Few dogs labeled as dangerous despite new law

Lawmakers call for stronger law following mauling death

An Ohio law designed to protect residents from the type of incidents that led to the mauling death of Klonda Richey of Dayton has identified only a tiny percentage of licensed dogs as dangerous or vicious, and is being enforced unevenly by area animal resource officials, an investigation by this newspaper found.

The newspaper examined hundreds of pages of public records, including documents from animal resource centers in six area counties: Montgomery, Warren, Butler, Greene, Miami and Clark. The examination of those records found few dogs are getting labeled as dangerous and there are huge disparities in how Ohio’s two-year-old law is being applied.

For example, Montgomery County, which registered more than 60,000 dogs in 2013, has tagged just 12 dogs with designations of nuisance or dangerous since 2012. No dog was declared vicious during that time.

In Clark County, the number was zero, although one is pending. Officials there said they have had 10 to 15 cases where dogs were turned over by their owners and euthanized before they were designated.

The local counties with the highest number of designations were Greene and Miami counties, which had 42 each. But the numbers account for only a small fraction of the number of dogs registered. State Rep. Jim Butler, R-Oakwood, noted that Franklin County designated 522 dogs in 2013. In Montgomery County that same year, just six dogs were given that label.

Owners of dangerous and vicious dogs are required to meet certain criteria every year to obtain a tag and certificate, including paying an annual $50 fee.

Richey, 57, of 31 E. Bruce Avenue, died in the early morning hours of Feb. 7 from injuries suffered from a mauling by two mixed-mastiff dogs owned by her neighbors, Andrew Nason, 29, and Julie Custer, 25. In the two years before her death, Richey complained repeatedly about her neighbors and their dogs. She lived at the home with more than 20 cats, which seemed to be a source of contention with the neighbors.

Between Dec. 27, 2011, and Richey’s death, 13 complaints were filed with the Montgomery County Animal Resource Center and another 46 calls were made to the Montgomery County Regional Dispatch Center related to the Nason home at 35 E. Bruce.

Most of the Animal Resource Center calls were anonymous, but 23 of the calls to the dispatch center were from Richey or associated with Richey’s phone number. The majority of the calls were about the dogs at the Nason house, but other calls included complaints about juveniles, fireworks and other activity.

Richey also sought a civil stalking protection order against Nason, but ultimately was denied in April 2013.

Family members and friends have said that Richey lived in terror of the dogs attacking her cats. No one has been charged in Richey’s death, and the investigation is ongoing. Nason and Custer reportedly have moved out of the home. A fire at the house on Feb. 21 caused about $30,000 worth of damage and has been declared arson, according to fire officials.

Several local elected officials, including Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley and Butler, said this week that changes are needed to strengthen Ohio’s vicious dog law to better protect citizens.

Butler said he plans to introduce legislation to strengthen the state law and Whaley said city leaders sent a two-page letter to state legislators with recommendations for how the law should be changed.

Ohio law

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. It also created a process for owners to appeal the designation. Violators can be fined or face felony sanctions.

The two dogs in Richey’s death did not have a designation because they had no history of biting someone or killing another dog, Mark Kumpf, director of the Montgomery County Animal Resource Center, has said. Montgomery County’s animal control officers only have authority to enforce violations of the Ohio Revised Code, and are hamstrung by the state’s constitution, which limits a municipality from enacting a law with a penalty stronger than a misdemeanor, according to the city’s letter.

“Without state support for stronger laws, we cannot charge the owner of a vicious dog with a felony, even if the result of the attack is death of a person,” the letter says.

In a written response to questions from the newspaper, Kumpf said, “The current code is mostly regulatory and provides penalties AFTER a violation occurs by a designated dog.”

Marcia Doncaster, director of the Miami County animal shelter, said a $50 annual fee to register a dog as dangerous or vicious is a “slap on the wrist.”

“The punishment needs to be a little stronger,” she said. “Let’s make people more responsible for their animals.”

Kumpf, who also is president of the Ohio County Dog Wardens Association, said during a press conference three days after Richey’s death that his agency did all it could to address the complaints lodged about the dogs at 35 E. Bruce. According to the law, Kumpf said, an officer has to witness a violation, and that did not happen at 35 E. Bruce.

Violations cannot be based on third-party accounts or what someone else alleges, he said. If no violation is issued, the case is closed.

East Bruce Avenue was not a designated problem area for vicious dogs, Kumpf said, and it is difficult for the county to proactively patrol because of its “very limited staff.” Montgomery County has 12 animal control officers and a $2.3 million annual budget.

James Straley, executive director/chief dog warden of The Humane Society Serving Clark County, Inc., said his office gets about 15 to 20 dog complaints a day.

The county has not formally designated any dogs as dangerous or vicious — or even tagged them as nuisances — though a case is currently pending in court involving a dog that killed another dog, he said.

Straley said his office’s primary objective is to “get the dog off the street.” In one instance, Clark County animal control officers spent eight months tracking a single vicious dog before finally capturing it, he said. Another chase took 50 days.

Animal resource officers, he said, can’t be expected to prevent every attack. However, if a Richey-type situation happened in his county, Straley said he would have “beefed up my patrols.”

“I would be waiting out there every day for the dogs to step off the property,” he said. “The people would know we’re watching them.”

Strengthening the law

That Richey tried to get help from so many different places and couldn’t is a source of frustration for her immediate family.

“In Klonda’s case, she did everything in her power,” said Ted Richey, her brother.

Added her sister, Linda Roach: “Klonda’s tragic death is more than a wake-up call for all concerned. It is a red alert — a bloody alert — to protect the innocent.

“It breaks my heart that she was not truly listened to nor helped,” she said. “The agencies involved with enforcing and monitoring these dogs and their owners should have more strength. In talking with various ones regarding Klonda’s case, they said their hands were tied. Legislators must untie their hands so they can save lives.”

Butler said he and other state legislators are drafting a bill that would promote more communication between governmental agencies.

He said Kumpf told him Richey’s death potentially could have been prevented if there was adequate communication between animal control, police and the court system.

According to Butler, Kumpf said the two dogs that killed Richey likely would have been designated as dangerous and removed from the property if the Animal Resource Center knew Richey had pursued so many different avenues for help.

“Those dogs would not have been there, and things may have turned out differently,” Butler said.

He warned, however, that it will take at least a month to draft the legislation, and approval could take months or longer.

State Rep. Roland Winburn, D-Dayton, said it’s difficult for animal control officers to always be in a position to witness dogs causing harm.

“We are still looking at where the gaps and problems and breakdowns are,” he said.

The letter from city of Dayton officials, which went to area lawmakers in the House and Senate, recommends the state adopt stricter penalties for owners of vicious dogs, similar to what the city has in its ordinance.

“The city’s ordinance is more aggressive,” said Whaley. “I think it’s stronger than the state.”

Montgomery County Commissioner Dan Foley said he hopes the law will be strengthened and allow animal resource officers more flexibility to make judgment calls based on their own experience and data while preserving due process.

Foley also said having key pieces of data available and accessible to all first responders will help.

“Any data that we have that can give a police officer or animal resource center staff member a true picture of what’s happened will help,” Foley said. “Technologically, I’m confident we can do that. I think that’s going to allow us to have a safer community. We still need responsible dog owners and need people looking out for each other.”

Montgomery County Administrator Joe Tuss defended Kumpf and his staff, saying they did all they could to help Richey. He said there was no evidence that would have allowed animal control officers to designate the dogs as dangerous and remove them from the 35 E. Bruce Ave. house.

“It’s sad and tragic, but to speculate that better communication or changes in the law could have changed anything, I don’t think it would have made a difference in this case,” he said.

Roach said notes on a door aren’t enough.

Surveillance footage from Richey’s home showed encounters with Nason and his unleashed dogs coming onto her property.

When animal control officers responded to 35 E. Bruce, the homeowners were not there or did not answer the door, and a warning was posted on the house, Kumpf has said. No one at the Bruce house responded to the warnings.

“If there is no response, consequences should be imposed, as there are with traffic violations,” Roach said.

Uneven enforcement

In his written statement, Kumpf said the wide disparity in the number of dogs getting labled dangerous or vicious is “not an inconsistency.”

“People have the misconception that designating dogs as dangerous eliminates problems,” Kumpf said. “This is actually the exact opposite.”

Kumpf, like Straley, said the county’s goal is to “get them off our streets.” Animal control officers make an effort to persuade owners to voluntarily relinquish their dog, avoiding the designation process altogether.

“We don’t want more of these dogs in our county,” Kumpf said. “We want less, and ideally, none. Allowing people to keep dangerous dogs poses an ongoing and continuous potential threat to public safety.”

Harold Brown, director of animal control for Greene County, said the majority of the dogs that bit or endangered someone in his county were released voluntarily by their owners and euthanized.

One of those owners, Fairborn resident Michael McKinney III, agreed to euthanize his eight-year-old American bulldog, Milo, even though he said no thorough investigation was ever conducted to challenge a landscaper’s story about what happened.

McKinney said the landscaper alleged Milo jumped the 4-foot fence last July, bit him in the upper back and jumped back over the fence, returning to McKinney’s yard.

Milo weighed 70 pounds , suffered from two bad hips and, according to the veterinarian who examined him, was not physically able to clear the fence twice, McKinney said. Still, he agreed to put his dog down, saying, “the law is the law.”

“I would have bet my life upon it that he’d never bite anyone, period,” McKinney said. “He was a great dog.”

Nathan Harper, chief dog warden for Warren County, said the unpredictability of dogs makes any enforcement system imperfect.

“There are measures you can take to prevent as much as you can, but you’re not going to totally be able to say that (a mauling is) never going to happen,” he said.

Added Doncaster:

“Any dog, at any time, can bite. What we can hope for is that people are responsible owners and keep their dogs under control.”

Citizen concerns

Some residents say they live in fear in their neighborhoods because of pit bulls and other dogs running loose.

Lindy McDonough, president of the Hillview Neighborhood Association, said she and her husband, Mike Nelson, have been charged by pit bulls near their Sandalwood Drive home while they walked their own dog. McDonough says she now carries a hiking pole for protection during those walks.

“It is terrifying because you don’t know if the approaching dog has been loved and well cared for or abused and trained to attack,” she said.

John and Paula Humphrey, who have lived on West Fairview Avenue for 40 years, haven’t walked their dogs in their neighborhood for several years. About five years ago, a pit bull attacked their purebred sheltie, nearly killing him and requiring 200 stitches, Paula said.

She said animal control and police officers need to be more proactive and not just respond to emergencies.

“It’s a failed system that definitely needs to be changed,” she said. “We need to be innovative as a community to address these issues and not look the other way.”

Staff writer Laura Bischoff contributed to this story.