Comfort dogs and handlers among victims of Joplin, Mo., shooting spree

·Senior Writer

Comfort dogs have become a familiar sight for communities and families ravaged by gun violence. This weekend, they became inadvertent victims.

Two golden retrievers from a Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog unit and their human handlers were among those wounded in a random shooting spree in Joplin, Mo., on Saturday morning, officials say.

A van carrying the dogs had just left Immanuel Lutheran Church in Joplin shortly after 5 a.m. when it was hit by gunfire from a suspect police were pursuing.

The church van’s driver, Kenneth Eby, received multiple gunshot wounds, including one to the chest; Heidi Gustin, who was riding in the back seat, was struck in the arm. Both were transported to a hospital where they underwent surgery. Eby is listed in critical but stable condition; Gustin is in serious but stable condition.

A third passenger, Karen Mech, sustained cuts from shrapnel, police said. Her injuries were considered minor.

The dogs — Jackson and Louie — were also struck by gunfire. Jackson was grazed in the flap of his ear, while Louie took a bullet in his neck. Louie underwent surgery to remove the slug and is now recovering.

The suspect, 26-year-old Tom Mourning, then fired at a pickup truck, injuring the driver and a passenger, before surrendering to police. He was later charged with multiple counts of armed criminal action, assault in the first degree and unlawful use of a weapon, according to the Joplin Globe.

Police Capt. Bob Higginbotham told the Associated Press that there was no apparent motive for the shootings, which began after the suspect’s father called police to report the suspect was firing rounds at their home. Police responded to the home and then began pursuing the suspect’s vehicle when Mourning opened fire on the church van.

“We’re used to deploying our dogs to respond to these senseless shootings,” Lutheran Church Charities president Tim Hetzner told Yahoo News. “We were just in Orlando and Dallas.”

The comfort dogs were placed in Joplin following the E-5 tornado that tore through the southwest Missouri city, killing more than 150 people.

“Jackson and Louie are well known in that community,” Hetzner said.

To help the injured handlers and comfort dogs cope, six dogs (Chewie, Luther, Jeremiah, Olive, Jessy and Rufus) from three states have been dispatched to Joplin and were expected to arrive Sunday morning.

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