Ex-Grover Beach police officer not guilty for deadly dog attack

A former Grover Beach police officer accused of not securing his retired police dog before a deadly attack that killed a neighbor, was acquitted by a San Luis Obispo jury Friday of all three felony charges related to the incident.

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

“We are so grateful the jury was able to see exactly what this case was about,” Melina Benninghoff, Geiger’s defense counsel, said outside the courtroom. “This was prosecuted based on politics and not based on justice.”

Geiger called it a “tragic accident” in testimony Tuesday.

Geiger, who currently works as a general contractor, faced two felony charges of failing to maintain control over a dangerous animal resulting in injury or death and one felony count of manslaughter.

If he were convicted of the felonies, he would never again be allowed to work as a police officer, and the conviction surely would have worked in the favor of an ongoing civil lawsuit filed by families of the two victims.

As the final verdict was read, Geiger hugged Benninghoff, and members of his family taking up one side of the courtroom audience embraced with joy as the final verdict was read.

The trial lasted about a month. The jury returned a verdict within three hours.

Outside the courtroom, the jury foreman and other jurors declined to comment, saying they were not comfortable doing so.

In an emailed statement late Friday afternoon following the verdict, Geiger’s parents, Paul and Terrie Geiger, wrote to The Tribune: “We appreciate all the prayers, love and support during this time. We’d like to thank Mrs. Benninghoff for presenting the facts of the case as well as the jury who donated their time and acted on their convictions. We wish only the best for all families moving forward.”

A member of the family of the deceased neighbor, David Fear, also said following the verdict that they may provide a statement at a later time.

The deputy District Attorney who prosecuted the case, Stephen Wagner, declined comment following the verdict. But District Attorney Dan Dow wrote in a news release Friday afternoon that while disappointed in the result, the office thanked the jury for its service.

“The facts of this case are tragic for all involved, and the incident has greatly affected the families of the victims Mr. David Fear and Ms. Betty Long,” Dow wrote.: “Our staff at the Christopher G. Money Victim Witness Assistance Center will continue to provide available support to the victims’ families going forward.”

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

Tribune reporting found that Geiger had served with Neo at the Police Department in Exeter where he was a K-9 officer and had helped train the dog 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.

The trial featured testimony from first responders, Animal Services and Grover Beach police officers, as well as emergency technicians and surgeons.

While the prosecution alleged that Geiger was negligent in how he kept his Belgian Malinois and a German Shepherd at home while he was away, essentially allowing them to escape their enclosure and attack the neighbors, the defense argued that there is no standard for how owners are to keep their retired police K-9s.

Benninghoff also alleged that a BB gun found near the scene of the attack may have been used by Fear, aggravating the attack.

“We are blessed that we were able to pick (jurors) who were smart enough, shrewd enough to see through all of the attempts by the prosecution to cloud what really was the truth,” Benninghoff said Friday. “Had they preserved Neo, at least his body, we would have had an opportunity to examine him forensically and prove that he was shot.”

Grover Beach Police Chief John Peters and county Animal Services Director Eric Anderson testified in the trial that there was a disconnect about which agency would investigate the incident, and that an Animal Services’ investigation didn’t fully begin until two days after the attack.

“Unfortunately, because of the miscommunication, whatever it was, we weren’t able to do that,” Benninghoff said.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune