"I've never seen an adult mauling like this," stated Assistant Lapeer County Prosecutor Mike Hodges.
Craig Sytsma, 46, was out jogging on a rural country road in Metamora Township MI on July 23 2014, when he was attacked and killed by two dogs. He had just recently beat colon cancer and led an active life. He regularly jogged, played hockey, golf and beach volleyball as well as riding his mountain bike with friends. Craig also left behind three children and a 2 year old granddaughter.
Sytsma was attacked by two Cane Corso Mastiffs while he was jogging along a road that he regularly ran on after work. Police responded to the scene after there had been a report of shooting in the area. When they arrived, they discovered that the neighbors had been shooting in an attempt to scare the dogs away from Sytsma, who had been dragged into a roadside ditch. He later died of his injuries at the hospital and because he was not carrying any ID, it was more than 12 hours before he was identified.
Three adult dogs and a litter of puppies were seized from the couple who owned them. Sebastiano Quagliata, 45 and Valbona Lucaj, 44, were charged on August 1 2014 with second degree murder and possession of a dangerous dog in connection with the killing. The three adult dogs are to be euthanized and it has not been decided yet what will happen to the seven 8 week old puppies and a 4 month old puppy. One of the dogs that killed Sytsma has seriously bitten another person before and neighbors state that the dogs the couple own have been involved in other incidents in the past.
Hodges had asked for $1 million dollars bond for each of them, citing that they were a flight risk. Attorneys for the couple had asked for a personal bond and GPS as well as stating that they felt the charge was too high for what had happened. Magistrate Michael Delling agreed that the couple were a flight risk since their legal status was in question as well as their facing the possibility of life if found guilty.
The couple has been fighting deportation for years and their attorney stated that they both have green cards, work, pay taxes, have applied for citizenship and their three children have been born here. Authorities have told a very different story though. They state that Lucaj, a native of Albania, applied for asylum in May 1997 in New York City. She claimed that both her and her husband faced persecution because of their religious beliefs in Albania.
The immigration officer that interviewed her found numerous inconsistencies with their stories of persecution. During their interviews both Lucaj and Quagliatta claimed that they had both been jailed in Albania but their stories differed as to where they had been arrested. The immigration officer doubted that anyone could forget something as important as to when and how you had been arrested and recommended that the couple not be approved for asylum. John Shandoff, then administrator of the office, overruled the officer and approved her asylum application and his was approved because he was her spouse.
In 1998, FBI agents arrested Shandoff and Luigi Berishaj on charges that they that had accepted bribes to grant asylum to 20 Albanians. Berishaj had named Lucaj as one of those paying $3,000 for approval. Lucaj has claimed that she had never met Berishaj and that an unknown woman had helped her file for asylum. A review of her paperwork found that they had clearly been altered and they did not believe her version of events. In 2005, immigration officials notified the couple that they were going to terminate their asylum status and they would be deported. Lucaj, who works for an insurance company and Quagliatta, who is a professional house painter, have been fighting deportation and their file is still under review.
This is not the first time that a dog owner has been charged with murder following a fatal mauling. On January 26 2001, Diane Whipple was mauled to death by two Presa Canario dogs. Whipple, an athletic two time World Cup lacrosse member was attacked in the hallway outside her apartment in CA. She suffered 77 wounds from the mauling and later died in the hospital. The dogs, Bane and Hera were owned by Paul Schneider who was serving a life sentence in prison but were being cared for by attorneys Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller. Both were originally charged with second degree murder in Whipple's death. Knoller had been the one walking the two dogs when they mauled Whipple. She was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years to life and Noel was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to four years.
Bane was immediately destroyed after the couple was arrested but they fought to prevent Hera from being destroyed. It was unclear as to whether that dog had participated in the attack. In the end though, she was also euthanized.
One can only wonder why people continue to own dogs that they can not control or have already built up a reputation for being aggressive towards other people. It is difficult to blame the dogs completely for their behavior..... someone had to allow or encourage bad behavior. I do feel for the families of any dog mauling.......... I am sure they never expected that to come from "man's best friend."
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Update Aug 25 2014:
The next court appearance for the couple will be on Aug 29 2014 when they will be continuing the preliminary examination to determine if the case will go forward. Neither of them has been able to bail out of jail. Evidence was heard from the owners veterinarian about the dogs involved in the attack.
Shelley Wallace, a vet who treated two of the dogs involved in the fatal attack has stated that she had seen them since they were puppies. She reported that they were very mild mannered when they were first brought in but in their last visit about three months before the fatal attack, they had changed dramatically. Both Princess, weighing 91 pounds and Toby, who weighed 108 pounds needed to have Lucaj and two of his children to pin the dogs against the wall for her to give them their routine shots. She added that she was only able to give the dogs about a 15 second exam because they were so aggressive and threatening. She stated that she had informed them that they needed to have the dogs treated by a dog behaviorist because of their aggression.
New information about the attack was revealed as well. Edward Elmer had been mowing his lawn at about 5 pm that evening when he saw Sytsma jog by. He stated that when he made another pass, he could see the dogs attacking Sytsma, went to help him and then realized that he could not do so with his bare hands. He ran back to his house to retrieve his handgun and returned to fire four shots at the dogs, hitting Toby in the leg. His girlfriend, Helen Barwig, who is a first responder and has had medical training went out to try and help Sytsma. He had numerous bite wounds to his arms, back, chest, leg and buttocks and bled out before help could arrive.
Police found a dog kennel that was constructed of cyclone fencing but had been repeatedly repaired with logs to cover holes in it. They were also told that the dogs had a habit of digging their way out of the kennel. Neighbors state that the dogs had slowly become a menace in the past three years, as soon as the couple had moved to the area. Evidence will be presented at the next court date from others who have been bit by the dogs.
The three adult dogs have been euthanized and the puppies have been placed with a rescue group in Texas. It is not known what the adoption plans may be for them but it was stated that all of them will be sterilized.
Update April 25 2015:
Both owners have accepted a plea deal that has allowed them to plead no contest to the reduced charge of owning a dangerous dog causing death. The charges of second degree murder would have been very difficult to prove in court so the reduced charge was offered.
The charge has a sentencing of anywhere from 12 to 38 months in jail and it is expected that they will be sentenced to 19 months. Sytsma's family has stated that they will speak at the sentencing of the couple so they may actually receive the maximum allowed under Michigan's sentencing guidelines. They have also stated that they plan to sue both of them for the wrongful death as well. the couple also faces being deported from the US since they are not citizens but they are legal residents.