An 86-year-old woman who watched as her neighbor was “viciously” mauled by a former Grover Beach officer’s retired police dog said in court Tuesday that she thought she was going to die and that the neighbor likely saved her life.
Alex Geiger, who worked for the Grover Beach Police Department for about four months before resigning in February, was in court Tuesday for an evidentiary hearing on two felony counts of failing to maintain control of a deadly or dangerous animal and a felony charge of involuntary manslaughter.
Geiger, 25, has pleaded not guilty to the charges. If convicted, he could face a maximum of nearly four years in state prison.
On Dec. 13, the dog — a Belgian Malinois named Neo — and another later deemed not to have taken part in the attack somehow broke free of Geiger’s backyard and mauled Betty Long and neighbor David Fear as the two chatted outside her house in the 1100 block of Nacimiento Avenue in Grover Beach.
Fear, 64, died three days later from complications of blood loss due to severe injuries to his arms and torso. Long suffered a head wound, a broken pelvis, and other serious injuries. Her small dog, which she was walking at the time, ran off and was not hurt.
If the dog became violent, I was going to shoot it.
Grover Beach Police Sgt. Juan Leon
The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office claims Geiger should have kept the dog kenneled when he was not at home and better secured the backyard fencing Neo is believed to have broken out of. Geiger’s defense attorney on Tuesday suggested that Fear may have brandished a weapon, triggering the dog’s police training.
On Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Hugh Mullin III heard testimony from Long, two police K-9 trainers and Grover Beach police Sgt. Juan Leon, Geiger’s supervisor and the first officer on the scene of the attack.
Leon said when he pulled up to Long and Fear lying on the sidewalk, he found Neo roaming the street with blood all over his coat. When he exited his patrol car with his shotgun, the dog calmly approached him, rubbed his muzzle on the officer’s leg before sitting down.
“It wasn’t violent at the time, growling or barking, anything like that,” Leon testified. “If the dog became violent, I was going to shoot it.”
Geiger, who was on duty, pulled up a minute later, Leon said, and told him both dogs were his. Leon testified that, as sergeant, he was the supervising officer on scene. Even though he said that he immediately considered the area a crime scene, he allowed Geiger to collect the dogs and take them back to his house alone.
Leon said he did not collect or preserve several pieces of evidence, including his own bloody uniform, nor an air rifle and unspecified “gardening tool” found in Fear’s driveway near the attack site. Blood samples from Geiger’s hands weren’t collected, either, he said.
In his cross examination, defense attorney John Jackson asked if the air rifle had been examined to determine whether it had recently been fired or whether the gardening tool was ever wielded as a weapon during the attack. Leon said he didn’t know.
Furthermore, Leon testified that his in-car recording device was not working at the time, and that he turned off his body-worn camera at some point when he began communicating with Police Chief John Peters.
Leon said that he initially observed Geiger’s front yard but did not look into the backyard before turning the investigation over to SLO County Animal Services. He said he saw Geiger’s 6-foot-tall wooden fence with broken boards at its base, but didn’t “closely” observe the fence.
Long gave emotional testimony late Tuesday morning and into the afternoon, prompting restrained sobs from Fear’s family in the courtroom, a few wearing T-shirts bearing his face.
Long said she let her small dog out to the front yard to urinate when the dog noticed Fear in his front yard and ran to him. As Fear picked up the dog, Geiger’s two dogs “came out of nowhere” and lunged at him and also knocked her down, she said.
“The dogs continued to chew on Dave, and it was so bloody,” Long said. “I couldn’t do anything because I was on the ground. I thought I was going to die, and thought, this is it.”
Long said Fear tried to fight the dogs off, but there was “no way” he used a weapon.
“It was vicious,” Long said of the Belgian Malinois, which she said was more aggressive dog.
I thought I was going to die, and thought, this is it.
Grover Beach resident Betty Long
Under cross examination by Jackson, Long testified that her glasses were knocked off her face when she fell, but that she was able to see what was happening and managed to call 911.
Jackson questioned her about statements she allegedly later made to emergency medical personnel that her dog “got in a fight with other dogs,” and that “Dave tried to break up the fight.” Long said she couldn’t recall those statements.
Though officials did not disclose Geiger’s identity or Neo’s background for weeks following the attack, records obtained by The Tribune showed it was Geiger’s former K-9 partner in the city of Exeter in Tulare County and had been fully trained before being purchased as Geiger’s private pet when he moved to Grover Beach.
Sgt. Bret Inglehart, the K-9 Unit coordinator at Exeter PD, testified Tuesday that Geiger was trained that police active K-9s are to be put in a kennel or crate when off-duty and not personally monitored by their handler.
When (police officers) receive the dog, the dog is their responsibility.
Jay Brock, owner of Top Dog Training Center
“You would not want your K-9 to run at large?” Deputy District Attorney Stephen Wagner asked Inglehart.
“That’s correct — you just don’t know what can happen if they’re not secured,” he responded.
While on the stand, Inglehart admitted that a retired police dog under his care once escaped from his own home. That dog was retired from police work, Inglehart said, adding that there is no “standard procedure” specifically for retired police K-9s.
Jay Brock, who trained Neo and other dogs for the Exeter Police Department at his Tulare County-based Top Dog Training Center, testified that Belgian Malinois dogs are a good breed for policing, but don’t “do well” as a pet because they can be “high-energy” and “disruptive.” Despite that, he said his trainees are taught the “proper management of having their dog at home.”
“When they receive the dog, the dog is their responsibility,” Brock said.
Testimony will resume Wednesday morning. Once all witnesses are heard, Mullin will rule whether enough probable cause exists to proceed to trial on all, some or none of Geiger’s charges.