Dog attack brings litigation and emotion to everyone involved
By BRIAN WIERIMA
A Lee County animal attack case involving four dogs and a human bite victim has resulted in an emotionally charged legal battle still unresolved more than four months later.
On Oct. 14, 2015, an American Staffordshire named Diamond (9 1/2 years old) and a terrier mix named Titan (1 year old), escaped the house of owners Michelle Westman and John Scott in the neighborhood of Morningside Drive in Fort Myers.
A loose door caused by wood swelling over the course of a hot, humid summer, was the point of escape for the two dogs.
Shortly after Diamond and Titan escaped, they bit two other dogs and the person who was walking one on a leash.
A neighborhood pet, a Pomeranian named Gandy, was critically wounded and Kristen Hatle, who was walking her bosses’ dog, Remy, suffered multiple bite wounds as did Remy.
The Lee County Domestic Animal Services was called, and ultimately Diamond and Titan were impounded.
It is the steps leading up to and after the two dogs’ impoundment that have resulted in questions concerning the actions taken by the LCDAS, according to Westman, Scott and their two lawyers, Wendy Smith and Colleen MacAlister.
After the two dogs were taken by the LCDAS on Oct. 14, Diamond’s health wavered tremendously and eventually the dog had to be put down on Jan. 14, due to massive cancerous tumors in her lungs and around her body.
LCDAS had refused any visitations to Scott and Westman, or anyone else since Oct. 14, due to their policy of not allowing visitors to see aggressive or dangerous dogs for the “safety and welfare of the visitors.”
Now, Westman and Scott are fighting the county to move Titan to another shelter, with the county’s stipulations, to ensure he gets treated humanely, something they don’t think Diamond was during her time at Lee County Animal Services.
“She suffered so bad when she was there and I am so glad Diamond got to be with us at the end,” Westman said, after she and Scott were allowed to be with their dog before it was euthanized. “She licked all of our faces, and she even licked the vet’s face when he was putting her down.”
Plenty of blood and
tears shed Oct. 14, 2015
The scene left behind after Titan and Diamond got loose was gruesome. This is not in dispute.
According to the LCDAS report filed Oct. 22, 2015, Kristin Hatle was walking Remy down Morningside Drive around 12:05 p.m. Oct. 14.
That’s when Hatle reported the two dogs attacked her and Remy. In the report, Hatle said the two dogs (Titan and Diamond) went after Remy and she started to hit one of them with the retractable leash to protect Remy.
The two dogs turned on Hatle, she said in the report.
“The gray/white pit bull (Titan) bit down and locked on Ms. Hatle’s right forearm, while the brown/white pit bull (Diamond) bit down and locked on her left hand.”
At the time, Joanne Dineen was driving by in her golf cart after hearing screams and the two dogs released Hatle and turned their attention to Dineen.
In the report, Dineen said the two dogs grabbed Gandy, after he jumped from the golf cart. Isaac Osin, a neighbor, rendered assistance and eventually Gandy was released.
In the veterinarian’s report, Gandy suffered multiple abrasions and had a “severely damaged leg.”
Hatle was taken to Lee Memorial Hospital for a severe bite wound to her upper forearm and also a less severe one to her left hand.
Gandy was brought to Dr. Stacey Bradley, where she worked on his injuries.
“There were hopes he would recover, but he lost so much blood, he wasn’t able to make enough white blood cells,” Dineen said. “The vet was completely unsure if he would walk again.”
Due to the loss of blood, Gandy succumbed to his injuries two and a half days later.
“He was going to be 10 years old on Dec. 23, 2015,” Dineen said. “I had him since 2005 and he was close to me, he was my companion, my buddy. He was everything to me and everyone in the neighborhood knew and loved Gandy.”
In the summary report’s conclusion, it stated, “The severity of this incident resulted in severe injuries from two separate attacks that caused disfiguring injuries (to Hatle) to a human, severe injuries to another dog and also caused the death of another dog.
“This failure to secure the animals resulted in two attacks that met the criteria for Florida State Statute designation of dangerous dogs, had these dogs not become the property of LCDAS. LCDAS issued citations to the owners for both attacks and they voluntarily surrendered ownership of the dogs to the agency.”
of ownership questioned
There hasn’t ever been a formal administrative investigation held in the attacks, nor has there been any sort of hearing or judgement rendered on the two dogs’ fate, since LCDAS maintains Westman signed over the dogs’ ownership to the county.
She did, however claims it was under duress.
“The county just wants to kill them, that’s all they want,” Scott said.
Westman and Scott each were home when LCDAS officer Christopher Urbanski arrived for the agency’s preliminary investigation.
According to the case report, on the first visit, Officer Urbanski verified rabies vaccinations on both dogs and “educated” Westman on the running at large ordinance, the threatening and menacing ordinance, along with the sworn affidavit policy.
Westman stated she understood and she thought “only Diamond bit, due to blood that was observed by her.”
Urbanski told Westman of the mandatory 10-day quarantine period and she signed the dangerous and vicious dog forms.
After Urbanski visited Hatle and got her statement and saw the wound on her upper forearm, he returned to Westman and Scott’s house to issue citations. Officer Pedro Santana also joined Urbanski during this visit.
According to the report, “Officer Urbanski offered her to owner surrender her canines or LCDAS would be forced to confiscate the canines pending a dangerous and vicious dog investigation”
Westman and Scott allege the two officers were more demanding in getting a signature for the owner surrender form.
“Urbanski told me ‘We are going to call the police and you’re going to jail,'” Westman said. “John went inside and Urbanski told me, ‘To get him under control or he’s going to jail.'”
Scott said he was not rude or forceful to the LCDAS officers.
“I said, ‘Don’t call the police, we’ll figure it out.'” Westman said.
She felt pressed to sign the papers, as she was told again they would go to jail and the dogs would be taken anyway, Westman said.
She added she was told it would cost “$20,000 to go through everything” and that the dogs would still be put down.
Westman and Scott’s attorney, MacAlister said the surrender is why there has been no investigation or hearing.
“We want to have a dangerous dog investigation, but (the County) is claiming the dogs were surrendered and they have the right to kill them,” MacAlister said. “There has been no due process and the owner surrender was coerced and pressured (out of Westman). Titan is still alive only due to an injunction we got from a judge.”
Another potential snag in the owner surrender issue, is that Westman isn’t officially Titan’s owner, since she was only fostering the puppy for Phoenix Rescue, out of Gainesville, MacAlister added.
Attorney Smith added the County has two recourses if they are granted an administrative hearing.
“One, they can stop the charges and cite the owners (in which Westman and Scott have already paid in the sum of $1,600) or they get the dangerous dog determination, in which Titan will still be able to live because it was his first (biting case).”
The Lee County Attorney’s Office declined to comment in detail on the case, because it is still in active litigation.
They released this statement: “Please keep in mind that both Diamond and Titan attacked and caused injury to a human being (Kristen Hatle) and a dog (Catahoula Cur named Remi), and they injured another dog (a Pomeranian named Gandy) to the degree that it was unable to recover and is now deceased.”
Getting Titan into
a ‘safe’ shelter
Currently, Smith and MacAlister – in representation of Scott and Westman – are fighting to move Titan to another shelter, with the county’s stipulations, after Diamond died in LCDAS’ care.
Three weeks prior to Diamond being euthanized on Jan. 14, Westman said she was told Diamond was in “good health.”
On Jan. 12, LCDAS informed her that Diamond was in poor health and euthanization was recommended.
Westman contacted Diamond’s regular veterinarian Dr. Deborah Cottrell and sent her pictures of Diamond taken after she was impounded.
In a sworn affidavit in support of the immediate release of Titan from LCDAS, Dr. Cottrell stated, “Michelle Westman forwarded me two photos of Diamond that I understand were taken of her in the shelter sometime in the few preceding days. I was shocked at her appearance. She was emaciated; her backbone and facial bones were protruding. Her abdomen was protruding abnormally.
“The weight change and abdominal distention should have been readily observable to anyone who interacted with Diamond over the period she was losing weight and becoming sick.”
That time was reportedly three weeks of being checked up by the LCDAS vet and the time she was put to sleep, which was due to being diagnosed with end-stage cancer.
“She was so filthy and she wasn’t the same color,” MacAlister said of the visit on the day Diamond was put to sleep. “On Dec. 15, they thought Diamond’s condition was good and three weeks later, they determined she was in condition to euthanize.”
In Dr. Cottrell’s sworn statement, she stated, “In my professional opinion, Diamond had been sick and suffering for some time.”
In response, the Lee County Attorney’s Office stated, “Once Diamond was in Lee County’s care, the dog was diagnosed with end-stage cancer, and that was confirmed by two non-Lee County Domestic Animal Services (LCDAS) vet practitioners with recommendations for humane euthanasia.
“The dog was treated appropriately.”
Westman and Scott have offered to pay for the expenses to move Titan to another shelter, but LCDAS has refused to move him.
The Lee County Attorney’s Office also gave a description of Titan’s living conditions at the LCDAS (along with the photos provided of Titan, which were stated to have been taken in the last two weeks) as, “The kennel size is a double-run (two kennels), which is 49 square feet; he also has two automatic watering dishes.”
An emergency hearing with a judge was held Feb. 11, to move Titan to another shelter, but the hearing went longer than scheduled and was put on continuance for a date to be determined later.
The worry about Titan is he has a history of being abused. He was found by Phoenix Rescue when he was a puppy in a ditch with a broken back and two broken hips.
His medical issues include recovering from severe mange and a bladder problem causing frequent urination.
Westman doesn’t know if Titan is getting treated for these conditions, since the LCDAS has not told her anything.
“Our immediate goal, is to get Titan moved so he isn’t suffering anymore,” Smith said. “The whole time (LCDAS) has had them, they have known these dogs are subject to litigation, and if they lose, they can’t kill these dogs. That alone, should have been enough reason to care for these dogs in their care, besides the humane reason.”
There is a Facebook page set up for the release of Titan.
(EDIT) There is an evidentiary hearing to see if Titan can be released to a secure boarding facility, which had been continued, has now been reset for two hours on Thursday, March 3, starting at 9 a.m. It is open to the public.
“The whole situation is heartbreaking and even more so since they have a Facebook page supporting their cause, selling T-shirts to raise money and starting a Go Fund Me page,” Dineen said. “Neither of these pages make any mention of Gandy.
“This would call into question their claim that this was a ‘bite incident.'”