Sunday, May 6, 2001

California: Barstow trial opens in boy's death; Pit bulls fatally mauled Cash Carson, 10. The dogs' caretaker James Chiavetta is charged with second-degree murder.

CALIFORNIA -- On the last day of his life, 10-year-old Cash Carson cooked lunch for his mom, played outdoors -- and made a fatal mistake:

He tried to ask permission to build a fort on a neighbor's property.

Before he could ask the question, his neighbor's two pit bull dogs attacked him, ripping open the boy's neck so badly that his spine was exposed.

On Thursday, Cash's mother sat in a Barstow courthouse where Jurors listened to opening statements in the second-degree murder trial of James Chiavetta, the dogs' caretaker, who investigators say negligently failed to adequately restrain animals that he knew were dangerous.

A wrongful-death lawsuit was filed against Chiavetta and the dogs' owners by a lawyer who is seeking so much money he had to define the astronomical amount: $10 googolplex.

A googol is the number 1 followed by 100 zeros.

A pretrial hearing is scheduled today for the dogs' owners, Michael Caldwell and Gilbert Garcia, who are charged with owning a dog that caused a death, a felony punishable by three years in prison.

"This isn't a dog-bite case," said Becky Carson. "My son was murdered." She holds Chiavetta responsible. "He knew what these dogs were capable of," she said. "He knew the gates were open -- and he went to sleep."

She wants to ban dangerous dogs in California.

"Pit bulls have really been bred for the last 100 years to be attack dogs," Santa Monica personal injury attorney James Devitt said on Carson's behalf. "Obviously it's really the owners that are at fault, rather than the dog."

But many owners of aggressive dogs act irresponsibly by walking their dogs without a leash or even letting them run wild, said Devitt. So he's asking for $10 googolplex in damages to help attract attention to the problem, he said. In his view, owners should have to register aggressive dogs as if they were guns and be required to carry at least $1 million in insurance.

Among the dogs Devitt considers dangerous: pit bulls, Rottweilers, Doberman pinschers, German shepherds and chows.

Becky Carson is scheduled to testify when the trial resumes today. On Thursday, she spoke outside the courtroom of her only son's death along a dusty road in Newberry Springs, east of Barstow.

Inside the courtroom, Chiavetta used a walker to shuffle to his seat at the counsel table. Two weeks ago, his lawyer said, the 54-year-old government worker underwent heart surgery to implant a defibrillator after his pulse dropped to 20 beats per minute while he was in county jail.

A key question in the trial: Did Chiavetta know the dogs were dangerous?

"He said he was afraid of the dogs for the first several months he was living there," Deputy District Attorney Steven Sinfield said in his opening statement.

The dog that medical experts say inflicted the fatal injuries is believed to have killed its own sire by ripping out its throat, Sinfield told the jury. Known as Bear, the dog usually was kept leashed to an overhead chain stretched between two trees.

Yet last April 29, Chiavetta "intentionally left the gate open and intentionally left Bear off his chain," said Sinfield, adding that the caretaker then took a nap.

Cash Carson and playmate Daniel Gonzalez planned to ask to build a fort on the property Chiavetta was overseeing, Sinfield said. As they neared the fence, they noticed the dogs coming toward them and tried to retreat, the prosecutor said.

Sixty feet from the gate, both dogs grabbed young Cash and Bear pinned him to the ground, Gonzalez later told investigators.

Cash sent his companion for help.

When the playmate returned, Bear and his victim were much closer to the gate -- with the dog biting the boy's neck.

"I think I'm dying," the boy told rescuers.

Later in the trial, Chiavetta is expected to testify in his own defense.

"He never had any indication that these dogs would ever hurt a human being," Hesperia defense attorney Robert J. O'Connor said in an opening statement.

Chiavetta initially feared the animals because he had never been around dogs, his lawyer said. The dogs had lived on the property eight years and had never attacked anyone, said O'Connor. Bear was kept on a chain only because he was being used to help protect a shed used for the storage of motorcycles, he said.

"You won't hear any evidence that these dogs (had ever before) attacked any person," O'Connor said.

The trial is expected to continue for six weeks before San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Thomas Glasser.

(The Press-Enterprise - May 5, 2001)