GPD approaches pit bull attack investigation with caution

The pit bull involved in the bloody attack on a woman and her small dog at Starbucks July 12 in Gilroy.

The Gilroy Police Department is slowly and “cautiously” approaching the investigation of the July 12 pit bull attack at Starbucks on First Street, hesitant to make an arrest before both sides of the story have been thoroughly examined, according to Police Sgt. Chad Gallacinao.

“We would need to prove some kind of intent, and determine there was maliciousness, before we make an arrest,” Gallacinao said.

While police aren’t revealing the details of the case, an expert in animal investigations said these types of pit bull attacks are often displays of aggression from the dog’s gang-member owner.

The investigation was stalled until Tuesday, when police were finally able to meet with the 34-year-old owner of the dachshund after she spent days recuperating form her severe but non-life-threatening injuries caused by the pit bull. During this meeting, police interviewed the woman about the pit bull attack that left her dachshund with injuries that forced it to be euthanized.

As for the specifics of that meeting, Gallacinao remained tight-lipped as he didn’t want to interfere with the investigation. But he did say now that they’ve interviewed the victim, police plan to locate the pit bull’s owner soon – which he said they haven’t wanted to rush into before they “gather all the reports.”

Police have yet to reveal the precise details of what happened in that Starbucks parking lot, but according to initial police and witness reports, a woman was walking in the parking lot with her dachshund to get her morning pick-me-up around 7:30 a.m. Thursday, July 12, when a pit bull lunged at her dog, mauling and mangling the smaller animal. In a panic, the woman reached to save her dog, only to have her arm attacked by the pit bull. The attack dog’s owner fled the scene, and when police arrived, they captured an unleashed pit bull wandering the parking lot.

The woman was rushed to a local hospital, and later that morning, she made the decision to euthanize her dog to not prolong its suffering from its life-threatening injuries.

Since the attack, the owner of the pit bull has not made any attempts to contact police, laying low despite the crowd of spectators who saw the whole thing, and despite the stir it has caused among Dispatch readers – but because police haven’t attempted to contact him, Gallacinao has no reason to believe he is on the lam, either.

Meanwhile, the pit bull itself will pay the ultimate price – euthanasia – by the end of next week, to comply with Gilroy’s municipal code, which says that any dog that kills or causes serious injury to another pet is to be euthanized.

The dog was neutered, micro-chipped and registered to its previous owner. Police contacted the previous owner to determine the identity of the current owner on July 12.

“At the bare minimum, we’ll have some animal control violations we’ll pursue,” Gallacinao said. Such violations would be the fact that the pit bull wasn’t registered to its current owner and the pit bull may not have been properly restrained in public, which makes him subject to fines but not an arrest. The suspect will also be held responsible for the $1,000 in fees to hold the dog in custody plus the veterinary bills associated with its euthanasia.

But Gallacinao said it’s too soon to tell what, if any, criminal charges the pit bull’s owner may face.  

“We are taking this matter seriously and will conduct a thorough investigation for any potential law violations,” he said.

According to the California Penal Code, if a dog bites a person causing substantial physical injury, and its owner reasonably knew about the vicious nature of the dog, that owner is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine up to $1,000.   

The key to that charge, however is, the “reasonably knew” portion, as it is tough to prove owner responsibility in a case of animal aggression like this, said Scott Borgioli, president of the Humane Society of the Central Coast.

It’s all about forming a good case through talking to neighbors of the dog’s owner to see if the dog has displayed signs of aggression before, to conduct a thorough interrogation of the owner, to inspect the home environment of the dog, and to investigate whether or not the owner is involved in any type of gang activity, Borgioli said. If the incident is isolated, it might be a civil matter only.

But if it appears to be a situation in which the owner is aware – and even proud – of his dog’s attack skills, then the owner might be slapped with assault with a dangerous weapon charges.

“Unfortunately we see a lot of pit bull attacks, and usually what we’ll see is members of the gang community who allow their dog to go after another dog, while they just stand back and watch,” Borgioli said.  

And the victims of these gang-member pit bull attacks can be anyone, not just rival gang members.

“It has something to do with the pride of the owner and the pride of their dogs muscles. It’s a macho thing,” he said.

Gallacinao would not reveal if the pit bull’s owner has any gang affiliation.

The pit bull suffers from a terrible reputation on account of attacks like these. But Borgioli said that most often, an aggressive pit bull is the product of its environment, not indicative of the breed itself.

“The problem with pit bull regulation is it targets the animal, not the owner,” he said. Borgioli said there should be stiffer penalties for owners of these aggressive animals, such as making it a felony to knowingly own an aggressive dog.

For Gilroy dog owners who may feel unsafe in light of the attack at Starbucks, Borgioli said to carry a sturdy walking stick while out with your dog. If a dog lurches at your or your pet, he said, shove the stick in its face while backing up as much as you can without letting go of the stick, and the aggressive dog will attack the stick instead of your animal.

If the Gilroy community wants to get serious about keeping aggressive animals off the street, then people shouldn’t hesitate to contact the Humane Society or the police for any aggressive dog incidents.

“The key to stop these things from happening is community involvement,” he said.

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