A Huntington Beach woman in her ninth month of pregnancy was attacked two weeks ago by a pit bull that county animal control officials had declared "vicious" earlier in the year after a face bite, but later reversed that decision and apparently placed no requirement that it wear a muzzle.
On June 19, Veronica Nguyen was alone on an evening walk outside her home on Aladdin Street near Huntington Harbour when Mark Harry, a neighbor, came around the corner walking his two dogs. The pit bull, which was named "Blue," lunged at Nguyen.
“When the dog came at her she had turned to shield [it] from her stomach," said her husband, Tim Nguyen, in an interview with Voice of OC. "Her first instinct was to protect the baby.”
The dog tore into Veronica's arm, leaving it "ridiculously bloody," Tim said, with a chunk of her arm "totally gone." An ambulance was called and Veronica was rushed to Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, where doctors decided to induce labor early due to the severity of her injuries and performed a cesarean section.
Doctors delivered a healthy baby boy and performed reconstructive surgery on Veronica's arm. Two tendons were fused together because one was severely damaged, according to Tim.
Blue was euthanized following the attack. Meanwhile, Veronica and her baby were released from the hospital last Wednesday.
Revelations of the attack on Veronica will undoubtedly bring increased scrutiny on top officials at OC Animal Care, who have been under fire amid multiple reports, including two by the county grand jury, regarding management problems and deplorable conditions at the county's 74-year-old animal shelter.
The Nguyens said they were not told that Blue had a history until they received a call from Voice of OC. In February, an attack by Blue had included a “face bite,” according to county records obtained by Voice of OC.
After the earlier attack, county officials had options that included requiring that Blue wear a muzzle and physical restraint, according to the county’s vicious dog ordinance.
That didn’t end up happening.
Instead, after a hearing where Harry presented witnesses, the interim OC Animal Care director, Dr. Jennifer Hawkins, removed Blue’s “vicious dog” status.
While Hawkins told Harry the decision was conditioned on him agreeing to restrain his dog, she apparently placed no legally binding requirements, like mandating that Blue wear a muzzle.
“You are encouraged to ensure that Blue is properly controlled and confined at all times,” Hawkins wrote in a March 13 letter announcing her decision.
(Click here to read the letter.)
Reached for comment Friday, county officials emphasized that they reversed the “vicious dog” declaration based on the hearing and other, unspecified, evidence.
“The tentative declaration was considered at an administrative hearing, where the hearing officer heard from various witnesses," county spokeswoman Jean Pasco said in a statement. "Based on the witness statements and considering the available evidence, the hearing officer recommended against the declaration.”
Pasco declined to elaborate on what evidence was presented at the hearing or the rationale behind the reversal, nor confirm what injuries were caused by Blue’s February bite. The county also would not release a transcript of the hearing Friday.
Hawkins, meanwhile, didn’t return a phone message seeking comment.
When Voice of OC contacted Tim Nguyen for the first time last week, he was surprised to learn about the dog’s prior bite and Hawkins’ handling of it.
“I was under the impression that it was a good dog and that it was just a bizarre accident," Tim said. The new information “definitely changes my perspective on the whole situation.”
He added: “It's one thing when you make an innocent mistake…but if it happened before and you let it happen again, that is different.”
Harry, the dog’s owner, declined to comment through his Los Angeles-based attorney, Natalia Foley.
The bite exposes not only Harry to potential legal liability, but also county taxpayers, depending on how serious the first incident was, among other factors.
In their review of animal control, grand jurors took the unusual move of issuing two back-to-back reports criticizing the department’s executives for creating an environment that risks public health and safety.
One of the reports alleged that poor leadership has contributed to bad cleaning practices at the county shelter that could spread disease, as well as a dead deer being left in front of a home for five days after being reported to animal control.
The situation is so bad, according to the grand jury, that the county should consider replacing the leadership of the county's community resources department, which oversees OC Animal Care.
The report doesn't mention them by name, but the department's director is Steve Franks, a former political aide to county Supervisor Jim Silva who later transitioned into a top role above the county agency.
In addition to the grand jury reports, former employees recently alleged unethical behavior by superiors, such as pressure on field officers to bring in money, and pursuing an allegedly false allegation of animal abuse that prompted compensation for the shelter.
Huntington Beach is among 18 Orange County cities that rely on the county for animal control services.
As for the Nguyen family, Tim says he and his wife are thankful their son is in good health.
“One thing that we've been talking about is that in total darkness there is still light…so many things could have gone wrong,” said Tim Nguyen. “What if [it] got her stomach?”
“We look at kids in our neighborhood – they would have been defenseless.”
Tim says his wife was fortunate to be matched with a good surgeon at Hoag Hospital, who feels confident about her recovery.
“We remain positive, but there’s moments where it hurts,” Tim Nguyen said.
While Veronica is able to breastfeed, he added, she isn’t able to participate in many of the moments that new mothers typically experience, like picking up her baby and changing his clothes.
“Everything’s kind of on standstill right now,” he said.
Editor David Washburn contributed to this report.