In the two years leading up to when their dogs mauled to death a jogger, a Metamora couple faced little legal consequences as their dogs attacked and bit walkers and terrorized the neighborhood, according to records obtained by the Free Press.
Indeed, when Valbona Lucaj, 44, and Sebastiano Quagliata, 45, were issued two civil infraction tickets in 2013 after their dogs charged an older man and bit him in the leg, they didn’t show up for court. Ultimately, they paid $280 in fines, and the case was closed.
A Free Press review of police, court and animal control records, along with interviews of neighbors, found authorities took little action in the face of a growing menace.
Lucaj, who works for an insurance company, was ticketed and ordered to appear in Lapeer District Court on Jan. 7, 2014, after one of her Cane Corso dogs bit a man in his 70s on Nov. 21, 2013, as he walked along Thomas Road. It was the same location where authorities say two of her dogs attacked and killed Craig Sytsma of Livonia on July 23, as he went for a jog after work.
The records show that Lucaj was cited in the November 2013 attack for allowing the dogs to run free. She also received a ticket — incorrectly, it seems — for having a dog that attacked another dog, when in fact, the dog had bitten a person.
“Victim was walking north on Thomas Road when passing in front of 5551 Thomas Road. Three dogs came running at him, one of the three bit him in the right leg,” according to a report by the Lapeer County Animal Control. Officials there did not return calls seeking comment Monday.
When Lucaj and her husband, Quagliata, also an owner of the dogs, failed to show up for court for a hearing, they were fined $280, which they paid a week later.
The November 2013 attack was the second one leading to the final fatal attack on Sytsma, 46, a father of three. In May 2012, one of Lucaj’s dogs charged April Smith, 25, tearing open her leg in three spots, as she walked down the road. In that case, animal control officials did not issue tickets, nor were the owners fined. Instead, they were ordered to keep the dog quarantined for 10 days. Smith filed a lawsuit against the dog owners and was awarded a $20,000 judgment.
The pattern of attacks should have prompted criminal prosecution, experts said.
“This is the kind of case I would run up to the prosecutor’s office,” said Bob Gatt, the manager of Oakland County Animal Control.
Gatt said prosecutors are reluctant to prosecute on a first bite because the law requires that it be shown the owner knew the animal was dangerous. But once a second attack occurs, the pattern is there to make a case for prosecution. “It’s clear these dogs were dangerous, and they were running loose,” Gatt said.
Neighbors told the Free Press that the dogs roamed the neighborhood, growled at people in their own yards, and sometimes went into garages. Complaints to animal control officials went unanswered.
It’s not clear whether the two dog-bite cases were ever presented to Lapeer County Prosecutor Tim Turkelson, who did not return repeated phone calls Monday. Turkelson said last week he is reviewing the case.
Attorney Glenn Saltsman, who represents both dog-bite victims who were injured, said, “We don’t know who dropped the ball, but somebody did. In this particular case, there is no doubt whatsoever that these dogs should have been put down.”
Under state law, the owner of a dog that attacks and kills a person without provocation can be charged with involuntary manslaughter, a felony offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison. If a dog seriously injures a person in an unprovoked attack, the owner can be charged with a four-year felony.
Lapeer Animal Control officials have taken custody of the two dogs involved in last week’s attack and plan to euthanize them. On Friday, Lapeer prosecutors filed a lawsuit seeking to seize puppies found at the house, saying, “The puppies should be seized as the apparent product of aggressive animals that have killed a human being.”
When Lucaj and Quagliata have declined to comment, referring questions to their lawyer. Attorney Jason Malkiewicz of St. Clair Shores said Friday that the dog owners are devastated by last week’s attack and want the dogs euthanized.