Who’s in charge? Defense in Grover dog mauling trial tries to poke holes in investigation

In the immediate aftermath of a bloody dog attack on two people in a Grover Beach neighborhood, there was confusion over which law enforcement agency was in charge.

The investigation into the Dec. 13, 2016, attack that injured 85-year-old Betty Long and led to the death of 64-year-old David Fear didn’t fully begin until two days later due to those jurisdictional issues, according to testimony given in court.

A variety of witnesses testified this week in the manslaughter trial of former Grover Beach police officer Alex Geiger, who is accused of not securing his former trained police dog in his backyard, allowing that and another dog to escape their enclosure and attack the neighbors.

Geiger, 27, 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. The District Attorney’s Office previously said he faces nearly four years in state prison if convicted.

The former officer resigned from the Grover Beach Police Department in February 2017, roughly two months after the attack by his Belgian Malinois named Neo and another dog while he was on duty.

Geiger had served with Neo at the police department in Exeter, where he was previously a K-9 officer and had helped train the dog as his partner before buying the animal as his personal pet.

The trial began March 12.

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

‘A huge battle’

Some of the more notable testimony so far has dealt with how the investigation into the attack was conducted.

In her opening statement last week, defense attorney Melina Benninghoff told jurors that critical evidence wasn’t collected by Animal Services. One item — a BB gun the defense has indicated was used by Fear against the dogs — had to be collected by DA’s Office investigators, raising questions about evidence preservation.

Out of the presence of the jury March 15, San Luis Obispo County’s director of Animal Services, Eric Anderson, testified that when he and other animal control officers arrived on the scene in 1100 block of Nacimiento Avenue, Grover Beach police were already there securing the area. As such, Animal Services worked in a supportive role, Anderson said.

Anderson testified that while on scene Dec. 13, Grover Beach Police Chief John Peters asked him if Animal Services would take over the investigation due to the fact that Geiger was a city employee.

“I indicated our willingness to take responsibility,” Anderson said.

But Anderson said he didn’t start conducting his investigation until Dec. 15, when he said he received all the investigative reports from the Grover Beach Police Department.

Under direct examination in front of the jury Friday, Anderson told Deputy District Attorney Stephen Wagner that he received permission from Geiger to examine his backyard, and found a gap of “a couple of feet” in the fencing where the dogs escaped.

Under cross examination by Benninghoff, Anderson was questioned over why he didn’t begin his investigation on Dec. 13, including interviewing witnesses and police officers who were first to arrive.

“You knew this was not a small undertaking,” Benninghoff told Anderson. “You knew you had to be thorough.”

“My assessment was we would assume responsibility once (Grover Beach police) gave us their reports,” Anderson said. “It seemed to be understood that Grover Beach had collected a lot of information at that point.”

Peters also testified Friday, confirming that he asked Anderson to take over the investigation because there was a city employee involved and he “didn’t want any conflict.”

Peters also testified that he strongly suggested to Anderson that he solicit the help of the Sheriff’s Office and District Attorney because of the severity of the injuries.

“I felt, given the extent of the injuries, that this individual (Fear) could pass away,” Peters said.

He explained that the city, like other cities, has a contract with Animal Services in which it takes the lead in cases involving animals, especially dogs, and that city police officers may “reasonably assist” the agency.

Asked by Wagner whether at the end of the day Dec. 13, Grover Beach had fulfilled its duty to reasonably assist Animal Services, Peters said, “In my opinion, it had.”

“Is there any way Eric Anderson could have left that day confused?” Benninghoff asked during cross examination.

“Not from my standpoint,” Peters replied.

“You are aware there is a huge battle over who this investigation belonged to, yes?” Benninghoff asked.

“Yes, I am,” Peters said.

‘The most horrific injury I’ve seen’

On the stand Tuesday, the surviving victim recounted how the dogs attacked after Fear picked up her small lapdog.

The elderly Long testified under cross examination that she never saw Fear holding a BB gun or any other object in his hands during the incident.

Benninghoff asked Long about a pending civil lawsuit that she, her family members and Fear’s family filed against Geiger and the cities of Grover Beach and Exeter, asking how much money she expected to get.

“I have no idea. I just want my medical, for sure,” Long said. “It has been hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Asked whether she knew the lawsuit sought a combined $106 million, Long replied: “Nothing surprises me with this.”

“I know my life has been taken from what I (was once) able to do,” Long said. “It has been really bad.”

Also on Tuesday, jurors heard from two San Luis Ambulance Co. paramedics who were among the first to arrive to the scene. Nicholas Drake, one of the paramedics, described treating Fear, saying his arms were “mauled or destroyed” with much of his skin removed between the wrists and elbows.

“It was the most horrific injury I’ve seen,” Drake said.

Dr. Howard Haruo Hayashi, the head trauma surgeon at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center, testified that he treated Fear, who’s radial artery was severed in one of his arms.

“He was tore up pretty well,” Hayashi said.

Testimony continues Monday afternoon.

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