From a distance, it appeared to be animals around a pile of trash — not an uncommon sight in Littlerock, a desert town where strays are known to roam.
But a passerby approaching in a pickup truck stumbled onto a sickening scene. Four pit bulls were tearing into a woman whose body and limbs were covered in bite marks and cuts. Nearly all of her hair was gone and her skull was exposed. Shredded clothes were strewn across the road. Bloodstains marked the earth.
An autopsy would reveal that 63-year-old Pamela Devitt — out for a morning walk — suffered up to 200 puncture wounds. Patches of her skin were missing and the gashes in her flesh were so deep they exposed bone. Coroner's officials determined Devitt died from blood loss.
The dogs' owner, Alex Jackson, 31, is now the defendant in a highly unusual murder trial. Prosecutors allege that Jackson was not just negligent but knew that his animals could endanger someone's life and showed a conscious disregard for that danger.
The case is set against the backdrop of a region that often serves as a dumping ground for unwanted pets — many of them pit bulls.
In an Antelope Valley town of less than 1,400 where vast property lots are spread out on rural roads, residents say they're often held hostage by packs of dogs that create menacing situations. Some people forbid their children from playing outside and have taken to carrying sticks, rocks and even guns for protection.
Jackson's supporters say the long-running problem has forced him into the role of scapegoat.
There are about 75 million dogs in the United States, and fatal attacks are rare. The National Canine Research Council estimates about 30 people are killed by dogs each year. Subsequent murder charges are even more of an aberration, because prosecutors must prove that the defendant knew the dogs were dangerous before the killing. In the last two decades or so, a handful of such cases have made headlines across the country.
The most well-known was the 2002 trial of Marjorie Knoller and her husband, Robert Noel, which struck a chord in the nation and sparked a debate over deadly pets. The couple owned a pair of Presa Canario dogs that killed a 33-year-old college lacrosse coach in their San Francisco apartment building. So incensed was the community by the gruesome details of Diane Whipple's death and the defendants' seeming lack of remorse that the case was transferred to Los Angeles County. At a trial that generated sensational headlines, Knoller was convicted of second-degree murder and her husband of involuntary manslaughter.
In contrast, Jackson's trial has played out in a near-empty Lancaster courtroom where the defendant's older brother is often the sole spectator.
Vincent Jackson, 32, said his brother has accepted some responsibility for what happened — even penning a sympathy letter to the victim's husband that was never sent — but thinks the murder charges are a trumped-up attempt to respond to a community's disdain for pit bulls.
"It feels like they're trying to make an example of him," he said.
Alex Jackson's attorney said his client was shouldering the burden of the rural area's growing frustration over abandoned animals.
"At some point something needs to be done about these stray dogs, and I think an unfair amount of responsibility is being directed at my client," Al Kim told The Times. "Does that mean he's a murderer? Absolutely not."
But prosecutors have shown evidence that Jackson's dogs were involved in at least seven other altercations in the 18 months leading up to the attack on Devitt on May 9, 2013.
Two horseback riders testified the dogs surrounded them the previous January. A pit bull sank his teeth into one of the men's boots, while another bit the back of a horse's leg. The men rode in circles to shake off the animals, eventually trotting off while the dogs gave chase.
"It was a movie. Like a lion attacking a zebra," testified a resident who witnessed the incident.
Several other horseback riders said they had been chased or bitten by the same dogs. Neighbors said the dogs jumped over the yard fence and made it difficult to retrieve their mail. A mail carrier testified that he was unable to make a delivery to Jackson's residence because of a threatening dog that eventually chased his vehicle for half a mile.
At the time of his arrest, Jackson had eight dogs living at the home he shared with his mother. He had placed the four involved in the attack out of sight in his garage.
Animal control officers testified an inebriated Jackson told them shortly after the attack, "If you mess with me, you're coming into the lions' den."
Deputy Dist. Atty. Ryan Williams said that Jackson knew of his dogs' savage nature and that he deserved to be convicted of murder.
Taking the stand this week, Jackson said that he was unaware of most of the incidents mentioned and that if he had known what his dogs were ultimately capable of, he would have gotten rid of them.
"I feel terrible about it. This isn't anything that I orchestrated or planned, that I wanted to have happen," he said.
Jackson, who walks with a limp since losing a foot in a motorcycle accident, said he had an affinity for stray dogs abandoned in his hometown.
"I just wanted to give them a hand to where they didn't have to be out there on their own," he said. "It would prevent them from having to feel as if they have to fend for themselves."
He described the dogs as playful and friendly, even with strangers.
"They have a loving side to them," he said.
It's a description difficult to believe for the husband whose wife of 43 years died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
Ben and Pamela Devitt had moved from Laguna Hills to Littlerock in 2005, drawn to the sprawling tracts of land. They began taking long walks, wanting to stay healthy for their new grandchild, and paid little attention to strays in the area.
At first ambivalent about the murder charges, Ben Devitt — who has since moved to Washington to live with his son — now views the case as a means to prevent future attacks. Although he has sympathy for Jackson, he wants a guilty verdict "so it sets a precedent and makes people aware that their dogs can create a dangerous situation."
The retired truck mechanic also believes county animal control officers were negligent in responding to Jackson's dogs over the years and has filed a claim with the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
After testifying for just 10 minutes, the 67-year-old has avoided attending the rest of the trial. He said he'd rather not relive the grisly details of his wife's death.