MOORHEAD — Mark Raymond never thought softballs could lead him into court or impound his service dog, Raila, who is now considered a dangerous animal.
But it did.
The softball kerfuffle began over the summer when Mark took his 30-pound border collie to Centennial Park, where he would hoot and holler at players while Raila excitedly retrieved foul balls from an adjacent cornfield.
The activity was a perfect outing for Mark and Raila, because Mark is paralyzed from the waist down after suffering a severe spinal injury when he slipped on ice while walking to buy cigarettes shortly before Christmas 2016.
Each time the pair would go out to the softball games, Mark would attach a chain to Raila’s leash, and push the levers of his electric wheelchair six blocks to where the Moorhead Softball Association’s adult league played. Mark has limited use of his hands and arms, which means he can’t throw well, so Raila would retrieve the foul balls from the cornfield.
“Sometimes balls would be hit into the cornfield, and so we started retrieving them,” said Mark, a 65-year-old Marine Corps veteran. Before his injury, he owned a construction company.
“I said we would give them back at the end of the season,” he said of the softballs, adding that he wanted to have a final season tally of how many balls Raila rescued from the mud.
By the time softball season ended, Raila collected 62 softballs and five baseballs. The balls, some still with mud clinging to the side, were piled on Mark’s couch, just where Raila liked them.
But during the summer, the softball association’s treasurer, Blaire Kemmer, called police about a softball theft. And on July 13, police confronted Mark and took back a few of the balls he had on him, with a total value of about $30.
“Kemmer said Raymond refused to give the balls back today, but said he would give the softballs back at the end of the year,” a police report stated.
Moorhead Police Officers B. Bauer and Eric Zimmel told Mark no charges would be pressed if he gave the balls back, but he refused, according to the report.
“Raymond refused to give the softballs back and said, ‘Go ahead and charge me,’” the report stated.
“They should have let me take the balls home and give them back another way,” Mark said. “There was no intention of any theft because I planned to bring the balls back, and I told them that. I’ll take it all the way to a jury trial if I have to."
A little while later, police allege Mark tried to flee the scene, but Mark said he was not fleeing. An officer hit the clutch on his wheelchair, which started spinning him around in circles. Then an officer touched Mark’s wheelchair again, which is when Raila, a protector for Mark, nipped at the officer’s leg.
“The dog did bite Officer Zimmel at least once on his left thigh, but did not break any skin. Given the dog’s aggressive behavior, Officer Zimmel was given no choice but to kick the dog in order to get him to stop biting him,” the police report stated.
Police then used a snare to bring Raila into a squad car and impounded her at the Fargo-Moorhead Animal Hospital.
“When police first started getting aggressive with me, they threatened to Taser her, and that really got me upset,” said Mark, who has pleaded not guilty to a charge of misdemeanor theft. For thefts valued at less than $500, the maximum sentence is 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
When Mark’s father, Ed Raymond, heard about the encounter, he called the Moorhead Police Department and asked for information.
“Frankly, the dog deserved to bite the officer’s leg because he didn’t know enough not to touch the wheelchair,” Ed said. “We fight about vaccinations. We fight about masks. This is about softballs.”
“There is a lot going on in the world that isn’t very fun, but this is about softballs,” Mark said.
Susan Bala, owner of Arbor Park Assisted Living, said Raila the border collie was accepted onto the premises under special circumstances. She usually doesn't allow residents to have pets.
“We are part of a community and we do see special circumstances. Mark has got to have a life, and when it came down to him having a service animal and for him to have a fuller life, we made an exception,” Bala said.
Kemmer, when contacted by The Forum, said the theft is a nonissue and that the softball association has no plans to pursue the issue any further.
Mark said he's already paid $175 to get Raila — now legally deemed a dangerous dog — out of a kennel, and is preparing for his pretrial hearing on Nov. 3.
"If it's a nonissue then why haven't they dropped the case? I guess we'll see," he said, adding that he can seek to have Raila's dangerous dog title removed after waiting a year.
Moorhead City Prosecutor Cheryl Duysen said her office will proceed with the case at the pretrial hearing, but declined to comment further.
At about $5 to $8 a softball, Mark still has nearly $500 worth of sporting equipment he would like to give back. But he's also down nearly $200 for freeing Raila from "dog jail," he said.
“I want my money back for them putting her in jail, too,” Mark said. “No, she is not a dangerous dog. She is the light of my life.”