The story of a prisoner, a police officer and a four-legged mate

The policeman and the crook had never met, yet they are linked by one act of random bastardry that nearly cost the cop his life – and another of unexpected humanity that certainly saved it.

Ron Fenton has considered taking his own life (“I’ve tried to top myself five times”), weighed down by physical disabilities from his near-fatal shooting and the mental scars of post-traumatic stress.

His sleep was shattered with vivid night terrors that 17 psychotropic drugs could not control. In the dreams he relived his near-drowning – when working in Search and Rescue, he was caught under a log in a fast-flowing river – or when he was shot in the back of the head with a military-grade rifle and then left on the road as life slowly drained from him.

Meanwhile, 800 kilometres away in Bathurst Prison, Benni – an inmate serving 18 months for drug offences – was training a chocolate Labrador as a trauma dog.

Ron Fenton with his trauma dog, Yogi. Photo: Joe Armao

Ron Fenton with his trauma dog, Yogi. Photo: Joe Armao

When Benni learned “Yogi” was going to a damaged cop, he asked about Fenton’s condition. “He was given a rundown of my problems and would wake up and mimic my symptoms,” Ron says.

Benni trained Yogi – a rescue dog that faced being put down – for six months. ‘‘It was one of the best things I have ever done. You have all this time on your hands and you can use it to do some good. They should offer [the program] in every jail.

‘‘It is a win-win," Benni adds. "You save the dog, help a veteran with psychological problems, give the inmate a sense of purpose and give back to the community.’’

The new dog owners have a five-day ‘‘graduation’’ handover with the prisoners.

‘‘They come in on the Monday and you can see how much it changes them. By Friday they are different people,’’ says Benni.

That was March last year, with the last day of handover coinciding with Benni’s release date, but before he got on with his life he took Ron and Yogi to the local pet shop to select the dog’s favourite toys – ensuring the transition of loyalty was as smooth as possible.

(Benni is still out of jail and running his own business, chuffed the dog he trained and the ex-cop have bonded so well. He also now has his own chocolate Lab rescue dog, Nisha, as a pet.)

One night in a motel Ron was heading towards a traumatic nightmare when Yogi jumped on the bed to wake him. It has been the same ever since; Yogi sleeps in Ron’s room and gently intervenes before the terrors strangle his night.

Yogi now pushes his paw on a pressure pad to activate a bedroom lamp before waking the former policeman, so he is not traumatised by the dark.

“I doubt I would be here if it wasn’t for Yogi. I'd be under the ground. He is with me 24/7.”

Ron Fenton with his best friend, Yogi. Photo: Joe Armao

Ron Fenton with his best friend, Yogi. Photo: Joe Armao

While we sit and talk in Ron’s modest and heavily fortified home, Yogi is at our feet pushing a tennis ball towards us, desperate for a game. He huffs off and sits on the couch when there are no takers. Clearly they are devoted to each other.

Ron Fenton’s journey is one of bravery, tragedy, determination and shame. The shame is not his but ours, as Ron has not so much slipped through the cracks as been stuffed into a cupboard.

Even Yogi was not provided because of his profound injuries suffered as a policeman but through the Young Diggers charity that looks after ex-service personnel, as Ron was Army Reserve.

When he asked the authorities for a lousy $2000 a year to look after the dog, the request was knocked back.  His initial compensation for his profound injuries was $7600 – $7500 for pain and suffering and $100 for personal expenses, which works out at around $200 for each of the 37 bullet slivers that remain in his skull.

As a young cop Fenton was a star – dux of the Police Academy, the youngest recruit to join Search and Rescue and top student at the sub officers' course. He could have reasonably expected promotion to officer rank and to retire with a comfortable superannuation package. “Then I got popped,” he says.

His shooter was a homicidal teenager named Kai “Matty” Korhonen, who went out in November 1984 with a military-grade semi-automatic assault rifle and 300 rounds of ammunition he had modified to shatter on impact.

His first victim was unarmed security guard Peter Poole, ambushed as he sat in his car. Fenton and his partner Paul Gilbert were first on the scene: “There was a river of blood. It was pretty obvious he was dead.”

When a police patrol spotted Korhonen’s car driving at Ricketts Point with only one headlight, he blasted the police vehicle with 20 shots, injuring two officers.

Believing he was hiding in a nearby Beaumaris park, Fenton drove his car around the perimeter but Korhonen jumped up from behind a fence and started shooting, eventually firing 27 shots. (He fired 132 shots that night.)

With his car disabled and the windscreen shattered, Fenton opened the door to make a dash for darkness. But the car's internal light made him a perfect target for the gunman standing just 16 metres away. Korhonen took aim and shot Fenton in the back of the head.

As the offender was still on the loose, controlling officers refused to let anyone rescue Fenton or Gilbert, who was sheltering in the car.

After an hour, two police ignored orders and charged in to mount a rescue mission. The initial medical prognosis was that Fenton wouldn’t last 72 hours. Ten days later he woke from an induced coma a different man.

He lost most use of his dominant right side and had to become left-handed. ‘‘I had to relearn how to write, talk, walk and think.’’

Three months after colleagues had been planning his funeral, and without medical clearance, he fronted at his police station. They put him in the back office and asked him to count stock – it may have been a boring job but it was a job, one that got his brain working.

But Ron didn’t want to be a backroom boy: ‘‘I was determined to get back on the road. I thought it would take me 12 months but it took 11 years.’’

Ron Fenton when he returned to work.

Ron Fenton when he returned to work.

He lectured, worked at the emergency communications centre D24 and behind the scenes at Search and Rescue while continuing his rehabilitation. ‘‘I felt the force was hiding me away. I thought I had more to give.’’

If he had put his hand up he could have retired on the grounds of ill health with a police pension, but he was too stubborn to quit. ‘‘I just pretended it didn’t happen. I thought, ‘I’m better than this and I won’t be beaten’.’’

While he worked on his physical rehabilitation he now knows he hid initial signs of post-traumatic stress, ‘‘bubbling away in the background’’.

Despite being sentenced to a maximum term of life for the Poole murder plus 88 years for shooting police, Korhonen was freed after serving only 15 years – effectively he didn’t do one day’s jail for shooting Fenton.

‘‘He was released on Anzac Day, which was another twist of the knife,’’ says Fenton.

True to his word, Fenton returned to full duties and although not 100 per cent was street smart enough to survive. That is until 2008, when he faced a violent, angry and alcohol-fuelled offender outside a Hoppers Crossing nightclub. He baited the sergeant while the crowd chanted encouragement.

As Fenton tells the story he becomes visibly distressed, closing his eyes, stammering, with his legs shaking uncontrollably. Chanting, he says, is now a PTSD trigger point. Back then he kept control, waiting until he could spray the offender with capsicum foam. He went down as expected but as Ron washed the offender’s eyes, the man said he had served time with Korhonen and wanted to get the exact same gun to finish the job.

‘‘That’s when the bubble burst," Fenton remembers. "It was like there was a video of my last 40 years that was on fast-forward that kept playing again and again. I hit the booze, the pokies and the drugs. I did everything.’’

He took cannabis to try and sleep and was eventually target-tested at work. He feels the police department wanted to prove he was not operationally fit so that he could be forced out.

He left in 2012, having lost the job he loved, his financial security, his mental health and his family home. ‘‘I live on a pension in a rented room. Now all I have is my dog.’’

'All I have is my dog': Ron Fenton with Yogi. Photo: Joe Armao

'All I have is my dog': Ron Fenton with Yogi. Photo: Joe Armao

The trouble with cases like Ron’s is that the law gets in the way of justice. The insurers and the bean counters shaft Fenton and then go home for tea having done what they are paid to do – protect their clients at the expense of a wounded hero.

When my father was a senior policeman, I remember him telling me one of his key men had been diagnosed with cancer. I asked him if he had selected a replacement.

He stared through me – he was good at that – and said quietly: “We carry our wounded.”

Well apparently not any more.

Lifeline 131 114; MensLine 1300 789 978; Beyondblue 1300 224 636.

 – The Age