Two condemned pit bulls remain in Norwich pound since 2013 awaiting judge's ruling

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The fate of two pit bulls held at the Norwich pound since October 2013 could be determined next week, when a judge is expected to rule on the appeal by the dogs' owner, who claims the city wrongfully seized them following a vicious attack on three pedestrians on Talman Street.

Oral arguments were held Thursday in New Britain Superior Court before Judge Sheila Huddleston on owner Sheri Speer’s appeal of the state Agricultural Commissioner's approval of the city of Norwich’s destruction order. The case was remanded to Superior Court after Speer prevailed in Appellate Court in 2018 in her appeal that the Superior Court previously had dismissed her challenge erroneously.

Speer and her attorney, Edward Bona, summarized their claims Thursday, saying the city never investigated whether other pit bulls in the neighborhood could have been responsible for the attack. Speer also said city Animal Control Officer Michele Lombardi never examined the dogs after the initial 14-day quarantine for signs of rabies and viciousness.

Bona accused the city of having a "bias" against Speer, who has had a history of trouble with the city.

Assistant Attorney General Denise Lillo Vecchio, representing the state Department of Agriculture, countered that multiple witnesses testified that the dogs ran from Speer's yard onto the road and returned to her yard and house afterward.

The two female pit bulls — Skyler, now 10 years old, and Skyler’s daughter Dolly, now 6 — have remained at the Norwich dog pound, with the city paying for their care throughout the 5½-year impoundment.

The attack occurred on Oct. 8, 2013, in front of Speer’s home at 151 Talman St. Lisa Hall was walking her three young grandchildren from their home at 123 Talman St., a rental house owned by Speer, to the Bishop School playground.

One dog knocked over the baby stroller carrying then-9-month-old Marquice Downing and inflicted a minor bite wound on the baby’s forehead. The baby’s sister, Marlena Downing, then almost 5, was hailed as a heroine after she stuck her arm out to protect the baby. The dog latched onto her arm, shaking it, tearing flesh, breaking her arm and inflicting bite wounds down to the bone, according to court records. Marlena Downing needed screws to repair her broken arm and spent four days in the hospital.

A passerby stopped his car, grabbed a stick and struck the dog, while Hall kicked the dog and was bitten on her leg.

During the attack, Marlena’s twin sister, Audrena Downing, ran screaming toward her home. The second dog chased her. The girl banged on the door of another tenant in the house, and the woman let the child enter. The girl hid behind a couch until police arrived.

Police could not discern which dog, as they were similar in appearance, attacked the victims and which one chased Audrena. The city took both dogs into custody, and Lombardi issued a destruction order on both. Speer appealed to the state Agricultural Department. State Agricultural Commissioner Steven Reviczky affirmed the destruction order in August 2015, and Speer appealed to court.

During Thursday's oral arguments, Judge Huddleston questioned whether the state statute governing destruction of a biting dog would cover destruction of a dog that did not actually bite someone. She said she understood that the city could not discern which dog bit the three victims and which dog chased the girl.

Lillo Vecchio argued the destruction order for both dogs was reasonable, because both participated in the attack, and both exhibited vicious behavior when taken into custody.

"Given the circumstances, there really was no other option," Lillo Vecchio said.

Speer repeated that the city could not positively identify the offending dog, and to destroy two dogs for the attack would be "extreme."

Speer was charged criminally by Norwich police, and to resolve the case short of trial, she pleaded guilty to two counts of permitting a dog to roam, two counts of possession of a vicious dog, two counts of failure to register a dog and one count of failing to vaccinate a dog for rabies. She paid a $385 fine.

In her appeals, Speer and attorney Bona claimed her dogs were secured in a fenced enclosure in her backyard at the time.

Attorneys Lillo Vecchio and Scott Ouellette, who was representing the city, countered that there was "overwhelming" evidence, including testimony by the victims and witnesses, that the attacking dogs ran at the family from Speer’s yard. The dogs allegedly were called back to Speer’s yard by Carlos Rivera, hired by Speer to work on her house. Rivera also said “sorry, sorry,” to the victims at the time, court records said.

Bona disputed that testimony Thursday, saying Rivera said "sorry" only to mean he was sorry for what the family went through.

The court record said police later located the dogs inside the house, and when they took custody, the officer who transported them to the pound testified they “ranked at the top” in his experience as being vicious, except for one other dog.

State and city attorneys denied Speer’s claim that the dogs were not examined after the quarantine period, saying city Animal Control staff examine all dogs at the pound daily, and that the quarantine deadline was moot because the city would hold the dogs beyond the quarantine period under the destruction order.

Norwich police Chief Patrick Daley declined to comment on specifics regarding Skyler and Dolly this week, citing the ongoing litigation. The city has not tracked the exact cost of care for the two dogs, he said.

In the 2017-18 fiscal year that ended last June, the city’s budget for the dog pound totaled $164,000, including $126,000 for staff salaries, $11,000 for utilities and $27,000 for animal expenses, including veterinary care, pet food, supplies, advertising, training and state and city clerk fees. Part of those expenses were offset by the $15,000 in the city’s portion of dog license revenues, city financial records stated.

c.bessette@theday.com

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