Girl bitten badly at inmate-run dog shelter; were warning signs ignored?

Mother is suing Onondaga County, which owns the unusual shelter operated by inmates, COs and volunteers


By Chris Baker
Syracuse Media Group, N.Y.

JAMESVILLE, N.Y. — An aggressive dog bit a 10-year-old girl in her face at a county-owned dog shelter at the Jamesville penitentiary in 2017.

The incident left the girl bloodied and scarred and put her through multiple costly hospital visits, the family says. She needed 13 stitches in her face.

Now, her mother is suing Onondaga County, which owns the unusual shelter operated by inmates, guards and volunteers.

The suit claims the dog, a terrier named Beavis, remained at the shelter even though it had a documented history of bites. Beavis’ prior owner returned the dog to the shelter three months after adoption, complaining that Beavis bit neighbors.

The shelter took back the dog and listed it again for adoption. According to volunteers questioned for the lawsuit, the dog was not labeled as aggressive or difficult as other dogs were.

Four months later, Beavis attacked the girl, records show.

The family’s lawsuit alleges the county and the shelter recklessly handled a dog they knew to be violent. The board of directors, lawyers say, knew about the dog’s history and didn’t do enough to prevent a young girl from being scarred for life.

Hundreds of pages of records reviewed by Syracuse.com | The Post-Standard reveal questions about training, staffing and oversight of the shelter leading up to the attack.

The Second Chance Canine Adoption Center at the Jamesville Correctional Facility houses stray dogs that a local animal hospital can’t hold. It’s an unusual operation, staffed entirely by civilian volunteers, jail inmates and a corrections officer. It opened in October 2015.

On Feb. 18, 2017, a volunteer at the shelter invited her sister and her 10-year-old niece to visit. That volunteer, a civilian named Jaelyn Donnelly, wanted her family to meet some dogs, according to the lawsuit.

Donnelly brought a terrier named Beavis into the parking lot on a leash. At some point, the dog lunged at the 10-year-old.

Beavis bit the girl on the face and nose. According to one volunteer interviewed by lawyers, the girl’s “nose was a mess and there was all sorts of blood.”

The girl’s mother, Sara Donnelly, got a towel and pressed it to the girl’s bloody face, then took her daughter to the hospital.

While trying to comfort Jaelyn, a volunteer told her this wasn’t the first time Beavis had bitten someone, the volunteer told lawyers.

On March 6, the president of the kennel’s board of directors, Kimberly Smith-Ford, sent a letter to volunteers in which she called Beavis “unpredictable and reactive” and said he needed to be put down. She said the child was the second person Beavis had bit. (In fact, the child was the fourth bite victim.)

Smith-Ford, who is an elementary school teacher in Solvay, gave volunteers a week to come and say goodbye to the dog.

“This is the hard part of shelter life, when we have to make a decision with our heads rather than our hearts,” she wrote.

Several months later, in June 2017, Sara Donnelly filed a lawsuit against the county and the shelter. She’s seeking repayment for medical expenses and punitive damages against the shelter. She’s represented by the law firm Porter Nordby Howe of Syracuse.

The board members and volunteers interviewed for the lawsuit said they had no professional training to manage dogs or to train others to manage dogs. Most were longtime dog owners and self-described dog lovers. Volunteers were given an hour-long orientation on their first day and given a handbook with rules and policies to read.

Donnelly’s lawsuit shows Beavis had a history of biting people. The shelter’s board of directors was aware of at least one incident in which the dog bit someone, possibly more, according to depositions with some of its members.

William McGowan, a retired postal worker who lives in Eastwood, adopted Beavis in summer 2016, about eight months before Beavis bit the girl. McGowan returned the dog in October after it bit three people and threatened his wife, he said in his deposition.

McGowan declined to comment for this story, saying the whole ordeal was traumatic. But he detailed the incidents in a deposition last year with lawyers. The following account comes from that deposition.

Days after McGowan adopted Beavis, the dog bit a colleague on the hand while on a walk. McGowan called the shelter and reported the bite, he said. McGowan said he was nervous about the dog. He’d never had a pet bite someone before. He said he was told it might just be part of the dog’s adjustment.

Several weeks later, the dog lunged at a woman who had bent down to pet him. Beavis hit the woman in the mouth with his snout. Photos of her injury show bruises around her mouth.

The dog later bit a teenage boy, then another woman, who reported the bite to police. After that last bite McGowan had to go to court. A judge put the dog on probation -- if Beavis bit someone else within six months, authorities could take him away and fine McGowan.

McGowan made efforts to train or rehabilitate Beavis, including getting a harness, which the dog chewed through. Finally, one morning, he woke up to the dog growling at his wife, poised to attack. That was “the last straw,” he said in the deposition.

“I couldn’t keep him if he was threatening my wife," McGowan told attorneys.

McGowan arranged for a shelter volunteer to come pick up Beavis. That volunteer requested a crate for the dog, since she wasn’t sure how the dog would react.

Lawyers for Sara Donnelly say the shelter made no effort to learn more about the dog’s history after McGowan returned it.

The lawsuit points to McGowan’s experience as clear evidence the dog was dangerous and had “vicious propensities.” Lawyers argue the shelter knew Beavis was aggressive, but did not adequately communicate that to volunteers. Nor did shelter management have the proper training to handle dogs.

The shelter uses color-coded labels in a binder full of information on the dogs to let volunteers know which ones have behavioral problems. Dogs with moderate behavior problems are coded orange. Beavis was coded gray -- no serious behavioral issues and easy to handle on a leash, according to testimony from Smith-Ford, the board president.

In notes, volunteers warned several times that Beavis often “nips” at their arms. Also that he loved to play fetch with a Frisbee.

County lawyers said the board of directors took the necessary steps to determine whether Beavis should be put up for re-adoption. Donnelly’s lawyers, however, say the county has offered no proof of any such steps.

The county has also pinned the blame on the young girl’s aunt, Jaelyn Donnelly, adding her as a defendant in the lawsuit.

The Second Chance shelter attracted huge attention when it opened in 2015. Lawmakers and television personalities turned out to cut the ribbon. Dogs and volunteers are featured often on local news and at special events.

Former County Executive Joanie Mahoney made it one of her marquee projects. She proposed the shelter in 2013 then fought the legislature for a year to fund it. The fight was featured on the Animal Planet show “Pit Bulls and Parolees.” The star of that show, Earl Moffett, testified in front of the county legislature about the benefits of opening a dog shelter for inmates.

Since then, there’s been frequent upheaval at the Jamesville penitentiary. In 2016, Mahoney fired the corrections commissioner, Timothy Cowin, without warning while Cowin was on vacation in Florida. She installed a new commissioner, Bill Hanna, and a new top administrator, John Heisler III.

Heisler’s hire was controversial. He’d been charged with drunk driving the year prior and resigned from his job as Mahoney’s security director.

Heisler and Hanna were both fired last month by Onondaga County Sheriff Gene Conway. Conway took over at the jail when it merged with the downtown justice center last year. He has declined to say why he fired both men.

Donnelly’s lawsuit isn’t the only pending litigation against the shelter. An inmate named Brian Howe sued in January. He said a pit bull attacked him and tore up both his arms while he was assigned to work the shelter. He needed stitches on both arms.

The county lawyer who is defending against Howe’s suit is John Heisler Jr., the father of the man fired from the jail last month.

©2019 Syracuse Media Group, N.Y.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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