How a cloned dog figures into a Mississippi murder trial

Published 9:51 pm Tuesday, March 28, 2017

GULFPORT (AP) — Boosted the yellow Lab is definitely a different animal — and not just because he joined his owner on the witness stand in a murder trial Tuesday.

Boosted is a clone — one of two, actually — owned by Davis Hawn of rural Harrison County.

Hawn, an expert in service-dog training and a worldwide advocate for service dogs, said the Labrador retriever will help keep him calm in what he expects to be a stressful and worrisome situation.

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Circuit Clerk Connie Ladner, who has worked in the county courthouse in Gulfport since 1984, said she remembers a dog accompanying a juror, but not one on the witness stand.

Hawn said the testimony, which he was not looking forward to, went well, the attorneys were kind. One lawyer, a Labrador retriever lover, came over to visit Boosted.

Hawn’s inner kid quickly rises to the surface as he plays with Boosted and Busted on the floor of his log cabin deep in northwestern Harrison County, having them fetch water from the fridge or a medical kit from the pickup in the driveway.

They are the clones of Booster, his first service dog, originally just a pet, who saved his life more than a decade ago, Hawn says, after it spiraled out of control.

He was attacked by a young man he had befriended and tried to help. Hawn thought he was going to die. He didn’t, but his truck was stolen, and when it was recovered there was a dog in the cab.

“I didn’t want a dog,” he said. “I tried to push him away. I tried to push people away but he kept bringing people to me.”

Eventually, man and dog bonded. The dog became Booster when he tried to “boost” a toy from a pet store. He was trained as a service dog and went everywhere with Hawn, who, inspired by Booster, went to the Bergin University of Canine Studies in California and earned a master’s degree.

Since then, he and Booster have traveled the world, meeting with young HIV patients in Thailand and kids with cancer in Mexico.

The dog also was a cancer survivor and had couple of other brushes with death. That gave Hawn an idea. He took Booster’s cells to Sooam Biotech Research Foundation in Guro district in Seoul, South Korea, in 2014. He expected South Korean veterinarian Hwang Woo-suk to give him a single clone. He wound up with two dogs so similar that Boosted’s tail is dyed blue at the tip to help distinguish him.

Boosted, Hawn said, was named because he was made from Booster’s “boosted” cells. Busted got his name when Hawn’s sister “busted” him for talking about the cloning at a wedding party.

He said there are subtle differences in their personalities — Boosted stands patiently with his front paws on the bed but Busted will run and jump on the bed and tramples Hawn. Both carry forward most of their father’s personality.

That same year, a sinister story was transpiring on Hawn’s land. Stephen Hagin, a tenant in one of the Hawn’s mobile homes, is accused of arranging a meth deal and then killing, rather than paying, the dealer. Authorities say Hagin shot the dealer in a car on Hawn’s property, then dragged the body out and covered it with brush.

Authorities said Hagin was arrested after an informant told them Hagin had bragged about the killing.

Hawn was in Asia when he received an email from Harrison County authorities. They had found the body and were going to search Hawn’s home. On his bed they found a bloody shotgun that belonged to Hawn.

“They asked me did I sleep with guns,” he said. “I said, ‘No, I hate guns.’”

The gun, he said, was used by hired hands to shoot the water moccasins in his pond that had been biting his dogs. He has several dogs in addition to the clone dogs.

Hawn said even with Boosted by his side, he had apprehensions about testifying.

Still, Hawn said he hopes Boosted’s appearance in circuit court helps spread the word about service dogs and the role they play in the lives of the emotionally scarred as well as the blind and the deaf.

“There is a medicinal value to the dog,” he said. “If this touches just one person, it will have been worth it.”