The prosecution and defense delivered opening statements Tuesday in the manslaughter trial of a former Grover Beach police officer whose dogs, including a trained K-9, attacked and killed a man and seriously injured an elderly woman. While the defense is arguing the death was a tragic accident that the victim may have provoked with a BB gun, the prosecution claims there was mounting evidence that the former officer’s dogs were dangerous, and they were already breaking loose prior to the fatal incident. [Tribune]
On Dec. 12, 2016, two dogs belonging to then-Grover Beach police officer Alex Geiger chewed through a fence, broke loose and attacked a 64-year-old man and an 85-year-old woman. The man, David Fear, died shortly after the attack, while the elderly woman, Betty Long, survived with a broken pelvis and broken shoulder.
The more aggressive animal was a Belgian Malinois that had been trained as a K-9 and served in the Exeter Police Department with Geiger. Authorities euthanized the Belgian Malinois, named Neo, following the attack.
Prior to coming to Grover Beach, Geiger worked for the Kings County Sheriff’s Department and the Exeter Police Department. In Exeter, Neo was a trained police dog, and Geiger was his handler.
As Geiger was leaving Exeter, he purchased Neo from the Central Valley city and brought the dog to Grover Beach as his personal pet. Geiger later lobbied the Grover Beach Police Department to create a K-9 unit.
In Feb. 2017, a couple months following the deadly attack, Geiger resigned from the Grover Beach Police Department.
Geiger is charged with felony involuntary manslaughter and two felony counts of owning a dog trained to attack while failing to exercise ordinary care. He faces up to three years and eight months in prison if convicted of all of the charges.
On Tuesday, Deputy District Attorney Stephen Wagner argued in his opening statement that “safety was a distant second” for Geiger and that the former Grover Beach officer failed to take precautions to secure the dogs he knew or should have known were dangerous.
Wagner said Geiger’s property management application for housing pets stated Neo “will hopefully be a police dog again in the near future.”
The deputy district attorney also said neighbors informed authorities that, earlier on the day of the attack, the dogs broke loose from Geiger’s yard and chased a mail carrier. The mail carrier is expected to testify during the trial.
Likewise, Wagner said jurors would see text messages from Geiger’s roommate telling the former Grover Beach officer that she could see Neo through a growing break in the fence. A neighbor is also expected to testify that Geiger returned home briefly on the day of the attack in order to fix the fence.
Additionally, Wagner argued Grover Beach police officers who arrived at the scene of the attack did not actively engage in evidence collection. During the trial, jurors may also view Geiger’s body camera footage from the scene of the attack.
Geiger’s attorney, Melina Benninghoff, argued in her opening statement that Fear’s death was an accident and the case belongs in civil, not criminal court. Benninghoff argued Fear’s family pressured the district attorney’s office into charging Geiger.
Benninghoff said the district attorneys office threw the Grover Beach Police Department under the bus in attempt to appease the Fear and Long families.
With regard to the circumstances of the attack, Benninghoff said Fear had a BB gun and was known to shoot coyotes from his porch. In the eyes of a dog, the BB gun is a rifle or shotgun, Benninghoff said.
During his opening statement, however, Wagner said the BB gun had been collected as evidence and tested at the county sheriff’s office forensics lab. The test showed there was no evidence the BB gun was involved in the incident, Wagner said.
Benninghoff also argued during her opening statement that Neo was perfect in his work as a police dog and never bit a suspect.
Testimony in the case began Tuesday with Neo’s trainer taking the stand. The trainer will resume his testimony on Wednesday.
In addition to the criminal case, Geiger is also faced with a lawsuit over the fatal dog attack.