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Santa Rosa will seek ‘vicious’ designation for seized pit bull that killed Maltese mix Baby Ruth

Susan Standen’s last two and a half months without her dog have been relentlessly empty, a cycle of waiting.

The dog bed that sits in the usual spot in her Santa Rosa backyard has not been filled since late February when the familiar skitter of her Maltese mix Baby Ruth on the floor went silent. Daily, she would jump up to go greet the mail carrier out front.

“It’s hard,” said Standen, 54. “I have pictures of her on my phone and every time I look at them I just think, ‘I wish you were still with me. You didn’t deserve to die that way.’”

Her firm belief in that final assertion has kept Standen afloat, while waiting for word on what would happen with the owner of the dog that killed Baby Ruth in a brutal Feb. 20 encounter on a sidewalk near Standen’s east Santa Rosa neighborhood.

The dog jumped through the open window of a moving vehicle in which it had been riding and locked on to Baby Ruth, who died on the side of Summerfield Road. Standen, her pet and a friend’s dog had been out for a stroll.

The owner of the offending dog, a pit bull, according to city authorities, drove away immediately after wrestling his dog off Baby Ruth, Standen and other witnesses said. At least one took a picture of the vehicle, and others stayed at the scene to try to help tend to Baby Ruth.

Since then, Standen has neither seen nor heard from the dog owner.

But Standen’s public account, shared within days of her attack, and her calls to Sonoma County animal control officers and a lawyer in the Santa Rosa City Attorney’s Office have, at last, led to action.

Authorities seized the dog from its owner in mid-April and have held it at the Sonoma County Animal Shelter. Assistant Santa Rosa City Attorney Adam Abel plans to petition in civil court for the pit bull to be declared vicious, a determination that, if granted, could lead to the dog being euthanized.

Standen’s abiding concern throughout the ordeal has been to ensure the dog did not hurt anyone else’s pet or loved one. She also was hoping for some acknowledgment of the tragedy from the other dog owner.

“(Because of) my concern for public safety and for accountability, and because it affected me personally and traumatically ... I can’t let it go,” Standen said.

Susan Standen wraps her dog’s leash around a memorial to her dog Baby Ruth, who was attacked and killed Feb. 20 by a pit bull that jumped from a car at the corner of Summerfield Road and Hoen Ave. in Santa Rosa. The offending dog's owner drove away and Animal Control, after tracking him down, said they could do nothing if he didn't admit it was his dog.  (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Susan Standen wraps her dog’s leash around a memorial to her dog Baby Ruth, who was attacked and killed Feb. 20 by a pit bull that jumped from a car at the corner of Summerfield Road and Hoen Ave. in Santa Rosa. The offending dog's owner drove away and Animal Control, after tracking him down, said they could do nothing if he didn't admit it was his dog. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Abel expects to file the petition in Sonoma County Superior Court sometime in the next two weeks, he said.

“I’m not going to tell you what the outcome is going to be, but I can tell you one thing that’s a guarantee,” Abel said. “Susan knows what happened and sadly, so does the owner of the pit bull.

“Can I prove that in court? I hope so,” he said.

California law and Santa Rosa city code dictate the recourse available to dog owners whose animals are killed by another dog. For a first offense, owners of the victimized dog can press for a “potentially dangerous” designation. A “vicious” designation is triggered by violent behavior toward humans or continuation of the sort of behaviors that trigger the potentially dangerous label.

Abel will seek a vicious designation in this case because, as animal control officers learned during their investigation, the pit bull involved already has been declared potentially dangerous. That label was put in place after the pit bull killed a dog in 2019, Abel said.

No court hearings were involved, Abel said, indicating the owner had voluntarily agreed to have his dog declared potentially dangerous after the first attack.

The details of the pit bull’s subsequent attack on Baby Ruth also seem to indicate that the owner may have violated the requirements of that designation, according to city code.

The rule stipulates that any potentially dangerous dog must be restrained, muzzled and “under the control of a responsible adult” at all times when it is off the owner’s property. Such requirements are in place for the full three-year term of that designation.

Abel said he can’t say for certain at this point whether or not he would push for the pit bull to be put down.

“Sometimes things happen at trial that you don’t anticipate,” he said. “I could always hear things that could change my mind. I’m certainly not going to change my mind about the vicious dog designation.”

Animal control officials on April 17 seized the dog believed to have been involved in the attack. The move followed weeks of investigation, including interviewing witnesses to the attack on Baby Ruth and visiting the property of the suspected dog owner. The owner has denied involvement, stating that he was not present and that the vehicle described by witnesses was not driveable when the attack occurred, Standen said animal control officers told her.

Authorities have declined so far to publicly disclose the owner’s name, but his identity will become public once Abel files his petition.

“He has every right to defend himself and so we’ll see what happens,” Abel said.

If the vicious dog designation is granted, Abel could also push the judge to consider prohibiting the dog owner from owning any other animals for a period of up to three years, according to city code.

Abel said he has spent more time than usual crafting his petition because the circumstances of Baby Ruth’s death were extraordinary, even for someone who works on several dog attack cases a year.

“We’ve never had a hit and run where the person responsible is denying everything that’s happened,” he said. “It’s really just been a matter of dotting our i’s and crossing our t’s and being able to locate the witnesses and talk to them and make sure we know they saw what they saw and they're prepared to say what they think happened out there.”

Several people who witnessed the attack offered their contact information to Standen and gave statements to animal control officers who first investigated in February. But Standen said she hopes to hear from more people willing to testify for the court proceeding.

“Your two cents is worth a lot,” she said. “Anything you saw.”

Once Abel files the petition and the dog owner is served, a trial will be scheduled, with a judge presiding and deciding on the outcome. No jury will be involved. Such trials have been as short as 15 minutes, in Abel’s experience, and as long as several hours.

He has never lost one of the roughly three dozen cases he’s taken to court in his position.

Still, he said, “You never predict what’s going to happen because you just never know. I know I have the right guy and the right dog.”

For Standen, the idea that the pit bull could be euthanized brings her no satisfaction, she said. But she also doesn’t want anyone else to experience the horrible loss that she has endured.

“I miss the heck out of my little companion,” she said of Baby Ruth. “And the absence in my life is really remarkable — this hole.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

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