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Detectives sought Friday to determine what led to the apparent dog-bite death of an 8-month-old boy at his family's East County apartment, where three pit bulls were later impounded.
The fatal attack by at least one of the terriers in the 3500 block of West Street in Lemon Grove was reported shortly before 5 p.m. Thursday, sheriff's Lt. Larry Nesbit said.
Deputies and paramedics arrived to find a woman holding the seriously injured infant. The boy was taken to Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego, where he was pronounced dead about an hour later.
"Because the incident involved the sudden or unexpected death of an infant, the sheriff's homicide detail was requested and assumed the investigation," Nesbit said.
Authorities declined to immediately release the victim's name. An investigator with the county Medical Examiner's Office, which generally identifies deceased people publicly following family notification, said the case had been "sealed" from disclosure at the request of sheriff's officials.
A social services case manager told 10News that her agency had tried to comfort the mother.
"She's totally in shock; total devastation. This was her only child, her only baby," the case manager said.
The agency is also working with the Lemon Grove branch of U.S. Bank to set up a fund to help with funeral expenses and provide counseling for the woman. It is tentatively called the "Baby Tyzhel-Atela Fund."
Investigators interviewed residents of the rental unit where the attack occurred, and animal-control officers took custody of the three male dogs, all of which lived there, the lieutenant said.
The canines were taken to a shelter in Chula Vista, according to Anne Steinberger, communications manager for that South Bay city, which provides animal-control services to Lemon Grove.
The dogs, which are between 3 and 5 years old, will undergo a standard 10-day rabies quarantine at the Beyer Way pound, Steinberger said. How long they will be held thereafter and what ultimately becomes of them will depend on the findings of sheriff's detectives.
If the animals are classified as "dangerous dogs" due to the fatality, they will be euthanized, Steinberger said.
How many of the three canines were involved in inflicting the child's injuries remained unclear.
"We don't know if it was one or all of them," Steinberger said.
The social service agency told 10News that the mother said it was just one of the dogs that attacked the boy in his crib.
Shelter officials also had yet to determine if the dogs were neutered or properly licensed. The Chula Vista Animal Care Facility had received no prior reports of viciousness or aggressiveness on the part of the three pit bulls, Steinberger said.
It was also unclear if criminal charges would result.
Steve Walker, a spokesman for the District Attorney's Office, said the child's death "remains under investigation by (the sheriff's department), with no timeline for them to turn the case over to us."
Next-door neighbor Allen James told 10News that two of the pit bulls taken away were responsible for killing two cats in the neighborhood.
The probe could take weeks or even months to complete, depending on whether extensive laboratory work turns out to be necessary, Nesbit said.
The sheriff's lieutenant said officials with his agency planned to meet with legal counsel early next week to determine if and when they can release the victim's name, since there are statutory restrictions on disclosure of the identities of minors involved in potential criminal cases.
Over the past year, several other pit bull attacks have been reported in the San Diego area, including one that involved the severe mauling and eventual death of a retirement-age woman.
Last June, 75-year-old Emako Mendoza of Paradise Hills was attacked by a pair of the barrel-chested shorthaired terriers in her fenced yard when she went outside to get her morning newspaper. The dogs, which lived next door, inflicted such severe injuries that doctors had to amputate part of her left arm and, ultimately, both her legs.
Mendoza died of complications from the attack on Christmas Eve.
The owners of the canines, Alba Cornelio, 40, and her 20-year-old daughter, Carla, have been charged with involuntary manslaughter, along with a felony count of owning a vicious animal causing death and six misdemeanor code violations, including failing to protect the public from a dog and owning a dangerous dog.
The Cornelios, who are scheduled to go on trial next month, each face up to four years and eight months in prison if convicted, according to prosecutors.
Last November, two brothers in their early 20s were jogging in Valley Center when a pack of dogs attacked them. Four involved pit-bull puppies were euthanized over the incident at the request of their owner.
Last month, a pit bull went after a woman while she was visiting a friend's home in the 2300 block of Highview Lane in Spring Valley, sheriff's Lt. Paul Robbins said. She was treated at a hospital for non-life-threatening wounds to her arms and legs. Animal-control personnel impounded the dog, according to Robbins.
Dan DeSousa, a public information officer for the county Animal Services Department, said his agency responds to somewhat more dog-bite reports involving pit bulls than other breeds, but added that those higher numbers could stem from the wide popularity of the energetic, large-headed terriers.
"We are of the opinion that it's not the breed (to blame for an attack), it's the owner of that particular dog," DeSousa said.
Regardless, any attempt to regulate ownership or sale of pit bulls could not occur in California, since the state has prohibited "breed specific" legislation regarding dogs, the spokesman said.
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