Changes to dog laws still sought one year after fatal attack

This newspaper has been following the Klonda Richey case and proposed changes to the state’s dog law since Richey’s death in February 2014. A newspaper investigation found that Richey sought protection from her neighbors and their dogs through the Montgomery County Animal Resource Center, the police and courts for the two years before she was mauled to death.

The current state law, which took effect in May 2012, created three designations for problem dogs and removed pit bulls from the definition of a vicious dog.

Each designation, under state law, is defined as:

  • Nuisance: Without provocation and off their owners' property, chase or menace someone or attempt to bite a person.
  • Dangerous: Without provocation, injured someone, killed another dog or had three or more violations of regulations covering the confinement or control of dogs.
  • Vicious: Without provocation, killed or caused serious injury to a person.

A year ago Saturday, Klonda Richey’s worst fears became reality.

For more than two years, Richey lived in conflict with her neighbors and scared of their dogs on East Bruce Avenue in Dayton. She built a compound on her property to protect herself and her beloved cats from the people and animals she claimed were threatening her.

But Richey’s attempts to get help from the county, police and courts ended horrifically in the early morning hours of Feb. 7, 2014, when she was mauled to death by two mixed-mastiff dogs owned by her neighbors.

In the months following, there have been calls by outraged citizens and politicians to change laws and seriously examine whether people are adequately protected in Ohio against vicious dogs.

Numerous public officials said Richey’s death would not be ignored. Yet one year later, relatively little has changed — there have been no changes made to Ohio dog laws, and no one has been held responsible for her death.

A bill introduced last year to toughen the state’s dog laws went nowhere, and the chief sponsor lost his seat in November. Meanwhile, the owners of the dogs — Andrew Nason and Julie Custer — face charges of misdemeanors for failing to control their dogs. They are free on bond and scheduled for a jury trial in April.

Montgomery County officials say they have changed how animal resource officers respond to calls for help because of Richey’s case, and that those changes have made residents safer.

But Richey’s friends and some neighbors remain frustrated and skeptical.

“(A fatal dog mauling) is going to happen again, and people will be even more worked up about it,” said Jonathan Brazelton, vice president of the Redcrest Neighborhood Association, which Richey was a member of. “Maybe we simply need to vote people out who aren’t doing anything. That’s the only thing I think can of that would mean anything. The law has to be changed, and no one’s doing it.”

Richey’s sister, Linda Roach, said in an email that she will never forget Feb. 7, 2014.

“The shock of losing my younger sister and the horrible way she had to die — those memories will haunt me forever,” she said.

System failure

Richey, 57, was attacked by the two mixed-mastiff dogs outside of her home at 31 E. Bruce Ave. Her body lay outside in sub-freezing temperatures until a passerby reported seeing a naked body in the snow around 8:15 a.m. When police responded, the dogs charged them and were shot and killed.

The dogs were owned by Richey’s neighbors, Nason and Custer, at 35 E. Bruce Ave. Custer was the registered owner of the two dogs.

Richey had turned to authorities — the Montgomery County Animal Resource Center, the police and courts — for protection from the dogs and her neighbors in the two years preceding her death, an investigation by this newspaper found.

In total, there were 13 complaints about that address filed with the Animal Resource Center. There were another 46 calls to the Montgomery County Regional Dispatch Center related to Nason’s home between Dec. 27, 2011, and Richey’s death. Richey or someone associated with her phone number called the Montgomery County Regional Dispatch Center 23 times. The other calls were anonymous.

The majority of calls were about the dogs at the Nason house, but other calls included complaints about juveniles, fireworks and other activity. A magistrate denied Richey a civil stalking protection order in April 2013.

The two dogs that attacked Richey did not have a designation as nuisance, dangerous or vicious because they had no history of biting someone or killing another dog, Mark Kumpf, director of the Montgomery County Animal Resource Center, previously said.

“If you look at anything and everything alleged against my client, particularly Mr. Nason, all of that was dismissed,” said attorney Jay Adams, who represents Nason and Custer. “The Animal Resource Center was called on multiple occasions, and he still had the dogs. It wasn’t as if he was running from authorities in this case. It was well known he had those dogs. The people in charge of making those decisions determined he could keep the dogs and he hadn’t done anything wrong.”

The county did not respond to requests to interview Kumpf for this story.

Nason, Custer in court

In September, a Montgomery County grand jury declined to indict Nason and Custer on felony charges related to Richey’s death, but within 24 hours they were arrested and each charged with two misdemeanors of failure to control dogs.

A jury trial for Nason, 29, and Custer, 26, is scheduled to start April 14 in Dayton Municipal Court. If convicted, they each face a maximum sentence of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine — the strongest punishment they can face, according to Stephanie Cook, the chief prosecutor for the city of Dayton.

Cook said four days have been allotted for the trial.

“A case as horrific as Klonda Richey’s should not have been a misdemeanor,” Cook said. “When you see injuries and death as horrific as this, that merits some sort of felony.”

An attorney handling Richey’s estate also filed a wrongful death lawsuit last May in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court against Nason and Custer.

The suit claims Nason and Custer negligently failed to restrain, control and confine their dogs. They also negligently failed to protect Richey “from the known and foreseen risk of attacks by their dogs,” according to the suit.

Attorney Sam Caras, who is representing the Richey estate, could not be reached for comment for this story. That trial is set to begin Aug. 24.

“Obviously, the criminal trial and the results of the trial dramatically affect the outcome of the civil trial,” Adams said.

Adams said Nason and Custer are “innocent as they stand here today.”

“There’s no direct proof that my clients intentionally had these dogs attack, or were even awake at the time,” Adams said. “It’s a terrible tragedy. The question is whether or not my clients are criminally responsible, not if it’s a tragedy because it certainly is.”

Past attempts to reach Nason and Custer have been unsuccessful, and Adams said he has instructed them to not talk to the media.

Revisions in protocol

According to a public records request made by this newspaper, in the days following Richey’s death, animal resource officers were interviewed as part of an internal investigation at the department. They were asked what they remembered when they responded to complaints at 35 E. Bruce Ave. A sample of the responses included:

  • "Found the dogs to be fine and recalled that the young dog was large for its age."
  • "Could not recall anything of reference to this address."
  • "There were no dogs at the residence upon (officer's) arrival."
  • "The woman (Richey) began speaking about the complaint but went off on a tangent and began speaking about all of her cats and the strays in the neighborhood."

Based on this internal investigation, Montgomery County Commissioner Dan Foley said changes in the county’s procedures over the last year have helped “make the community safer.”

“It was a tragedy for her, for her family, and nobody should have to go through what she went through,” Foley said. “It should drive our work as we move forward.”

In the past under some circumstances, officers — as a way of enforcement — gave dog owners either a warning or talked to them about their need to control their dog. Now, citations are given for all offenses, Foley said.

Other changes include improving information sharing with law enforcement; changing policies so that any call to the Animal Resource Center from the dispatch center gets first priority; and communicating better with public health officials.

“The system is improved in 2015 versus where it was at the time of Ms. Richey’s death,” Foley said. “I don’t want to make you think it’s perfect. No system is perfect. We’re human beings. But because of this unfortunate incident, we’re working for the right reasons to make the community safer.”

Roach said she heard repeatedly after her sister’s death that the dog laws needed to be changed. Some legislators have worked vigorously, she said, but still nothing has changed.

“How many people have been seriously hurt by dogs in the state of Ohio this past year?” Roach said. “Klonda’s blood is on those who didn’t support and protect her in the past. However, the blood of many others is on the hands of those who are not fighting to change the laws.”

There were about 16,000 dog bites reported in the state in 2013, according to the latest figures from the Ohio Department of Health.

Calls to toughen state law

Richey’s case was the first in a series of dog maulings resulting in death and critical injuries in 2014 that spurred Ohio lawmakers to consider strengthening the state’s law about dangerous dogs.

Johnathan Quarles Jr., a 7-month-old Indianapolis boy visiting family in Dayton, was mauled to death by a American Staffordshire Terrier on July 20.

Cindy Whisman, a 59-year-old Madison Twp. woman, was killed Aug. 4 by her daughter’s pit bull. An attack of two pit bulls June 4 in Cincinnati left 6-year-old Zainabou Drame with critical injuries.

Former state Reps. Roland Winburn, D-Harrison Twp., and Terry Blair, a Republican from Washington Twp., introduced a bill last May designed to strengthen Ohio’s vicious dog laws.

But Blair died June 26 and Winburn lost his re-election bid in November, leading him to give up on the bill.

Winburn and Blair’s proposed legislation attempted to balance the rights of dog owners with more strict requirements. It would have required:

  • The destruction of dogs that kill humans or companion animals.
  • Investigators to notify the dog's owner that there has been a complaint, even if no citation is issued for a violation.
  • The dog owner to respond within 48 hours of receiving notice of a complaint or be fined $25. If the owner fails to respond within seven days, a court may issue an arrest warrant for the dog owner.
  • The owner to keep a dog leashed or penned regardless of whether the dog is on the owner's property.

The bill also would have allowed owners accused of violating the dog law to assert in their defense that the dog was teased, tormented or abused by a person or that the dog attacked while the person was trespassing or committing some other criminal act on the dog owner’s property.

State Sen. Bill Beagle also worked on legislation last year, and he said he plans to introduce the first of multiple bills by the end of this month.

The first bill Beagle intends to introduce will have “some things we can get support for without too much difficulty,” such as increasing penalties and fines, clarifying definitions, and increasing the length of time before a felon can own a dog.

Beagle, a Tipp City Republican, said additional bills would likely propose more strategic changes, including: shifting the burden of proof to dog owners to demonstrate their dog was not provoked into action; creating a dangerous dog registry database for law enforcement; granting dog wardens access to law enforcement systems to be more informed of situations; and requiring dangerous dog signage.

“I know it seems like nothing’s happened, but the community and those who are involved have been engaged in trying to come up with solutions,” Beagle said. “To their credit, we haven’t rushed to anything. There’s something to be said about taking their time and trying to get it right. … But everybody agrees there’s a problem. We shouldn’t be having these fatalities.”

Cook fears the “window of opportunity might be closing,” now that a year has passed and there hasn’t been substantial change.

“We need to strike while the iron’s hot,” Cook said. “I don’t want to see another Klonda Richey before we get changes.”

In her memory

The Redcrest Neighborhood Association held a candlelight vigil Friday night in Richey’s honor in front of her home. Richey had worked at Montgomery County Children Services and lived with about 20 cats.

Paula Humphrey, who organized the vigil, said the community is still grieving the loss — and the “unfortunate injustice.”

“We don’t want it to ever be forgotten,” Humphrey said. “We’re going to do everything we can to not let it be forgotten. She’s still in our hearts.”

Humphrey believes the Animal Resource Center owes the neighborhood an apology, and that the Redcrest group still holds ARC responsible for not following up with Richey’s complaints.

“This whole thing was a tremendous tragedy,” Humphrey said. “It wasn’t an accident. It could have been avoided. … The public needs to be safe. There are still very good people here who want to live in a safe community.”

Richey’s cousin, Carol Myers, said she’ll never forget that tragic day last February.

“No one deserves to die the horrible, painful, tragic death that Klonda died,” she said. “To think she tried so many times to get help and basically no one helped her is what is so sad. I cannot help but believe if the authorities would have done their jobs, Klonda would still be alive today.”

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