Three months after Benny’s disappearance, Grace Kolich is still looking.
Not for Benny – she now knows she’ll never find him.
Now the search is to find answers to her service dog’s disappearance and what happened at the Stark County kennel where she took Benny in mid-May.
All hope that she will find her beloved golden retriever is gone, and with that comes the realization that she may never know the full story of what happened.
Benny was Kolich’s companion, helping him with a condition in which his blood pressure fell rapidly. Sometimes the resident of Copley Township fainted, only knowing moments before this happened.
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“I would know it seconds ago,” Kolich said in a recent interview. âHe would know a few minutes earlier. “
She shares the illness with her mother, Krista Kolich, and struggled with her before college, her mother said.
âWhen she was in high school she really struggled with that,â Krista Kolich said.
Her daughter passed out during a fire drill and mock trial.
On the Kent State University campus, Benny became Grace Kolich’s early warning dog, warning her when she was in danger.
He was good at it.
At the age of 3 months, Benny figured out how to sit, stay and obey other commands.
But he had an area he could work on. Grace Kolich thought he could use some socialization training, especially around other dogs.
So she did some research and located the kennel. She did a thorough investigation, spoke at length on the phone with the owner of the establishment, and researched both the business and its owner online. She liked that he seemed to understand the importance of positive reinforcement when working with dogs.
âThere weren’t really any red flags,â she said.
Grace Kolich therefore made the decision to trust the kennel with Benny, chatting once again with the owner an hour before he left to bring Benny there. Once there, she glanced around.
âI visited the exterior of the facility,â she said.
She remembers the grounds being clean back then and she loved the owner saving the dogs. She was convinced she had made the right decision.
A missing dog, a desperate search
Three weeks passed and Grace Kolich prepared to pick up Benny, excited about his return. When the time came, however, she got a call from the kennel owner.
“[He] asked if we could postpone it for a few days, âshe said. “I was a little hesitant.”
Five days later, on June 11, he called back. He had just been vaccinated against COVID-19 and would need more time. He told her he wanted to review what Benny had learned when she came to pick up her dog.
It wasn’t what Grace Kolich or her mother wanted to hear.
âI was angry,â said Krista Kolich. “I just thought it was unprofessional.”
She couldn’t understand why a COVID-19 injection was preventing her from handing Benny over to her daughter.
Two days later, on June 13, he called back, this time with news that stunned the Kolichs.
Benny had escaped during the night, smashing a section of the establishment’s wooden fence. He sent a photo of the breach, but Krista Kolich didn’t believe him.
“Her head wouldn’t even go over there,” she said. “Once he said that, we knew something was wrong.”
Grace Kolich arrived at the property around 10 a.m. that day and spoke with the owner.
âIt was hard, because I think he felt guilty,â she said. âAt one point he started to cry. “
She started looking for her dog, spending $ 300 on flyers.
âI was driving looking for Benny,â she said. âWe searched for 10 hours three days in a row. “
She spoke to the neighbors, hoping someone had seen her dog.
Grace’s mother, on vacation, cut short to come home and help.
She asked a friend to accompany her daughter to file a police report and contacted a lawyer.
âI knew something was wrong,â she said. âHe wouldn’t have run away.
“Traumatized” dogs and an abandoned kennel
Private investigator and dog lover David Oliver became involved when local police closed the kennel investigation.
âWe have a dog that we got from the pound about three years ago,â Oliver said Thursday. “In this situation, it kind of motivated us to do everything we could to find Benny or find out what happened to Benny.”
Oliver contacted law enforcement, the Stark County Humane Society, and the kennel owner in an attempt to find answers to Benny’s distraught owner.
âWe were happy to be involved and luckily we were able to develop information that we thought was criminal in nature and forward it to Stark County,â he said. “We hope the lawsuits will be successful.”
On a Facebook post on August 21, Oliver described the scene at the kennel the day before when he was there. The business had been abandoned by its owner.
âThe place was a filthy disaster. I could see ribs on several dogs and many were terribly hungry, âhe wrote. âSome were severely traumatized and just walked around in circles in their cages. Others were covered with excrement and debris. There were also dogs with mange.
On August 19, a Stark County Sheriff’s Deputy investigated the kennel and issued 25 citations for the 25 adult dogs he found because the kennel was not registered. He issued 25 more for the owner’s failure to provide documentation on rabies vaccines and noted the presence of puppies in the facility.
Grace Kolich and her mother’s efforts to involve the Stark County Humane Society failed, as did an attempt to bring in the Dog Warden division of the sheriff’s office. Krista Kolich said the Dog Warden Division refers animal cruelty reports to the county’s Humane Society.
The Humane Society did not return phone calls for comment. The location of the kennel and the owner’s credentials were withheld as he could not be reached for comment.
Krista Kolich said she and others have helped find homes for many dogs; others were taken by the kennel owner to another site. Ownership of the kennel has since changed hands.
âWe found 22 people to take the dogs,â Kolich said. “Within three days, all of the dogs had been adopted by people we knew.”
Right now, the Kolichs’ hopes for more answers hinge on a civil lawsuit filed by Grace Kolich against the kennel owner on July 16.
Criminal charges are possible, but the county as of Friday had yet to file a complaint against the kennel owner beyond the August 19 citations.
Based on the information they and other parties have gathered, the Kolichs believe Benny died at the kennel and that his remains were removed at some point. They are still hoping that more answers will come as the court case progresses.
âHe went everywhere with her,â said Krista Kolich. “… She lost her best friend.”
Leave a message to Alan Ashworth at 330-996-3859 or email him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @newsalanbeaconj.