Final Words: Reflections of a Forensic Pathologist


When He Snapped

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Afterward, no one could explain why he had done it. It happened while Ashley was watching television, an after-school cartoon, Rugrats, maybe, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, sitting cross-legged on the carpet, her face inches from the screen. Her mother would have scolded her for ruining her eyes or absorbing harmful radiation or not doing her homework. But her mother wasn’t home.

Sam thought the screams were coming from the TV. He knew his six-year-old daughter liked animation but maybe a friend had told her about a different channel, some program good parents didn’t allow. Annoyed, he stopped cleaning his tools and stomped into the house from the garage, wiping his greasy hands on his jeans, words of reprimand on his lips.

The scene in the living room shocked him. Their family dog of eight years, a purebred German Shepard, had his mouth around the little girl. The dog had attacked her from behind – his jaw clamped tightly with the upper teeth in the soft fleshy side of her neck and the lower teeth in the back of her shoulder, like a lion capturing a gazelle. The animal shook his head forcefully from side to side as Ashley’s body struggled and her arms smacked against her torso. She was wailing.

“Duke,” Sam yelled, “Duke. Stop. Heel. Come.” He felt momentarily paralyzed by the bizarre nature of the chaos in front of him. How could this be Duke and Ashley? They had lived together almost all their lives. The world seemed upside down. Incoherent images crossed his vision like vagrant jigsaw puzzle pieces that will never fit together. Finally, though it could only have been a few seconds, he grabbed at the haunches of the brutal animal and pulled.

Duke refused to let go of his prey. Sam gripped the predator from behind in a bear hug and exerting tremendous effort lifted both child and dog off the ground. This had no effect. He repeated the action but still Duke clung to Ashley. Blood spilled from the bite wounds as the Shepard sunk his teeth in even deeper, growling and tossing his head back and forth. Ashley’s cries became whimpers.

Sam yanked at the mouth of the beast, using his fingers to try to separate the jaw, pulling the fleshy jowls near the molars. But the pressure of this canine’s 238-pounds-per-square-inch bite was more powerful than the man’s hand strength. Duke’s tenacity shredded the fragile jugular veins.

The phone was just a few yards off in the adjacent kitchen but to Sam, it felt miles away. He couldn’t imagine leaving his daughter with this wild creature. He removed his left work boot and smacked the dog on the face, the ribs, the rump, repeatedly and with increasing fury. The adrenalin rush of the attack made Duke impervious to the blows. Sam retreated to call 9-1-1.

He came back in the room with the handset cradled against his ear, and a broom in hand. The emergency operator was talking him through the response to a dog attack. He was to try to stick this thin rod in the back of the dog’s mouth, and use leverage to break the bite and pry the animal off the child. The procedure worked.

By the time the paramedics got there, the scene had changed. Duke had retreated from his quarry and was licking his paws in a far corner of the room. Ashley lay on the red stained carpet, her white blouse now crimson, limbs splayed, long hair covering her face. Shrieks and yells had been replaced by silence.

Sam had dropped to his knees; the phone lay useless beside him. He had taken off his tee-shirt and used it as a compression dressing against Ashley’s neck wounds, just like the operator advised. The shirt and his hands were soaked with blood. When one of the emergency workers tried to change places with the father, Sam refused to move. The two technicians looked at each other over the man’s head.

One mouthed, “Pulse?” The other held his fingers to his thumb in the shape of a zero. They looked down and slightly shook their heads. The father was sobbing now and had slid down beside his dead daughter, her head cradled against his chest.

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