The owner of four pit bulls that killed a woman jogger in a gruesome mauling was charged with murder in a highly unusual case that strains the memories of law enforcement officials to find comparable uses of the felony murder law.
Alex Jackson, 29, was charged Thursday after DNA tests on his dogs found blood on their muzzles and coats that matched that of Pamela Devitt, 63, who died May 9 after being bitten 150 to 200 times by his four pit bulls.
"The DNA came back with blood on the dogs that matched the victim's blood," said sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore.
Mr. Whitmore and others said it was the first dog mauling case they could recall since the 2001 trial of a San Francisco couple convicted in the death of a neighbor who was mauled by their giant dog. In that case, Marjorie Knoller received a 15-years-to-life sentence after a jury found her guilty of second-degree murder. In rejecting her appeal, the California Supreme Court ruled that Knoller acted with a conscious disregard for human life when her 140-pound Presa Canario escaped and killed Diane Whipple in an apartment building hallway. Knoller's husband, Noel, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
The warrant against Mr. Jackson also charges him with owner negligence of an animal causing death, said Jane Robison, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office. He also faces charges of growing marijuana.
Jackson was originally arrested shortly after the death of Devitt but was released on bail pending DNA testing to determine if his dogs carried out the attack. He is being held on $1 million bail and was scheduled for arraignment today.
Dog bite-related fatalities are rare – anywhere from 30 to 35 each year – but there are more cases where criminal charges such as endangerment are being filed against owners, said Donald Cleary, a spokesman with the National Canine Research Council. Cleary could recall only three other instances, two in California and one in Georgia, where murder charges were filed.
Since January, authorities received at least three other reports of Jackson's dogs attacking other people, according to Robeson.
Sheriff's authorities said a driver who saw pit bulls attacking Devitt in the high desert community of Littlerock called 911 and honked her horn to try to get the dogs to stop.
An arriving deputy saw a single dog still attacking the runner and tried to chase it off, Lt. John Corina said. The dog ran off into the desert, then turned around and attacked the deputy, who took a shot at the animal before it ran off.
Hours later, sheriff's and animal control officials served a search warrant on Jackson's home near the site of the attack and took away eight dogs, six pit bulls and two mixed-breeds.
The dogs were kept under quarantine for rabies observation at a Lancaster shelter. Four of the pit bulls seized were believed to have attacked Devitt.
Her husband told KCAL-TV he blamed the dogs' owner for what happened.
"I do not blame the dogs. I don't blame pit bulls," Ben Devitt said. "I blame people who don't take responsibility for their animals."
Not all of the dogs are licensed, spayed or neutered as required by county and state law, said Marcia Mayeda, the county's animal control director.
Cleary said in most cases the dogs involved in attacks are not family pets but animals who are often isolated and don't get positive human interaction.
"If a dog has seriously hurt or killed someone, you have to look to the owner and the owner should be held accountable on some level," he said. "There's no reason we have to tolerate that kind of behavior."