Hestand said that he believes James Kersey is the one who needs to be held responsible for the poor treatment of K9 Ragnar.
“James should not have done what he done” Hestand said. “He’s a grown man, and he knew better. When James was coming down here, I just loved him to death…But his true colors have shown through on this.”
“If I hadn’t of gotten the dog when I did, the jail would not have had a dog to worry about because he would have been dead, and that’s the truth of the matter, no doubt,” Hestand continued. “…James needs to be held responsible for this…They need to charge James and make him pay restitution for the dog. Period.”
The News-Herald would like to note that statements were made on social media in reference to Ragnar and the Hart County Sheriff’s Department. The Sheriff’s Department is a separate entity from the jail and does not oversee K9 Ragnar.
The Sheriff’s Department has their own K9 named Rina, as well as their own K9 handler and supervisor, Deputy Caleb Butler.
“Rina is our K9, and we treat her like an officer,” Sheriff Jeff Wilson stated. “We welcome anyone to come to our office to see Rina.”
According to Sheriff Wilson, as of January 30 no one had made an official complaint to the Sheriff’s Department regarding K9 Ragnar. Any official complaint made would result in the Sheriff’s Department consulting with the County Attorney.
As of press time, no statement had been made by James Kersey to the Hart County News-Herald.