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The Prisoner & the Pups: How a Pet Program Changed One Inmate’s Life

Thanks to an innovative training program, 60 dogs changed one inmate’s life as much as he changed theirs.

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The Prisoner & the Pups: How a Pet Program Changed One Inmate's Life

He was a gentle man but didn’t see it that way-he felt like a pushover. At 24, he lived in Columbus, Ohio, without a place of his own or a steady job. When Eddie Hill looked in the mirror, he didn’t see promise. He saw “pretty damn worthless.” He lacked the courage to safeguard his own goodness.

In May 1989, Hill agreed to do a favour for his ex-brother-in-law, Donald “Duke” Palmer. Palmer, also 24, was a 220-pound, six-foot-one-inch army vet. He had towered over Hill when they met in high school and later testified that he had felt “protective toward the little guy.” Palmer had married Hill’s older sister, Cammie, in 1983. The couple had two kids, then divorced, after which Hill lost track of Palmer-until they crossed paths that spring, in 1989.

Palmer had become a swaggering drunk, a cocaine addict and a drug dealer. He had attempted suicide and been institutionalized twice. Hill was at a low point, too, with crushing depression. Most nights, he crashed at Cammie’s and watched her kids while she worked. Hill knew it was a lousy idea, but he slid back into drinking and getting stoned with Palmer.

Then Palmer asked Hill to drive him to Martins Ferry, Ohio, so he could help his wheelchair-bound sister, Angel, pick up her disability check. On May 7, the two young men loaded up Hill’s Dodge Charger with hard-rock cassettes and whisky for the two-hour drive east. Palmer stashed a .22-calibre pistol and ammo in the glove compartment. “I thought the gun was silly,” Hill says now. “I thought he was trying to add to his coke-dealer image or something.”

After taking Angel to pay her rent, the men bought a fifth of Southern Comfort. Sharing the bottle, with Hill behind the wheel, they went joyriding across the rural county. Palmer fired his handgun out the window at trees and fence posts. “Two dumb punks up to no good,” Hill says.

They flew past cornfields and pastures, squealed around a blind curve, and drove into the back of an idling white pickup truck.

Shocked, Hill hurried to apologize. The driver, cursing, strode toward him, as Palmer, who was falling-down drunk, staggered toward them. “Eddie kept telling the guy he was sorry,” Palmer later testified, “but [the man]… went to grab a hold of Eddie.” Coming at the stranger from behind, Palmer brought his right hand down to land a blow on his head. Suddenly, according to Palmer, “the weapon went off.”

Shot in the head, the stranger cried out and then dropped. Hill may have yelled in horror, “You killed him! You killed him!” (that’s his story), but Palmer testified that he thought Hill had yelled, “Kill him! Kill him!” Palmer stood over the wounded man and shot him point-blank in the head, while Hill took off running for the woods. A blue pickup truck pulled over, and another man, on his way home to get his son for baseball practice, approached to offer help with what appeared to be a collision. Palmer felled him with a bullet to the head, then shot again, killing him.

In the woods, hearing more shots, Hill was overcome by panic. Should he keep running or return to Palmer?

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More afraid of Palmer than anything else, Hill trudged back and saw the second victim. Shaking, he obeyed Palmer’s orders: load the first man’s body into the bed of his white pickup, drive it a few kilometres and abandon it; then stash both victims’ wallets in a field, drive his own car with Palmer in it to Angel’s, grab their stuff and speed back to Columbus. Hill cried all the way home.

Eight days later, Palmer and Hill were arrested and tried separately. Palmer was convicted and sentenced to death. Hill pleaded not guilty. While no one suggested he had pulled the trigger, there was abundant evidence that he’d helped in the cover-up. The jury found him guilty of two counts of aggravated murder and two counts of aggravated robbery. Because Hill wasn’t the gunman, his sentence was 71 years to life in prison rather than the death penalty.

The campus has red-brick buildings, green lawns and curving walkways. In a room, a class gathers; students drag moulded-plastic chairs into a circle. From a few just out of their teens to men in their late 60s, all wear identical long-sleeved denim shirts tucked into belted dark-blue cotton trousers. No one laughs loudly or clowns around; no one drops a backpack beside his chair. They don’t mistake this place for a college.

Around the perimeter of these 18 nearly treeless hectares in Lebanon, Ohio, stands a steel fence topped by razor wire and surveilled by armed guards. The Warren Correctional Institution (WCI) holds 1,426 men. Those in class this morning have committed property offences, aggravated robbery or murder; no one has been convicted of domestic violence or sex crimes because, as a group, those inmates are known to be a greater danger to animals.

As the prisoners enter, dogs gallop in beside them. The men stand quietly and speak in low tones, but the pups are thrilled to be here. They slip-slide and collide on the polished linoleum. The inmates can’t help but exchange glances of amusement. A service-dog training academy-4 Paws for Ability-in nearby Xenia, Ohio, places the dogs here for two months of basic obedience work as part of the 500 hours of training each will receive. Every dog will become, at the least, a well-behaved family companion. The high achievers will be trained as service dogs for children with spina bifida, Down’s syndrome, autism, diabetes, fetal alcohol syndrome, cerebral palsy, seizure disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder or brain damage. One of these shaggy golden retrievers will learn to bark to wake parents in the middle of the night if their child is having a seizure. A black Lab will become a socially isolated child’s first friend in the years when having a friend means everything.

Eddie Hill is among the men attending this morning’s dog obedience class. The inmates quickly find their seats and call over their pups. “Down,” they tell them. Some of the dogs obediently flop to the floor, but others skitter off. Gradually, the mayhem subsides. The men are anxious to do well and stay in this program. For some, the relationships they build with these dogs are the most affectionate, gentle and reciprocal they’ve ever known.

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Hill and puppy

Three months earlier, on September 20, 2012, after 22 years on death row, 47-year-old Donald “Duke” Palmer was executed by lethal injection. “I have lived with the knowledge that I’ve taken the lives of two men,” he said in an interview. “I left their families to struggle without them.” Before dying, he tried to undo one last bit of damage. In a declaration to the Ohio State Parole Board, he wrote: “There is… another victim in this case-Eddie Hill, my so-called co-defendant…. He is not in any way guilty of any homicide. It was all my doing…. Please do not let me die with the guilt of Eddie Hill’s murder convictions.” The parole board was unmoved.

When Hill entered prison in March 1990, his eager-to-please manner toward other inmates served him poorly, not unlike his obedience to Palmer. Hill’s parents visited monthly, so he had cash, snacks and modest possessions, but if another prisoner asked him for something, he gave it away and was threatened with violence when he had nothing more to give. “The first thing I had to learn was how to say no,” he says. Eventually, Hill corresponded with a young woman he’d known in high school; in time they would marry. But day-to-day prison life was lonely. In 2002, when a local animal shelter brought in dogs for training, Hill signed up. He was given custody of Timber, a German shepherd mix.

“Someone had put a collar on Timber and never widened it as he grew from puppyhood-his skin and fur had grown over it and had to be cut away; his neck was a mess,” says Hill. “Timber was afraid of everyone. He’d never known kindness.” On their first day together, Hill led the dog to a quiet place on the grass. “I just kept petting him, looking at him and telling him over and over, ‘It’s all going to be better now, boy. You’re safe now.'”

“I devoured every book I could find about dogs,” he says, “but a lot of what I did was trial and error mixed with common sense. The first thing that struck me about Timber was that there was somebody in there, with his own feelings, fears and hopes. I felt that he needed me and wanted to connect.”

Hill and his cellmate tended to Timber’s wounded neck, cleaning and disinfecting it daily. “He loved it, as it healed, when we would massage lotion into it.”

Finally, one day, Timber dared to sniff and be sniffed by other dogs, and then romped on the grass. “It was a joy to see his doggy personality emerge,” Hill says. “In about 70 days, Timber had become a pretty self-assured, clever fellow who could play and do tricks, and who was incredibly attached to me.”

Timber’s rehabilitation, however, meant he was eligible for adoption. The dog was led away, clueless that he was leaving Hill for the last time. A few weeks later, Timber’s new owner wrote to WCI: “Timber is the most wonderful dog! Thank you for showing him how to be a gentleman!”

Hill stood in a prison foyer reading the letter, crying. He didn’t care who saw him. Eddie Hill is the most gifted dog trainer that Karen Shirk, the founding director of 4 Paws, has ever seen. “We’d hire him tomorrow,” she says.

Hill has moved on to doing advanced service training, which involves teaching dogs to turn on lights and open doors. And if a dog proves problematic after placement-like Lugnut, an autism assistance dog that was playing a bit too boisterously-it’s brought back to Hill for remedial work.

About 60 dogs so far have been placed with Hill, from rangy mutts to papillons, from tenderly bred puppies to wild-eyed rescues. Hill has kept a detailed journal of each one. “Timber, and every dog since then, has given me back everything I’ve put into him tenfold,” he says. “If I ever get out, it’s for sure what I want to do, but I’m not up for parole until 2049.”

In 2049, Hill will be 83.