Owners of dog killed in attack blame negligence

A pit bull that attacked and killed a small dog on Whidbey Island had been reported to the Island County Sheriff's Office three previous times in one year for violence.

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A pit bull that attacked and killed a small dog on Whidbey Island had been reported to the Island County Sheriff's Office three previous times in one year for violence.

County records show Sheriff's deputies never cited the owners of the pit bull for violating county codes prohibiting owners from letting their dogs run loose or menace pedestrians.

"Nobody does anything about it, nobody follows through," said Diane Chin, the owner of the dog who died. "They had several warnings. They knew their dog was dangerous."

Diane and her husband Jeff Chin's Bichon, named Tug, died when a pit bull ran onto their property and ripped Tug away from Diane. She was only able to stop the attack after neighbors intervened to help her, but it was too late.

"Every time I looked at this," said Diane standing in front of her home, "all I would remember was that scene, all the blood and I couldn't save him."

Following the attack, Island County deputies charged the pit bull's owner, Gina Cooley, with a misdemeanor for failing to control the animal and declared her pit bull, Bubby, a dangerous dog and was euthanized.

Cooley declined a request for an interview.

However, in court audio recordings, Cooley -- who was not always present to witness Bubby's behavior -- said Sheriff's deputies never gave her a clear indication her dog was dangerous.

"He wasn't a crazy, rabid dog at home. No one told me, I never got a ticket. You know, animal control never said, 'You really need to do something with this dog.' They would just say, 'You know, you got to keep the dog in,'" Cooley said.

Island County Sheriff Mark Brown declined an on-camera interview regarding his deputies' handling of this case and whether stricter action should have been taken.

"Deputies routinely handle animal complaints and in most cases, forward the information to our Animal Control Officer Carol Barnes for her information and/or follow-up," Brown wrote in an email. "As to the question, 'Is enough being done?' This is a matter of opinion."

While Island County has codes prohibiting owners from allowing their dogs to get loose or menace pedestrians, it relies on state laws to define enforcement of dangerous dogs.

In King County, an animal only gets up to two strikes, while in Seattle, a first offense is considered unlawful.

A records search of dog attacks dating back to 2011 in Island County found repeat offenses made up 12 percent of reported dog attacks cases where the owners could be identified.

"I don't want to encourage cities or counties to pass draconian laws. However, they do need to fill in the gaps to address instances like this case with Bubby," said Adam Karp, the animal law attorney representing the Chins.

Brown presented a different view.

"It is my belief that even if Island County had a specific local ordinance addressing the 'Potentially Dangerous Dog Statue' it would not necessarily have changed the outcome of this particular case," Brown wrote.

When asked about the potential for drafting a new ordinance to address dangerous dogs, the Island County Commissioners deferred to the Sheriff on the topic.

The situation leaves the Chins wondering if Tug's story could have ended differently.

"It's hard to think he should still be with us, that he was taken from us unfairly, and how much I really want him back," Diane said.

The Chins sued Cooley and her boyfriend in civil court for failing to control Bubby.

A judge found both Cooley and her boyfriend Joseph Sidlauskas liable and awarded the Chins over $36,000 for their loss.

However, the Chins have only obtained a few hundred dollars by asking the court to garnish some of Cooley's wages after she and Sidlauskas failed to pay willingly.

The court can't garnish Sidlauskas' wages because of an obscure federal law that Congress passed back in the late 1800s.

It prohibits courts from garnishing a seaman's wages except in the case of spousal and child support.

Sidlauskas is an oiler for Washington State Ferries.

Back when Congress passed the law, John Merriam, a maritime law attorney, said it was intended to protect merchant marines who could be out at sea for months at a time with no communication and no way to know they had been sued or have an opportunity to pay their debt.

"The statute has outlived its original purpose," Merriam said. "I am certain that not one of the original members of Congress that passed the statute had envisioned sailors thumbing their nose at just debts."

"That's what I wanted to get out of this trial more than anything is for them to own up to what happened, and to this day they haven't," said Jeff.

In court audio recordings, Sidlauskas also admitted to closing his bank account to avoid payment.

Cooley, when asked for comment regarding this story, said in a text message, "Joe should never have been brought into this, but he has the job that would pay Karp and Chins. Maybe you should do a story on how horrible it is to sue people that don't have the means to defend themselves."

Karp said he is determined to get the Chins the damages they have been awarded.

"We are not going to give up," Karp said.

"Everything just screams that they are in the wrong," Diane said. "I would say put yourself in our shoes."

Members of the Washington Congressional Delegation were asked to comment on the federal maritime law.

"It has obvious troubling parallels to the loophole Jaime recently fought alongside Rep. Delbene to close that allowed convicted predators from paying restitution to their victims. We appreciate KING 5's vigilance on these issues and will be looking into this law and its impacts further to see if Congress can help," said Amy Pennington communications director for Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas in a statement.

Several other congressional members also agreed that the law seemed unfair and stated that they would be looking at whether it's time for it to change.

© 2017 KING-TV


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