State hears appeal to determine fate of Norwich pit bulls

Hartford — The fate of two Norwich pit bulls held at the Norwich dog pound for the past 10 months, accused in connection with an attack on young children last October on Talman Street, was the subject of a daylong hearing at the state Department of Agriculture Thursday in an appeal of the city’s proposed destruction order.

On Oct. 8, 2013, two pit bulls allegedly rushed from the yard at 151 Talman St. and attacked grandmother Lisa Hall, who was walking three young children, 4-year-old twin girls and a 9-month-old baby boy, in a stroller. One girl immediately ran back to her apartment house at 123 Talman St., chased by one of the dogs.

The second dog is said to have lunged at the baby carriage, knocking it over, and as the dog went after the baby, the second 4-year-old girl thrust her left arm in front of the baby. The dog latched onto the girl’s forearm, breaking a bone and tearing flesh.

The baby suffered a laceration to his forehead.

The female dogs accused in the attack, Skyler, 5 at the time of the attack, and Skyler’s daughter, Dolly, 1, at the time, have been held at the Norwich dog pound since that day under a destruction order by city Animal Control Officer Michele Lombardi.

The dogs’ owner, Norwich real estate agent and landlord Sheri Speer, argued that her dogs did not attack the family. During Thursday’s lengthy appeal hearing, Speer and others testifying on her behalf argued her dogs are friendly and playful with children and never jumped the 38-inch deck railing, where they were confined at the time of the incident.

“They did not bite anyone,” Speer said.

Speer pleaded guilty Aug. 12 in Norwich Superior Court to several criminal infractions but said she really wanted to plead guilty under the Alford Doctrine, under which she disputes the state’s allegations but did not want to go to trial. The judge rejected the Alford Doctrine plea, and Speer pleaded guilty and accepted a $385 fine.

Speer appealed the destruction order to the Department of Agriculture, which includes the state Animal Control Office and handles appeals on dog destruction orders. She maintained her innocence during Thursday’s hearing.

Hall at times choked back tears during her testimony as she described the attack — “the worst thing that ever happened to me” — and the lifelong effect it would have on her and her grandchildren. Hall and the children’s father, Marquis Downing, said the two girls are terrified of dogs and all furry animals, even squirrels, and were scared approaching every house on Halloween a few weeks after the attack.

“Every time I see a dog, I want to strangle its neck,” Hall said.

She said she kicked at the dog to try to get it to release the girl’s arm and tried desperately to prevent the girl from trying to pull away, fearing her arm could be torn even worse. A passerby stopped and struck the dog with a broomstick. Eventually, the dog released the girl’s arm, bit Hall on the leg and allegedly ran back up to the yard at 151 Talman St.

Hall said Carlos Rivera, a maintenance worker at Speer’s house at the time, came running out and clapped and called the dog back to the property. She pointed to Rivera when recounting that claim. Rivera later denied that claim and said the dogs had remained on the deck the entire time. He said he put them in the house when he heard the commotion, which he said he thought was a car accident.

Rivera also denied Hall’s claim that he apologized immediately after the attack. He said he only apologized in a general way “in sympathy” to the children’s father the next day. Speer said she sent flowers and a spiritual note a week later, also as a general get-well wish.

The girl, the baby and Hall were taken by ambulance to The William W. Backus Hospital, but the 4-year-old was immediately rushed to the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford for surgery.

Hall said several doctors examined the girl and were involved in her care. An infectious disease doctor repeatedly asked if the dog was vaccinated against rabies.

Speer’s attorney, Edward Bona, argued that there was much confusion the night of the attack, and even witnesses and those involved could not positively identify the dogs involved. Bona argued that there are many dogs in the neighborhood, including other pit bulls, that could have been the attacking dogs.

Lombardi said she is certain she has the right dogs, but since they are so similar in appearance — gray and white with similar markings — she could not identify which one attacked the grandmother and the two kids, and which one chased the girl down the street. But she said every witness said the dogs came charging down the sloped yard at Speer’s property at 151 Talman St. She put the destruction order on both dogs.

Lombardi said the younger dog has recently been showing signs of psychosis due to prolonged confinement with minimal contact, and both have become more vicious over time.

Attorney Jeffrey Buebendorf, representing the city in the destruction order, presented photos of the three dog attack victims, and said Speer was uncooperative in the immediate aftermath, not responding to requests that the dogs be euthanized and tested for rabies. The older dog was not vaccinated, and neither dog was licensed.

Hearing Officer Dr. Bruce Sherman now has 45 days to make a decision on whether the dogs should be destroyed and submit the decision to the commissioner of agriculture. The commissioner then has 45 days to review and make a recommendation on whether to uphold, modify or rescind the dog destruction order.

The time frame could mean the dogs will remain in the city’s custody — at an estimated cost of $10 per day — for well over a year.

c.bessette@theday.com

Twitter: @Bessettetheday

 

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