A Dulzura couple whose dogs attacked and killed a ranch hand more than a year ago pleaded not guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter at their arraignment in El Cajon Municipal Court Wednesday.
The case, possibly the first one in San Diego County in which dog owners were charged with manslaughter for a killing by their pets, took more than a year to come to court.
The wait for test results from the county’s crime laboratory were blamed, in part, for the long delay.
On Dec. 12, 1989, the body of Roy Johnson, 69, was found by an off-duty police officer who shot and killed one of two dogs that were “growling and baring their teeth” while circling Johnson’s body, a Sheriff’s spokesman said after the death.
Johnson’s injuries appeared so extensive that a neighbor said “he appeared to be eaten alive.”
Charles Duarte and Cynthia Sue Ward, who owned the dogs, were each charged with two felony counts of involuntary manslaughter and owning mischievous animals resulting in death.
They could be sentenced to up to four years in prison if convicted.
Judge Christine K. Goldsmith agreed to a public defender’s request that Duarte and Ward remain free on their own recognizance on the condition that the couple not contact the family of Johnson, who live on a nearby ranch, and that any dogs owned by the couple not be allowed to roam the vicinity.
Johnson’s niece, Deanna Solomonsen, with whom Johnson had lived for the past 11 years, said her neighbors seemed a little more aware of the problem of stray dogs, but the case hasn’t affected the way most of them take care of their pets.
“Very few people actually have their dogs tied up in Delzura,” she said, “but most dogs stay in their yard. If your dogs are a problem, they should be tied up.”
Some members of Johnson’s family expressed discontent with the long delay in bringing the case to court.
Solomonsen said she was frustrated by the delay but glad it’s finally come to court. “I hope that something positive comes out of it. I suppose that someone has to be accountable for their actions.”
“Well, it seems like it’s moving very slowly,” said Johnson’s sister, Eve Gurney, 69, of East San Diego. “Why did the (crime) lab do other things and leave this go?” she asked. “I don’t understand that. It seems to me that, when someone’s killed, that just as important.”
A preliminary hearing is scheduled Feb. 5 for Duarte and Ward.