Meet the Prisoner With a Gift for Healing Dogs

Sixty dogs changed one man's life as much as he changed theirs.

man holding papillion
Melissa Golden for Reader’s Digest
HE WAS A GENTLE MAN but didn’t see it that way—he felt like a pushover. He was intelligent but hung out with a defiant crowd in high school (“the cool troublemaker types,” he says now), struggled to complete his Army service, and at 24 lived in Columbus, Ohio, without a place of his own or a steady job. When Eddie Hill, a slight young man with pale, worried eyes, looked in the mirror, he didn’t glimpse promise. He saw “pretty damn worthless.” He lacked the courage to protect his own goodness.

In May 1989, he agreed to do a favor for his ex-brother-in-law, Donald “Duke” Palmer. Duke, also 24, was a 220-pound, six-foot-one-inch Army vet. He’d towered over Eddie when they’d met at 15 at Martins Ferry High School and later testified that he had felt “protective toward the little guy” (though Eddie had felt browbeaten). Duke married Eddie’s older sister, Cammie, in 1983, their senior year in high school. They had two kids, then divorced—after which Eddie lost track of Duke until they crossed paths that spring.

Duke had become a swaggering drunk, a cocaine addict, and a drug dealer. He struggled with depression, had attempted suicide, and had been institutionalized twice. Eddie was at a low point, too, with a crushing depression. Most nights, he crashed at Cammie’s and watched her kids while she worked. Eddie knew it was a lousy idea, but he slid back into drinking and getting stoned with Duke Palmer.

Then Duke asked Eddie to drive him to Martins Ferry so he could help his wheelchair-bound sister, Angel, pick up her disability check. On Sunday, May 7, the two young men loaded up Eddie’s Dodge Charger with hard-rock cassettes and whiskey for the two-hour drive east on I-70. Duke stashed a .22-caliber pistol and ammo in Eddie’s glove compartment. “I thought the gun was silly,” Eddie says now. “I thought he was trying to add to his coke-dealer image or something.” They spent the night in Martins Ferry, at Angel’s house. On Monday, after taking Angel to pay her rent, they bought a fifth of 100-proof Southern Comfort. Sharing the bottle, with Eddie behind the wheel, they went joyriding across the rural county, heading for the house of a guy Duke hated. Duke fired his handgun out the window at trees and fence posts. “Two dumb punks up to no good,” Eddie says now.

They careened past cornfields and pastures, squealed around a blind curve, and drove into the back of an idling white pickup truck.

Shocked, Eddie hurried to apologize. The driver, cursing, strode toward Eddie, as Duke, who was falling-down drunk, staggered toward them. “Eddie kept telling the guy he was sorry,” Duke later testified, “but [the man] … went to grab ahold of Eddie.”

Coming at the stranger from behind, Duke brought his right hand down to land a blow on his head. Suddenly, according to Duke, “the weapon went off.” He’d meant only to punch the man, he later said, but had forgotten that he held a handgun. “I remember hearing the shot, but I don’t remember pulling the trigger.”

Shot in the head, the stranger cried out and then dropped. Eddie shrieked too. For a second, Duke thought he’d shot Eddie.

Eddie may have yelled in horror, “You killed him! You killed him!” (that’s Eddie’s story), but Duke would testify that he thought Eddie had yelled, “Kill him! Kill him!” Duke stood over the wounded man and shot him point-blank in the head while Eddie took off running for the woods.

A blue pickup truck pulled over, and another man, on his way home to get his son for baseball practice, approached what appeared to be a collision, to offer help. Duke felled him with a bullet to the head, then stood over him and shot again, killing him.

In the woods, hearing more shots, Eddie had a moment of heart-stopping panic and wild indecision: Should he keep running or return to Duke?

More scared of Duke than of anything else, Eddie trudged back to the road and saw the second victim. Shaking uncontrollably, he obeyed Duke’s orders: Take both men’s wallets, load the first man’s body into the bed of his white pickup, drive it a few miles and abandon it, run to stash the wallets in a field, drive his own car with Duke in it to Angel’s, grab their stuff, and speed back to Columbus. Eddie cried all the way home.

Back in Columbus, Duke told his ex-wife, “I’m going to prison for the rest of my life, and I’m going to hell.”

Eight days later, Duke and Eddie were arrested and tried separately. Duke was convicted and sentenced to death. Eddie pleaded not guilty. While no one suggested that he had pulled the trigger, evidence was abundant that he’d helped in every aspect of the cover-up. The jury found him guilty of two counts of aggravated murder and two counts of aggravated robbery. Because Eddie wasn’t the gunman, his sentence was 71 years to life in prison rather than the death penalty.

There are angles from which this campus of red-brick buildings, green lawns, and curving walkways looks like a community college. In an all-purpose room, a class gathers, with students—all men—dragging molded-plastic chairs into a circle. From a few just out of their teens to powerful men in their late 60s, all wear identical long-sleeved blue denim shirts tucked into belted dark-blue cotton trousers. No one laughs loudly or clowns, no one drops a backpack beside his chair. They don’t mistake this place for a college.

Around the perimeter of these 45 nearly treeless acres in Lebanon, Ohio, stands a skyscraping steel fence topped by razor wire and surveilled 24 hours a day by armed guards. The Warren Correctional Institution (WCI) is a Level 3 facility in which 1,426 men requiring medium, close, or maximum security are incarcerated. These men have committed property offenses, aggravated robbery, or murder; but no one in class this morning has been convicted of domestic violence or sex crimes because, as a group, those inmates are known to be a greater danger to animals.

As the prisoners enter, dogs gallop beside them—here come golden retrievers, black Labrador retrievers, German shepherds, mixed breeds, and a few dainty, high-stepping papillons. The men stand quietly and speak in low tones, but the pups are thrilled to be here. They slip-slide and collide on the polished linoleum and enthusiastically poke around one another. The inmates can’t help but exchange glances of amusement.

A service-dog training academy in nearby Xenia, Ohio—4 Paws for Ability—places the dogs here for two months of basic obedience work as part of the 500 hours of training each will receive. Every dog will become, at the least, a well-behaved family companion. The high achievers will be trained as service dogs for children with spina bifida, Down syndrome, autism, diabetes, fetal alcohol syndrome, cerebral palsy, seizure disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or brain damage. One of these shaggy goldens will learn to bark to awaken parents in the middle of the night if their child is having a life-threatening seizure. A shepherd mix will track and locate a mute little boy given to wandering off barefoot in midwinter. A black Lab will become a socially isolated child’s first-ever friend in the years when having a friend means everything.

Three months before this class, on September 20, 2012, after 22 years on death row, 47-year-old Donald “Duke” Palmer was executed by lethal injection. “I have lived with the knowledge that I’ve taken the lives of two men,” he said in a death row interview. “I made widows of their wives and left their families to struggle without them … I know that my life should be forfeited.” Before dying, he tried to undo one last bit of damage. In a declaration to the Ohio State Parole Board, he wrote: “There is … another victim in this case—Eddie Hill, my so-called codefendant … He is not in any way guilty of any kind of homicide. It was all my doing … Please do not let me die with the guilt of Eddie Hill’s murder convictions.”

The parole board was unmoved.

Eddie Hill, who has served 22 years so far, is among the men attending this morning’s class.

man holding papillion
Melissa Golden for Reader’s Digest
The training director of 4 Paws, Jeremy Dulebohn, 38, arrives with an entourage of assistants, new dogs, and a familiar, not-quite-ready-for-prime-time dog named Lugnut—a golden retriever returning for brush-up work. The inmates quickly find their seats and call over their pups. “Down,” they tell them; some of the dogs obediently flop to the floor, but others skitter off for a few more minutes of playtime. Gradually, the mayhem subsides. The men are anxious to do well and to stay in this program. For some, the relationships they build with these dogs are the most affectionate, gentle, and reciprocal they’ve ever known.

In the past dozen years, hundreds of prison-based animal programs (PAP) have been established throughout the United States. Most involve dogs, but others involve cats, chickens, cows, horses, pigs, and injured wildlife.

Karen Shirk, founding director of 4 Paws, says, “I’ve seen convicted felons cry when it’s time to give us back their dogs. But when they’ve done well, we bring them another.”

When Eddie Hill entered prison in March 1990, his eager-to-please manner toward other inmates served him poorly, not unlike his obedience to Duke. Eddie’s parents visited monthly, so he had cash, snacks, and modest possessions, but he shared them to a fault. If another prisoner asked him for something, he gave it away and was threatened with violence when he had nothing more to give. “The first thing I had to learn was how to say no,” he says.

Once again, Eddie found himself attracted to troublemakers. After guards yanked him out of a fight, he was sentenced to “the hole”—solitary confinement—for 17 days. Moved to a new housing block, he realized he “needed to hang out with people who were trying to better themselves.”

Eventually, Eddie joined the prison’s music association and an in-house branch of the Jaycees. He read books constantly. And he corresponded with a young woman he’d known in high school (in time they would marry). But day-to-day prison life was cold and lonely. In 2002, when a local animal shelter brought in dogs for training, Eddie signed up. He was given custody of Timber, a German shepherd mix who had suffered severe neglect. Timber would be with Eddie day and night, sleeping in his cell.

“Someone had put a collar on Timber and never widened it as he grew from puppyhood—his skin and fur had grown over it and had to be cut away; his neck was a mess,” says Eddie, awed that he’d been entrusted to heal him. “Timber was afraid of everyone and everything. He’d never known kindness.” On their first day together, Eddie led the dog to a quiet place on the grass outside. “I just kept petting him, looking at him, and telling him over and over, ‘It’s all going to be better now, boy. You’re safe now.’

“I attended classes and devoured every book I could find about dogs,” he says, “but a lot of what I did was trial and error mixed with common sense. The first thing that struck me about Timber was that there’s somebody in there. All I had to do was look, and he was right there, with his own feelings, fears, and hopes. I felt that he needed me and wanted to connect.”

Eddie and his cell mate tended to Timber’s wounded neck, cleaning and disinfecting it daily. “He loved it, as it healed, when we would massage lotion into it. He was just in heaven.”

As Eddie moved into empathic attunement with the dog, elements of training fell into place naturally, like respecting the dog’s needs and remaining calm, kind, attentive, and patient. “It doesn’t matter what you’re going through personally—you have to keep your cool,” Eddie says.

The day Timber dared to sniff and be sniffed by other dogs, and then to romp on the grass, was a red-letter day. “It was a joy to see his doggy personality emerge!” Eddie says. “In about 70 days, Timber had become a pretty self-assured, clever fellow who could play and do tricks and who was incredibly attached to me.”

Timber’s rehabilitation, however, meant he was eligible for adoption. The dog was led away, clueless that he was leaving Eddie for the last time.

A few weeks later, in a small miracle of kindness, Timber’s new owner wrote to WCI to thank “Timber’s trainers. Timber is the most wonderful dog! Thank you for showing him how to be a gentleman! … I think the training he received from you has made all the difference in the world.”

Eddie stood in a prison foyer reading the letter, crying openly. He didn’t care who saw him.

Eddie Hill is now 48. He has auburn hair, a chunky nose, and a shy, self-deprecating manner. He deflects praise by shutting his eyes and throwing his head back in demurring laughter. And he’s had lots of praise to deal with: He is the most gifted dog trainer that Shirk and Dulebohn have ever seen. “We’d hire him tomorrow,” Shirk says. “Our policy is not to hire felons, but for Eddie we keep writing to the parole board and the governor. He is something special.”

Eddie has moved on to doing advanced service training, like teaching dogs to turn on lights and open doors. Prison wardens and guards privately consult with him about their own pets. And if a dog proves problematic after placement—like Lugnut, an autism assistance dog who was playing a bit too boisterously—he’s brought back to Eddie for remedial work.

Including Timber and Lugnut, about 60 dogs have been placed with Eddie, from big rangy mutts to papillons, tenderly bred puppies to wild-eyed rescues. Among them: Brutus, a golden retriever trained to assist a physically disabled child; Dante, a papillon who’s a service dog for a boy with pervasive developmental delays; Keeper, a black Labrador placed with a child with bipolar disorder; Kita, a German shepherd trained to detect seizures in a young boy; Embry, a German retriever who helps a child in a wheelchair; Minnie Pearl, a papillon who’s a hearing-ear dog for a college student; and Jiminy, a black Labrador placed with a family in which the mother has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and the child is on the autism spectrum.

Eddie has kept a detailed journal of his dogs. “Timber, and every dog since then, has given me back everything I’ve put into them tenfold,” he says. “I wish I’d known about this before I ended up in here. If I ever get out, it’s sure what I want to do, but I’m not up for parole until 2049.”

In 2049, Eddie will be 83.

Melissa Fay Greene’s upcoming book, Wonder Dog, will be about 4 Paws for Ability.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest