Sunday, July 3, 2022

Wrightsville Beach grants appeal for two dogs accused of attacking jogger

Witnesses are sworn in before a hearing that will determine the fate of Kai and Stella. The Ratcliff family (left) were advocating for the “dangerous dog” label to be overturned. The initial decision stemmed from a bite suffered by John Charkoudian (right). (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH, NC—A dog attack on Wrightsville Beach left John Charkoudian, 79, with a gash in his calf. On the evening of Sept. 18, Charkoudian was jogging on Pelican Drive when two dogs rushed him from across the street; one of them bit his leg. David Squires, the Wrightsville Beach chief of police, investigated the incident and decided to label both dogs involved, Kai and Stella, as “dangerous dogs.” 

Kai and Stella’s owners, James Ratcliff and his family, convened at the town hall Thursday to appeal the police chief’s ruling to the Wrightsville Beach Board of Aldermen. They hired an attorney to question the different players and cross-examine Charkoudian, a Wilmington resident who was joined at the meeting by his wife. 

The board decided to grant the Ratfcliffs’ appeal after a meeting that lasted longer than 90 minutes. Their decision stripped the dangerous dog label from Kai and Stella and overrode the previous decision from Squires.

North Carolina law defines a dangerous dog as one that is required to be leashed and muzzled when off its owners’ property, and the statute also makes it illegal to leave a dangerous dog unattended when not confined. In Wrightsville Beach, a town ordinance requires the police chief to make this determination, as Squires did, and also allows dog owners to appeal the designation to the town’s governing authority, the board of aldermen. 

Among other routes, a dog can be labeled as dangerous if it “inflicted a bite on a person that resulted in broken bones or disfiguring lacerations or required cosmetic surgery or hospitalization.” 

In documents submitted prior to the hearing, Squires reported Charkoudian would likely testify he made no provocations toward the dogs when traveling by foot on Pelican Drive, and that both dogs left their owners’ property when they bolted toward Charkoudian. 

In front of town leaders, Squires laid out the case: The evidence would show it was Kai, the 6-year-old rescue Labrador mix, who bit Charkoudian. Squires also applied the dangerous dog label to Stella, a 3-year-old, full-blooded Labrador. She was guilty by association for approaching Charkoudian in a “vicious or terrorizing manner in an apparent attitude of attack during the same incident,” Squires wrote. 

Squires said it was undisputed by both parties that Kai bit Charkoudian. 

“But they felt strongly that this was not sufficient reason to deem either dog dangerous,” Squires wrote. “They believe that both dogs approached Mr. Charkoudian in a playful manner because they see both dogs as friendly. They believe that Mr. Charkoudian must have behaved defensively as the dogs approached and that defensive posture was interpreted as aggressive causing Kai to bite.” Squires also wrote, recapping his interviews, that Ratcliff’s wife felt it would be a mark on their reputation if the dogs were deemed dangerous.

Squires concluded: “There is no evidence that Mr. Charkoudian provoked the dogs, called to the dogs or in any way interacted with them before he was bitten. Further, there is no evidence that Mr. Charkoudian was ever on the property of Mr. Ratcliff III.” 

Squires informed Ratcliff of his decision to label both Kai and Stella as dangerous on Oct. 7. Following the designation, Ratcliff hired Andrew Bowman of the Forrest Firm to assist in appealing Squires’ decision to the board. Ratcliff and Bowman declined an interview prior to the appeal hearing.

In his appeal letter, Ratcliff said the dogs were initially in the garage, and then moved to the edge of his property, near Charkoudian, after the garage door was opened. 

“Mr. Charkoudian kicked at both dogs,” Ratcliff wrote. “I am uncertain as to whether the incident occurred on my property, just off of my property, or both.”

The appeal

At the hearing, Ratcliff said he and his wife were returning from Harris Teeter with steaks, wine and a plan to grill out, when by accident the dogs emerged from the garage and approached Charkoudian. Ratcliff witnessed the attack, and said he offered to help Charkoudian make phone calls and treat his wound in the aftermath. 

When questioned by his own attorney, Ratcliff said his dogs had a proven track record of being good-natured, and biting Charkoudian was the first time something like this had happened. There are five kids living in his home, Ratcliff said, and the house is always buzzing with visitors and other kids — never had the dogs acted aggressively to any of them before. 

Andrew Bowman, an attorney for the Ratcliff family, converses with Wrightsville Beach attorney Brian Edes. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

“I think some of y’alls kids have been to our house,” Ratcliff told the board. “We literally walk our dogs everyday on the loop. I’ve run into some of you guys on the loop. Your dogs have played with my dogs.”

In support of Kai and Stella, the Ratcliffs solicited a number of positive testimonials on the dogs’ behalf, including from their veterinarian. Moreover, they presented a 30-slide powerpoint with pictures of Kai and Stella. Charkoudian, who said he saw a psychologist in the aftermath of the attack, was asked by town attorney Brian Edes if he wanted to step out before the photos were shown. He said he would just look away if necessary. 

Charkoudian described himself as a “compulsive jogger.” Not long after the attack, he was back walking on Wrightsville Beach, he said. Though now, he perpetually stays on the lookout for potentially dangerous dog situations. 

Charkoudian said the attack only lasted five seconds and placed him in a daze. He stated Wrightsville Beach police officers drove him to his car, which was parked at Port City Chop House on the other side of the draw bridge. He drove himself home, and then his wife took him to Cape Fear Hospital where the wound was stitched.

At the hearing, the board had to consider some key questions: With respect to Kai, was she provoked in the attack? Also, pursuant to the statute, did Charkoudian suffer a “disfiguring laceration” as a result of the attack? 

Charkoudian told the board the injury was indeed disfiguring. He displayed pictures of his wound at various stages of recovery, which showed his leg muscles exposed. Ratcliff testified that a photo of Charkoudian’s wound taken at the hospital, when compared to how he remembered it at the scene, looked worse and appeared to have been opened up. 

“What I observed was one puncture wound by her canine,” Ratcliff said. “I don’t recall it looking like that.”

Board overturns chief’s ‘dangerous dog’ ruling

In the case of Stella, who accompanied Kai across the street but did not bite Charkoudian, Squires deemed her dangerous since she joined in the blitz. The board, however, was quick to overturn this ruling after Squires, Charkoudian and Ratcliff all testified.

“I think everything we heard kind of excludes her from this argument right now,” alderman Jeff DeGroote said of Stella. 

During Kai and Stella’s appeal, the Ratcliff family shows a powerpoint with photos of the dogs. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon).

Mayor Darryl Mills added, “I think we’re in agreement that Stella is not a dangerous dog.”

When deliberating on the fate of Kai, who inflicted the bite, alderman Zeke Partin recalled a time she had to euthanize her 10-year-old dog out of fear it would bite her child. Alderman Hank Miller added he hoped his leg never looked like Charkoudian’s did in the photos provided. Charkoudian previously said he wanted the designation upheld because, in his mind, it could have been a young child on the receiving end of that bite. 

Town attorney Brian Edes urged the board to only consider the facts of the case — the bite, whether it was provoked, and the nature of the injury — when determining how to rule on Ratcliff’s appeal. 

In a 4-1 vote, with Ken Dull dissenting, the board ultimately decided Charkoudian’s leg wound was not a “disfiguring laceration,” and as such, they granted Ratcliff’s appeal. For the dog owners and their attorney, it was an emotional victory that secured Kai and Stella’s freedom from a muzzle. For Charkoudian, it was a disappointment. 

In an interview, Charkoudian said the attack was unprovoked, sudden and traumatizing. 

“I was thinking to myself, those dogs do not discriminate. I mean, if there was any kind of human flesh they would’ve torn it off,” he said. “I’m determined not to let this happen again. I know Ratcliff wants to protect his dogs, but I don’t think we live in that kind of society.”

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