A Mills police officer faces an animal cruelty charge following the death of a police dog that he allegedly left in a hot patrol car for several hours.

Zachary Miller, who has been with the police department for four years, is charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty in connection with the death of K9 officer Nyx, a drug detection dog.

The officer left the dog in his patrol car for more than six hours while the vehicle was parked outside the police department, according to an investigator's affidavit filed in Natrona County Circuit Court. The car was running, but the air conditioning was off and the windows were up.

“It’s not normal to leave a car running that long,” said Mills police chief Bryon Preciado. “I’m not justifying it. He shouldn’t have been here that long.”

Preciado said there is no policy on the time frame for leaving police dogs in patrol cars.

The affidavit states Miller arrived at the police department at 5:30 a.m. on July 9. Miller left shortly after to respond to a call with the only other officer working that day, Jake Bigelow. The two returned to the police department with Nyx in the vehicle about 6 a.m.

The officers went inside the department, leaving the dog in the car, and did not return to the car until about 12:20 p.m. The outside temperature had gone from 53 to 86 degrees, according to the affidavit. Police dogs are allowed inside the station, Preciado said.

During the time the officers were inside Miller was training Bigelow on patrol-duty procedures. Miller is no longer a training officer, Preciado said.

Miller was summoned to circuit court and pleaded not guilty to the charge during an appearance this morning.

If convicted, Miller faces a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $750 fine.

“If he violated the law then he should be held accountable just like anybody else,” Preciado said.

Preciado said Miller will remain employed by the police department, but the officer is currently not on active duty due to paternal leave. Miller was suspended with pay for a week starting the day of Nyx’s death. Miller returned to work following an internal department investigation. The results of the investigation are not being released by the police department.

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“It was a mistake he’s going to have to pay for,” Preciado said. “He’s going to be disciplined through our department.”

The officer who was with Miller that day will not be disciplined, Preciado said.

Preciado said Miller had never faced disciplinary action by the department before this incident. In fact, Miller, characterized as “pro-active”, was awarded "Officer of the Year" by the department in 2013.

Nyx was a 10-year-old black lab who had been with the department since 2006. Miller had been her handler for the past two years, during which Nyx lived with his family and went on family vacations.

The canine assisted Casper Police, Wyoming Highway Patrol, the Division of Criminal Investigation and the Natrona County Sheriff’s Office, Preciado said.

“It’s a tragedy,” said Mills Mayor Marrolyce Wilson.

A plaque or other kind of memorial will be created in the dog’s memory at the police department, Preciado said. Her body was buried on Miller’s property.

“Everyone was hurt by her loss,” Preciado said.

Nyx was the department’s first and only police dog. The department’s K9 program is being suspended while policies are reviewed, Preciado said.

“I think there’s a lot of things we can learn from Nyx’s death,” he said.

Preciado said heat alarms will be installed in the K9 patrol car before the department acquires a new police dog. The heat alarms will come with a key fob to be carried by the handler. When their patrol car reaches a temperature that is too extreme, whether too hot or too cold, an alarm will sound.

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Contact Lillian Schrock at 307-266-0574 or at lillian.schrock@trib.com. Follow her on Twitter @lillieschrock.