Records released by Orange County officials reveal new details about their investigation of a dog that later attacked a Huntington Beach woman who was nine months’ pregnant.
The dog – a pit bull named Blue – had been declared “vicious” by county animal control officials in February after he ripped open a man’s upper lip, sending him to the hospital for about 100 stitches. That meant Blue would have to wear a muzzle and short leash when being walked in public.
But the owner appealed the decision, claiming the injuries were accidental, and the county’s animal services director removed the “vicious dog” designation. She reversed the requirement that Blue wear a muzzle and short leash.
Then in June, when Blue's owner, Mark Harry walked him in his Huntington Beach neighborhood, Blue bit Veronica Nguyen, tearing out part of her arm and sending her to the hospital in an ambulance. Her injuries were such that doctors decided to induce labor and perform a cesarean section.
There were no complications with the delivery and the baby was born healthy. But Nguyen had to undergo reconstructive surgery and, after returning home, was unable to pick up her newborn son or change his clothes. At the time, Nguyen’s surgeon could not say whether she will fully regain the ability to move all her fingers individually, according to her husband.
Revelations of the attack brought 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.
In the aftermath of the attack on Nguyen, county officials had declined to discuss details of the February incident or the rationale for reversing Blue’s “vicious dog” restrictions.
However, 120 pages of records released by the county under the California Public Records Act, reveal, among other things, the severity of the injury Blue caused in February and conflicting opinions by county officials as to whether Blue should be declared vicious.
There were also differing accounts of the circumstances surrounding the February bite. The injured man, whose name the county declined to release, reported that Blue had suddenly snapped at his face and bit him when he reached down for a drink.
Friends and family of the dog owner who witnessed the bite, meanwhile, painted a different picture to investigators.
They reported that Blue had not shown signs of aggression. The victim, they said, was intoxicated from alcohol and had held up a ball or dog toy next to his face, and told Blue to get it.
It was then that the dog turned his head to retrieve it, and accidentally caused the lip injury, according to the owner’s friends and family.
But after reviewing the testimony and photos of the injury, Animal Care staff declared that the bite was intentional and recommended that Blue be declared vicious.
“Playing with a dog and its toy is not teasing the dog, it’s a normal routine for the dog,” wrote Lt. Brian Frick, a supervising animal control officer, in his Feb. 27 analysis of the injury.
“Conclusively, this was an unprovoked acute act of aggression which resulted in a severe injury to the lip of the victim.”
A letter was then delivered to Harry that same day, telling him Blue had been declared vicious and listing a series of requirements.
Among the mandates was that Blue wear a muzzle and be on leash that’s six feet long or less when taken in public. And Harry would have to obtain $100,000 in liability insurance.
Harry appealed the decision, requesting an administrative hearing regarding the vicious dog decision. His attorney, Natalia Foley, filed a motion arguing that the dog’s teeth had accidentally slid over the victim’s face.
“It is the [owner] of the dog’s assertion that the dog did not actually bite the victim, instead the dog was performing the [victim’s] order and due to lack of space for the maneuver, [the] dog’s teeth accidentally slid over the skin of the victim,” Foley wrote in her filing.
At the March 10 hearing, testimony was given by Harry, other supporters of overturning the vicious dog designation, and an animal control representative.
In her recommendation the next day, the hearing officer, Stefani Waterman, found that Blue did not act aggressively and thus shouldn’t have the restrictions placed on him.
“My recommendation is to rescind the Vicious Dog Declaration based on [the victim] teasing the dog with the ball while commanding the dog to ‘get the ball’ and lack of evidence to support the dog acting aggressively at the time of injury,” she wrote in her memo to Animal Care Director Dr. Jennifer Hawkins, who had final say on the dog’s status.
Hawkins upheld the recommendation, and sent a March 13 letter to the owner saying she was removing the “vicious dog” designation and its restrictions. Just over three months later, Blue attacked Nguyen. This time Harry, chose to have his dog euthanized.