‘This was an accident,’ attorney tells jury as Grover Beach dog-mauling trial begins

Jurors heard two sides to a criminal case against a former Grover Beach police officer whose former trained police dog escaped his enclosure in 2016 and mauled two neighbors, killing one of them.

Opening statements began Tuesday in the trial of Alex Geiger, who faces two felony charges of failing to maintain control of a dangerous animal resulting in injury or death and one felony count of involuntary manslaughter.

Geiger, 27, faces up to nearly four years in state prison if convicted, the District Attorney’s Office previously told The Tribune.

The former officer resigned from the Grover Beach Police Department in February 2017, roughly two months after his Belgian Malinois named Neo got loose while he was on duty and attacked 85-year-old neighbor Betty Long and 64-year-old David Fear, who came to Long’s aid. Fear died three days later from complications of his severe injuries.

David Fear, shown with longtime partner Terry Lopez, died three days after a Dec. 13, 2016, dog mauling in Grover Beach. Diana Smaw

Neo was euthanized that afternoon; a second dog owned by Geiger was determined not to have attacked the neighbors.

It was eventually revealed that Geiger had served with Neo at the Police Department in Exeter where he was a K-9 officer and had helped train Neo as his partner before buying the animal as his personal pet.

Though the DA’s Office initially charged Geiger with two counts of failing to maintain the dangerous animals, a new prosecutor assigned to the case added the manslaughter charge in June 2017.

District Attorney Dan Dow told The Tribune that adding the charge would not increase Geiger’s sentence if he were convicted on all three charges, but rather gave the jury more choices and the prosecution a better likelihood for conviction.

In order to prove the charges of failing to maintain control over a dangerous animal, Deputy District Attorney Stephen Wagner must prove simple negligence and that Geiger had knowledge of his dog’s propensity for violence.

For involuntary manslaughter, he has to prove gross negligence, a higher standard, but not that Geiger was aware the dog was dangerous, Dow said.

‘Safety was a distant second’

In his opening statement, Wagner told the jury that Geiger failed to take proper precautions to secure the animals he knew or should have known were dangerous.

“The case is as much about the propensities of Neo (as it is about) what former officer Geiger knew and when he knew it,” Wagner said. “We’ve all heard that phrase, ‘safety first’ — safety was a distant second.”

Wagner said he would show jurors Geiger’s property management company’s application for housing pets on which Geiger reportedly wrote that Neo “will hopefully be a police dog again in the future.”

Deputy District Attorney Stephen Wagner makes his opening statement during the trial of Alex Geiger, a former Grover Beach police officer whose two dogs escaped their enclosure in December 2016 and mauled two neighbors, killing one. Joe Johnston

Records obtained by The Tribune show that Geiger and another officer were lobbying the department to start its own K-9 unit one month after he was sworn in. Police Chief John Peters has consistently said the department never considered Geiger’s proposal.

“Alex Geiger had plans to engage Neo in active service at the Grover Beach Police Department,” Wagner said. “That becomes an important issue as it relates to the case of Neo.”

The prosecutor noted that neighbors interviewed by authorities told of concerns over the two dogs, who they reported had gotten out of Geiger’s backyard earlier on the day of the attack and chased a mail carrier, who is also scheduled to testify.

Wagner also said that jurors would see the text message from Geiger’s roommate telling him she could see Neo through a growing break in the fencing, and that a neighbor would testify that Geiger returned home briefly that day to fix the fence. Jurors will also supposedly view Geiger’s body cam footage of arriving on the scene.

Perhaps the most notable new allegation from the prosecutor wasn’t against Geiger, but the Grover Beach Police Department.

Saying he didn’t want to “cast dispersions,” Wagner alleged that the Grover Beach police officers on the scene of the attack “did not actively engage in evidence collection.”

He then showed jurors a BB gun and a long-sticked garden tool that were found in the grass near the scene of the attack. There had previously been questions raised at Geiger’s preliminary hearing about whether Fear picked up the gun in front of the dogs, triggering the attack.

But Wagner told jurors that it was a District Attorney’s Office investigator who collected the two items as evidence and had them tested at the Sheriff’s Office forensics lab for evidence they were involved in the incident. The investigator found none, Wagner said.

‘He did not deserve to die’

In her opening, Geiger’s attorney Melina Benninghoff told jurors that Geiger had grown up with dogs and “wanted to be a police officer his entire life,” connecting with Neo when he got an opportunity to become a K-9 officer in Exeter.

Benninghoff said the two were excellent partners and Neo was very successful as a trained police K-9.

“In his work, Neo was perfect,” Benninghoff said. “You will learn that at no point did Neo even bite a suspect.”

Defense attorney Melina Benninghoff holds a BB gun as she makes her opening statement during the trial of Alex Geiger, a former Grover Beach police officer whose two dogs escaped their enclosure in December 2016 and mauled two neighbors, killing one. Joe Johnston

She said that when Geiger decided he had to leave the Central Valley due to health matters related to the air quality, Neo faced a grim future.

“With Alex leaving, Neo was going to be euthanized. Period,” Benninghoff said.

Even though “he’s not a rich man,” Geiger purchased the 2-1/2-year-old, fully trained dog from the city of Exeter for over $5,200, Benninghoff said, and brought him to Grover Beach, where the attorney said Geiger knew the department would not form a K-9 unit.

Picking up the BB gun, she told jurors that Fear was known to shoot coyotes from his porch, and that “in the eyes of a dog it’s a rifle or shotgun.”

Noting the existence of a wrongful death and personal injury lawsuit filed by members of the Fear and Long families against Geiger, Grover Beach, Exeter, and the owners of Geiger’s rental, Benninghoff said the case belonged in civil court but pressure from Fear’s family convinced the DA’s Office to criminally charge Geiger.

“Early on it was never determined to be a criminal matter — so what changed?” Benninghoff said. “To be more successful in a civil case, sometimes a criminal case helps.”

Benninghoff added that the Grover Beach PD was “thrown under the bus” by the DA’s Office in their pursuit to please Fear and Long’s families.

“Mr. Fear was a kind man. ... He did not deserve to die,” she said. “This was an accident.”

Testimony began Tuesday with Neo’s trainer, who is scheduled to resume Wednesday afternoon.

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Matt Fountain is The San Luis Obispo Tribune’s courts and investigations reporter. A San Diego native, Fountain graduated from Cal Poly’s journalism department in 2009 and cut his teeth at the San Luis Obispo New Times before joining The Tribune as a crime and breaking news reporter in 2014.