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South Neighborhoods
Man faces trial in killing of dog

Thursday, October 17, 2002

By Jonathan D. Silver, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Man's best friend became Lester Torma's worst enemy yesterday.

The 49-year-old Munhall man was ordered to stand trial on charges that he shot to death his neighbor's dog last month, allegedly after the canine chomped on his leg.

Prosecutor Ann Steiner relied on just one witness yesterday to convince Munhall District Justice Thomas Torkowsky that Torma should be held on charges of reckless endangerment, cruelty to animals, persistent disorderly conduct and criminal mischief.

"He killed the dog that I had been taking care of that day," testified Lisa Lindsay, whose fiancÚ, Jack Cotter, owned Chance, a German shepherd. "I start screaming, 'Les, what are you doing? Leave the dog alone! Leave the dog alone! I wasn't aware of the bite. I thought Les just snapped."

What actually snapped that day was a relationship between Torma and Jack Cotter, neighbors for about 12 years.

"I saw him probably four days a week every week and he never mentioned anything about my dog," Jack Cotter, 56, said in an interview earlier this month. "My yard is adjacent to his yard and we had such a friendship, I guess, that I cut his back yard with my lawn tractor and he would cut my front yard with his push mower."

After the incident, Cotter's younger brother Bill was so incensed that he put up a sign on the marquee of his bar, the Gameroom Lounge on Main Street. It had Torma's name, followed by an epithet and the words "dog killer."

"I want everybody in this town to know what he did," Bill Cotter explained. He took down the sign a few days later.

Lending an odd twist to the incident is the fact that Jack Cotter is the Brashear High School teacher who was nearly bludgeoned to death with a sledgehammer by two students in 1996.

Jack Cotter, who described the 120-pound Chance as a "big baby," said his dog aided him in recovering from his injuries.

"If he came up on you, I would tell you, 'Stand still,' and he would lick you to death," Cotter said. "This dog got me through the bad time. I got him right after I got hurt."

Chance was shot around 5:14 p.m. Sept. 28 after Lindsay stopped by Cotter's house on Hillcrest Drive to let him out. She said Chance ran past her to go to the bathroom in the yard as she opened the door, leaving her no time to attach a rope leash.

Lindsay said she went inside, prepared the dog's food and took it back out. Somehow -- the circumstances weren't exactly clear from the testimony -- Chance disappeared from view on the other side of a mulberry tree on Cotter's property. Then, Lindsay told the court, she saw Torma outside.

"I heard a pop and I wanted to say, 'Les, don't throw firecrackers. You'll scare the dog.' I thought that's what he was doing, was throwing firecrackers, and then it became apparent he wasn't throwing firecrackers. He shot the dog."

It wasn't over yet. Torma, she testified, fired his gun again at Chance.

"He just took aim. He wouldn't look at me. I guess he was 8 feet from me ... Then he shot the dog," Lindsday testified. "I said, 'Why would you kill him?' He said, 'Do you want to see my leg?' He said, 'He bit me.' He just looked at me and said, 'I had enough of the dog.' "

A police affidavit said Torma admitted to firing his .270-caliber hunting rifle at Chance. He told police he was in his back yard when Chance bit his lower right leg. He said he went to his house, got his gun, and fired twice when the dog came after him again. Lindsay, the affidavit said, was within 5 feet of Lester.

Torma's attorney, David Cercone, cited the cruelty to animals statute and the state's dog law, claiming Torma was legally justified in killing Chance, a matter that the district justice declined to address.

Cercone also argued that Lindsay was on the side of Torma when he fired, not in front of him, so she was not in any danger. Steiner, the assistant district attorney, disagreed.

"I'm no expert in guns, but I think if you're within 8 feet of somebody, somebody who's enraged and firing a gun capable of killing a dog, then you're in danger of some type of injury, whether it's a poor shot or ricochet."

Jack Cotter has been cited for allowing Chance to be off a leash. But whether that infraction and a dog bite warranted Torma's shooting the dog is a matter of debate.

"If the dog bit him, that's wrong. You don't let your dog run loose. Even if the dog jumped on him, he was within his rights to sue for whatever damages, complain, call the police, put a fence up," Bill Cotter said. "But if the dog jumps on you, bites you, it shouldn't be a death sentence."

Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962.

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