by Bill Thomas
Baron Von Willard was San Clemente’s first K9 police officer. A black Alsatian German Shepherd, 32 inches tall, weighing 130 pounds, he could see, hear, and smell better, and run faster than his human partner. He was part of a pilot program, joining 12 other canine crime fighters serving Orange County cities.
Presently, the County has nine K9s, two narcotics dogs and three explosives dogs. In the early ‘80s, even though the City could ill afford the additional expense of a police dog and handler, the rise in criminal incidents, the limited corps of local officers, and the concern of the citizens pushed for action. Lieutenant Bob McDonald, now Newport Beach’s police chief, who managed San Clemente Police Department operations, had recognized the success other cities had had with K9 units. With the approval of local chief Gary Brown, McDonald presented his ideas to City officials, civic groups and citizens.
Resident Suzanne Zeboray recalled: “I believed that the presence of such a unit alone would make any crook think twice about entering a house or store.”
Requiring a start-up fund to buy a dog and establish the K9 unit, Zeboray led a citizen’s effort to raise the money. The coffers quickly grew with the help of local citizens and service clubs. After Wilma Bloom, then president of the newly formed Soroptimists, learned of the project, her organization was one that jumped at the chance to pledge a significant portion of the needed $8,000. With moneys in hand, the search for the new police recruit brought Baron Von Willard to San Clemente.
“When Baron arrived,” Bloom said, “it affected every person in this community. It united us; the children fell in love with him; the adults fell in love with him, and, of course, he was well trained."
Police Officer Jim Gularte, since retired, was selected as Baron's handler. Baron was 24 months old when the two embarked on what Gularte termed, “...a very delicate micro-program with a lot of eyes watching.” “Everything had to be positive, a happy and compatible marriage... It wasn't just a matter of getting an animal out of a dog pound, putting him in a car and driving around looking for trouble or suspects or things to do... The citizens shouldn’t fear dog bites or liabilities.”
Countywide, there was continuous training by expert dog trainers with the handlers and dogs. After each incident where a K9 unit was utilized, the information was shared and additional training designed. Before Baron reached San Clemente, he had months of this rigorous training. He learned to perform at sign, verbal, and material commands, similar to those of a trained Seeing Eye or companion dog.
“I was both respectful and somewhat fearful of dogs,” Gularte recalled. “I was taught not to be too overbearing or dominant with the dog.”
Gularte was to become Baron’s partner, colleague, and chauffeur, and they soon became friends.
As an officially badged police officer Baron and Gularte reported for over 800 specific police calls, beyond patrolling and regular responsibilities. The two-individual team was responsible for 300 arrests for which Baron received a number of citations for outstanding service, from organizations such as the Santa Ana and Irvine Police Departments, and the Federal Immigration
Service, among others.
This wonder dog's career with Gularte included: helping to control a Santa Ana labor strike gone sour, searching through acres of orange groves to apprehend a suspected rapist hiding in a tree, finding a lost 4-year-old in a canyon presumed to have drowned, searching for survivors in three homes dislodged in a San Clemente canyon mudslide, flying to a crime scene in a helicopter, plunging into the ocean to arrest a crime suspect, participating in a drug bust with an arsenal of loaded weapons nearby, and apprehending an armed illegal alien in a storm drain under the I-5.
“We kept trodding new ground, applying things we learned in the street, enabling us to put them into written scenarios for developing new dog skills in our County training center,” admitted Gularte.
Because of the open landed back country in San Clemente, beaches to be patrolled and the necessities for Baron’s special functioning, a 4-wheel vehicle was converted to include all his harnesses and leashes, his first aid kit, extra food and other accessories.
“We could go anywhere the bad guys could go or hide,” said Gularte.
Baron also became a one-dog public relations department. He and his handler visited schools and service clubs. Baron demonstrated his skills with different purposed harnesses reacting to such regular “dog” commands of “sit,” “stay,” and “fetch,” and, with his working collar buckled: “find,” “control,” “release,” and “out.” An accompanying officer would play “bad guy,” so Baron could make pretend searches and arrests.
Pat Bouman, once secretary to the Police Chief, remembered the friendly, loving Baron, wearing his “non-work” collar, bounding into the station sniffing for milk bones, and then entering the Chief's office to see what “goodies” he had.
“I’d never reach my arm in his van when he had his “work” collar on,” Bouman said. “Then, he was all business.”
On January 5, 1988, Baron officially retired from the Department and was provided full medical benefits, similar to those provided a human police retiree. His personal doctor was veterinarian Scott Diehl, City Councilman and mayor during Baron’s tenure, who reports, "Baron needed health benefits. He had served us very, very well, receiving some injuries during his service with us... he was very good on duty, in show and tell situations, a very good ambassador and excellent example of public relations working in a community.”
Baron was sold to Jim Gularte for one dollar. He remained a much-loved member of the family until passing away the next year. He was replaced by a dog named Yoll.
After considering “Sirius,” the name of a K9 who perished in the 9/11 tragedy for the forthcoming naming of the San Clemente Dog Park, founder Greg Lipanovich attests, “After learning about Baron, it was obvious that we didn’t have to go all the way to New York to find a great dog, with a wonderful story and super name. We just had to go back a little way in San Clemente’s history. We got what we wanted.”
Lisa Zarkades, another leader of the Dog Lover’s group, is also enthusiastically happy with the idea of naming the dog play areas after “...a celebrity like Baron.” Currently, she’s working jointly with Gularte, the Historical Society, and local designer Doreen Ingino on what she terms “...a great sign.”
San Clemente’s dog population, estimated at 13,000, has its own hero and the San Clemente Dog Park may have a new name when, in February, Baron’s is presented to the City Council for consideration. b