Charges in fatal dog attack not likely, sheriff says

The story as it appeared in the Austin American Statesman (which has since removed it from the archive):

AUSTIN, Texas — The owner of six dogs that fatally mauled an elderly woman as she worked in her yard will likely not be charged with a serious crime, Milam County Sheriff Charlie West said Monday.

West said that he has consulted with District Attorney Kerry Spears and that they have been unable to conclude that owner Jose Hernandez committed a felony.

"There are no laws that apply," West said. "We are still looking, but it is going to be hard to make anybody responsible for it."

Five of the dogs were euthanized Monday; the victim's husband shot the other dog.

West has said that Hernandez apparently kept the six pit bull-Rottweiler mixed-breed dogs in a pen behind a 3-foot chain-link fence. It was not clear how they got out of the pen.

Hernandez could not be reached Monday, two days after the dogs attacked and killed Lillian Stiles, 76, as she was tending her yard and flowers atop a riding lawn mower. Her body was taken to Dallas for an autopsy, which officials said had not been completed Monday.

Stiles' husband Jack was inside their house north of Thorndale, Texas, about 50 miles northeast of Austin, watching a football game when the attack occurred. Two passersby, Weldon and Maurita Smith, saw Lillian Stiles' body in her yard and tried to help.

Weldon Smith also was attacked and injured before Jack Stiles shot one of the dogs.

West said the euthanized dogs were sent to the Texas Department of State Health Services for rabies and other testing.

West said Hernandez is cooperating with the investigation and has said that his knee-high grandchildren have played with the dogs.

He said investigators have no indication that the dogs were being used for fighting and that a veterinarian who examined them said they had no signs of "war-like injuries," such as cuts or broken bones.

"To him (Hernandez), the dogs weren't vicious," West said. "They were just pets."

In 2003, the most recent year with available statistics, 288 people were hospitalized for dog bites and one person died, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Hernandez's house, down a dirt driveway from the road that runs in front of the Stiles' property, appeared empty Monday afternoon. A nearly full 50-pound bag of dog kibble sat on the screened porch and the gate one the fenced yard had a metal "T" painted with the visage of a bulldog — the Thorndale school district mascot.

The Stiles' next-door neighbors reported seeing a big black dog near Lillian Stiles around 3:40 p.m. Saturday as they returned from Cameron.

"Oh, they've got a new dog," Lauren Shumaker said she told her husband, Don. The couple said they had never seen a pack of dogs along the road.

Jimmy Hinistroza, pastor at San Gabriel Evangelistic Christian Church, lives immediately north of Hernandez's house and said he saw two of the six dogs at the church's property line early Saturday afternoon. He shooed a black Rottweiler away, he said, but the other one — a pit bull — "kept staring at me."

"I've seen those two dogs many a time," Hinistroza said. "I'd never seen the pack. I never knew this man had other pit bulls. If I'd have known, I would have talked to him because I know what pit bulls can do."

Children routinely hike several acres of turf behind the church on Sunday afternoons, he said, but he temporarily barred anyone from going outside Sunday because the shot dog had yet to be found; the dog's body turned up in the Stiles' back yard.

"It could have been worse if all those children were out there," Hinistroza said.

Hinistroza dedicated his Sunday sermon to Lillian Stiles, whom he described as a fixture on her rider mower, tending a lawn and garden that "looks like a little paradise," Hinistroza said. "We all loved her."



To: Kerry Spears [District attorney for Milam County]

This is an outrage. According to the reports that I have heard, the dogs were kept behind a fence that was just over 3 feet tall, they attacked in a coordinated pack (as if they were used to hunting together) and they killed a woman in her own front yard. They also attacked a would-be rescuer.

...and there isn't anything to charge the dog owner with? Manslaughter? Criminal negligance? Anything? The fence was of insuffcient height to keep the animals contained, they had been trained to attack in a pack (or had been foraging enough to have learned the behavior) and they have a registered owner. I don't know what else is needed to charge the man with SOMETHING.

I for one am sick and tired of this mantra that we "don't have a law to cover this" (as if dog attacks are something new to the 21st century) You are tasked with upholding the law and seeing that justice is done in your county. This woman's death will be on your heads as much as the dog owners if nothing is done about it now.



Additional -

If you also feel the urge to send a comment to the District attorney in Milam county, you'll have to send it by fax or snail mail. Only the Sherriff's office has a working e-mail address. Even the commissioners court is without internet service, apparently. Talk about not being in the 21st century.

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