Thursday, July 20, 2000

California: James Chiavetta charged with Murder after two Pit Bulls he was taking care of were turned loose and mauled a child to death

CALIFORNIA -- When James Chiavetta is arraigned today on second-degree murder charges in a California courtroom, he faces the possibility of joining a handful of people in the country convicted on a murder charge where the weapon, essentially, is a dog.

Ten-year-old Cash Craig Carson was killed by a pit bull named Louise and a pit bull-chow mix named Bear — two dogs that a prosecutor says scared even their caretaker in an isolated desert area of Barstow, Calif.

“He intentionally let the dogs loose,” says prosecutor Steve Sinfield. “He knew they were dangerous. That’s why we want second-degree murder.”

Also facing arraignment today are the dogs’ owners, Michael Caldwell and Gilbert Garcia, who are charged with owning a dangerous animal causing death. If convicted, each could get up to three years in prison and fines up to $10,000. Chiavetta could get 15 years to life.

Sinfield is one of the first prosecutors in the state to use a law beefed up last year to allow more severe penalties when animals hurt or kill people.

Legislation With Teeth

The tougher laws and more aggressive enforcement are key elements to an effort by the Humane Society of the United States to combat dog fighting, which animal activists say is increasing across the nation.

“It’s getting worse and worse now,” says Veronique Chesser, founder and coordinator of Pit Bull Rescue Central, a Missouri-based clearinghouse for other North American rescue groups.

But while California’s law may be well intentioned, it’s resulted in a frenzy to prosecute even an average homeowner whose animal has never attacked in the past, says Ron Lewis, the Woodland Hills, Calif., attorney for Caldwell.

“This is a tragedy, not a crime,” says Lewis, explaining that 9-year-old Bear has no history of attacks or a single complaint from neighbors. “It’s totally out of character that this occurred.”

Lewis says there are reports that Cash, the nearest neighbor to the dogs, had in the past possibly tormented the animals with fire crackers and that the boy may have entered the gated yard where the dogs were on the day of the attack. The new California law, Lewis says, goes too far. “Everyone who owns a dog is potentially liable,” he said.

Dog Fighting Rising 

But the law is being praised by animal-rights activists who say fighting dogs are getting meaner and their numbers are growing with the increasing popularity of staged dog fights, which often result in the death of one or both dogs.

“I suspect the problem’s going to get worse,” says Eric Sakach, the director of the West Coast Regional Office for the Humane Society.

“You’re talking about miniature kegs of dynamite on four legs running around,” says Sakach, who also points out that pit bulls trained to fight other dogs almost never attack humans.

“But it’s a short leap for a dog to associate a small child with an animal,” says Sakach. “A child doesn’t stand a chance.”

That was the case when 10-year-old Cash and a 10-year-old friend approached a neighbor’s home April 29, hoping to get permission to use a nearby shack as a fort.

But before they reached the gate, the prosecutor says, the two dogs launched themselves onto Cash, who died later at the hospital.

Sinfield says the case qualifies for second-degree murder charges because Chiavetta knew how dangerous the dogs are, but still let them out, unleashed, and unlocked the gate.

Chiavetta was so scared of the dogs, Sinfield says, that he would keep the animals chained at feeding time, fill the dish with food and use a long stick to push the food toward the dogs. 

Nevertheless, Sinfield says the dogs’ owners told the caretaker the dogs should be allowed to run unleashed through the isolated neighborhood at night so they could get exercise.

Because Chiavetta let the dangerous dogs roam, he should be found guilty of second-degree murder, Sinfield says. The prosecutor acknowledges there is no indication Bear and Louise were raised for fighting, but he says they are simply mean dogs.

Discrepencies in Barstow 

Defense attorney Lewis adamantly disputes Sinfield’s accusations and says the real reason the case is coming up as a murder charge is because someone in the remote region’s office has political aspirations and wants to make a mark with the case.

The caretaker was afraid of the dogs only when he first started taking care of them more than a year ago, but has since become friends with them, Lewis says.

He also disputes statements from the 10-year-old witness that the gate was unlocked or that the boys never entered the yard. There are a number of other discrepancies in the case, he said, such as why the boy’s mother could not reach a 911 operator or why it took her and her boyfriend nearly an hour to get the boy to the hospital only 25 minutes away.

Since Cash was killed, Caldwell’s home in Barstow was burned to the ground in a suspicious fire and shots were fired at his home in Las Vegas, where he works at a Harley Davidson dealership, Lewis says.


Nearly across the board, animal activists say the pit bull breed has gotten a bad rap.

“It’s really sad, because pit bulls are really good dogs,” says Detective Chris Sanford of the Galt Police Department, a small suburb outside Sacramento that has seen a number of dog-fighting cases. “You can take any dog and turn it into a little terrorist. It’s all about the environment.”

The Humane Society and many animal rescue groups focus on trying to address the actions by the dog owners, not in regulating the dogs themselves.

“The problem with pit bulls is not that they’re vicious, they just fall into the wrong hands,” Chesser says. “These are people who shouldn’t even own a goldfish.”

On this point, Lewis agrees. “The court said it [a dog] is not inherently a deadly weapon. You have to do something to make a dog a deadly weapon.”

(ABC News - July 19, 2000)