Justin Balducci desperately wants to know who took away one of the most important parts of his life.
“I just can’t understand it,” he said. “Why someone would target and kill, with that kind of precision, an animal for doing nothing but being in the area or running around or chewing on a bone.”
York County Sheriff’s Office deputies on Aug. 3 spoke with neighbors at Red Fox Trail, near Fort Mill, after Balducci’s service dog, Willie Mae, was found fatally shot on the side of Vista Road. She had been out 15 minutes, Balducci said.
“It’s so surreal,” he said. “You don’t think anything like that’s going to happen, especially in a neighborhood where it’s so small and there’s no through traffic, and everybody knows our dog.”
Balducci lives with his mother and stepfather on 2 acres where Red Fox and Vista meet The family owned three dogs, a chocolate lab and a Yorkie, along with Willie Mae, a bluetick coonhound.
Sheryl Butler said Willie Mae wasn’t just a pet to her son.
“This dog gave him purpose,” Butler said. “And gave him, ‘I need to do this for the dog and not have this poor me syndrome.’”
Balducci, 31, started having severe medical issues several years ago. He’s seen specialists. He developed liver disease, arthritis, gout. Autoimmune diseases twice caused him temporary paralysis. Pain is constant.
“They don’t know where this constant pain is coming from,” Butler said. “We haven’t been able to find a doctor. He swells up. He’s in constant pain.”
Balducci had to move back home. He has struggled with depression. The next step is to meet with a neurologist.
Yet while the family hasn’t found an answer from the medical field, they did find one in Willie Mae.
“It was very helpful,” Butler said. “He basically was in a shell for the last two to three years. He didn’t socialize. He moved back home. He was on his own.”
Willie Mae had her own story.
A rescue group found her after she spent at least a couple of months running loose in the woods with her sister. Willie Mae was near death when someone brought her in and, after training, she needed a home. Balducci adopted her in September. Willie Mae was placed on the U.S. Service Animal Registry as an emotional support animal.
“Instantly it was a bond,” Balducci said. “She looked at me and I looked at her. I know it sounds kind of weird, but this is my attachment to animals. It was just an instant bond. I didn’t have to wait. I didn’t have to consider it.”
Balducci had a dog for almost a dozen years prior, whose health failed at a particularly painful period in Balducci’s life.
“I had a lot of emotional problems,” he said. “My father passed away. My best friend passed away on my birthday. I started getting diagnosed with a lot of autoimmune diseases.
“My life was pretty much in a downward spiral.”
Willie Mae helped bring Balducci out of that fog of emotions.
Balducci works as a freelance chef. He helps open restaurants, but his health problems keep him from being able to do it consistently. He’s recently been cooking in Charlotte, where he got the call last week about Willie Mae.
“To get a phone call like that, that she was shot and dead, and just left for dead, is something beyond anybody’s worst nightmare,” Balducci said.
The dog was shot a little after 8 p.m. Neighbors, who hunt and often target shoot in the area, had been shooting guns. Balducci said from what he can piece together, his mother opened the door as a round of shots fired. All three dogs, perhaps spooked by the sound, ran out of the house.
Five minutes later, two returned.
Balducci’s stepfather found Willie Mae on the side of the road. He and neighbors assumed she had been hit by a car. When they brought her back to the house, they noticed the bullet hole.
Balducci went door-to-door in search of answers. The neighbors who had been shooting stopped when the dogs got loose, neighbors and family told Balducci, and didn’t know Willie Mae had been shot. Those same neighbors told Balducci the shot struck Willie Mae exactly where an experienced hunter might aim to hit a deer or other large animal for a quick kill.
While the placement of the wound suggests Willie Mae may not have suffered, Balducci also sees it as proof the shot was intentional.
Balducci said it’s important just from a neighborhood safety aspect to find out who is responsible.
“It’s scary,” Balducci said. “I mean, who would do this? And what else might they do?”
He also wants justice for Willie Mae.
Anyone who kills a dog wearing information to identify its owner in South Carolina — Willie Mae was wearing her service vest when she was killed — can be found guilty of a misdemeanor and fined $500 to $1,000, or imprisoned 30 days to six months, or both. The misdemeanor doesn’t apply if the dog was threatening to cause personal injury or property damage.
Unless in self defense, it’s illegal in South Carolina to harm or kill a service animal. The penalty can be up to $5,000 and imprisoned up to three years, or both.
Meanwhile, Balducci is relying on the memories of Willie May.
“The love and the companionship was just there, and it was over the top,” he said.
The family moved not long ago from a Rock Hill townhome to a home with land, a graveled drive off the end of a cul-de-sac in Fort Mill. They moved largely for the dogs. For Balducci, having a dog means knowing an end to its life is a likely pain to be endured. He just expected it a decade or so later.
“My dogs were always there,” Balducci said. “I’m not married. I don’t have kids. No girlfriend. Obviously, I have family that is all around and is very supportive of what’s going on. But Willie Mae was always there.”
It’s hard for him to explain their bond.
“Who else would be that excited when I come home?” Balducci said.