Despite the defense raising serious questions about the handling of evidence, a judge on Wednesday found enough cause for former Grover Beach police officer Alex Geiger to stand trial on charges he failed to control his retired police dog before it killed one neighbor and seriously injured another.
“There is an inherent danger (with keeping retired police dogs), and I think Officer Geiger knew that,” San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Hugh Mullin III said before upholding three felony counts — one for involuntary manslaughter and two for failing to maintain control of a dangerous animal, resulting in injury.
Geiger, 25, worked for the department for about four months before resigning in February, about two months after his dog — a Belgian Malinois named Neo — and another later deemed not to have been the aggressor broke free of Geiger’s backyard and mauled Betty Long and neighbor David Fear.
Fear, 64, died three days later from complications of blood loss due to bite injuries to his arms and torso. Long suffered a head wound and other serious injuries and is still recovering.
Wednesday’s ruling brought cheers from more than a dozen of Fear and Long’s friends and family outside the courtroom and means that Geiger will now proceed toward trial. He has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to be re-arraigned on Aug. 29.
There is no standard — no one knows what to do with these retired dogs.
Defense attorney John Jackson
Maybe police departments should do something about it.
San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Hugh Mullin III
In the two-day preliminary hearing that began Tuesday, Deputy District Attorney Stephen Wagner claimed that Geiger should have known Neo was dangerous, kept the dog in a kennel while he was away and better secured his backyard fencing. Defense attorney John Jackson, however, argued that there are no “standard procedures” for retired police dogs and suggested that Fear may have triggered the attack by brandishing a weapon.
Following Tuesday’s testimony from Long, a Grover Beach sergeant, and two Tulare County police officers responsible for Geiger and Neo’s training, Mullin on Wednesday finished hearing from Jay Brock, who operates Top Dog Training Center in Porterville.
Brock testified about police K-9 training in general and how it is normal for police officers to purchase their K-9 partners as personal pets once the animals “retire.” Jackson asked Brock about the lack of standards for retired police dogs and Brock’s lack of knowledge about Neo.
Brock testified, for example, that he sold Geiger the dog despite knowing very little about the dog’s background. Brock testified that he purchased the dog when it was 3 to 6 months old from a private owner in Southern California. He didn’t know the seller’s name, paid in cash, and didn’t ask for a receipt from the transaction, he said.
Furthermore, Brock said he operates his facility out of convenience for 10 agencies in Fresno, Kings and Tulare counties, and that his training course is not POST (Peace Officer Standards and Training)-certified, a voluntary set of standards used by many — if not most — law enforcement agencies in California.
Brock had said on Tuesday that handlers of active police K-9s, like Geiger, are trained to keep the dogs kenneled while not in their physical company. Brock said the dogs “inherently have some danger associated with them.”
“There’s a great deal of unpredictability with one of these dogs getting out,” he said.
Jackson raised several questions about evidence in the case when San Luis Obispo County Animal Services Manager Eric Anderson testified that he took over the investigation on the afternoon of Dec. 13. While his testimony mostly drew from his lengthy report, which The Tribune obtained and reported on last week, Anderson sparked gasps of disbelief from the audience when he said his investigation was “stalled” for two days following the attack.
Anderson said that he arrived at the scene about an hour or so after the attack to find fire crews already spraying down the sidewalk. He was briefed by the Grover Beach police sergeant in charge at the scene and found out they had let Geiger return the dogs to his house without supervision. Anderson said he did not collect any evidence and was later asked by Police Chief John Peters to take over the investigation because of the conflict with Geiger.
However, Anderson said he didn’t receive any evidence collected by Grover Beach officers until Dec. 15. When he did, that evidence did not include an air rifle nor a wooden gardening tool Jackson suggested may have been used by Fear as a weapon, which had been returned by police to the family.
This was a big case. Why did you not evaluate all the evidence?
Defense attorney John Jackson
Jackson said that because Anderson ordered Animal Services to cremate the euthanized dog that afternoon without an examination, it will never be known if it suffered BB gun wounds or other injuries.
“You said this was a big case,” Jackson said to Anderson. “Why did you not evaluate all the evidence?”
Anderson said that if Grover Beach detectives had informed him of those items on Dec. 13 instead of returning them to the family, he “may have.”
Anderson also testified that he did not get a search warrant to search Geiger’s property, instead waiting until Dec. 19 to get Geiger’s verbal permission.
“(Shouldn’t) you process the scene as fast as you can?” Jackson asked.
“I suppose that’s a fair statement,” Anderson said.
Lastly, Jackson questioned Michael Hoyer, the DA’s Office’s lead investigator in the case. Hoyer said he took over the case on Dec. 28, when he retrieved the BB gun and wooden gardening tool, which he said are now in Sheriff’s Office custody — but still have not been analyzed.
Jackson asked about Hoyer’s interview with one neighbor who said she saw Geiger’s dogs chase a mailman earlier on the day of the attack. When she saw that, the neighbor reported to Hoyer seeing Geiger’s female roommate standing near Geiger’s side gate, as if she were trying to hold the dogs back.
Asked if he ever interviewed the roommate, Hoyer said he’s left her voice messages but hasn’t heard back.
In their closing arguments, Wagner said that Geiger was “thumbing his nose at the danger” associated with keeping Neo outside of a kennel, while Jackson said Geiger “did the best he can to domesticate this dog.”
“There is no standard — no one knows what to do with these retired dogs,” Jackson told Mullin.
“Maybe police departments should do something about it,” Mullin responded before handing down his ruling.
If convicted, Geiger could face a maximum of nearly four years in state prison.