By L.L. Brasier, Detroit Free Press
The jogger who was mauled to death in July by two large dogs on a rural road in Michigan was bitten at least eight times and knew, as he lay bleeding in a ditch, that he was dying, even as frantic neighbors tried to save him.
Craig Sytsma, 46, had run a little over a mile down Thomas Road in Metamora Township the evening of July 23, jogging northbound at an easy pace, wearing his sunglasses and a black Harley-Davidson T-shirt, when the pair of hundred-pound Cane Corsos attacked him. The dogs pulled him down into a grassy ditch along the gravel road and bit him numerous times in both arms, his chest and back, his left buttock and thigh, as he struggled for his life.
Sytsma was “screaming and begging for help,” according to the first neighbor who tried to administer first aid, even using her belt on his left arm as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. As he began to fade, Sytsma said, “I’m bleeding out, I’m dying,” and then the neighbor could feel no pulse.
And even as she tried to revive him with CPR, the dogs came charging back out of the woods and she had to back away until the dogs retreated.
Sytsma’s last moments, and the fear that had been building in the community for several months as the dogs ran loose, are documented in lengthy police reports and witness statements obtained by the Detroit Free Press under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act.
Two neighbors were bitten in the months leading up to the killing and some began to arm themselves with guns.
The records also present a disturbing picture of dog owners seemingly aware of their animals’ aggression and violence — they were warned by the family vet that the dogs were dangerous and had been sued over one of the dog bites — but took few steps to keep the dogs corralled. The dogs repeatedly dug out of their chain-link kennel and may have done so the day Sytsma died, according to the records.
The dogs’ owners, Valbona Lucaj, 44, and Sebastiano Quagliata, 45, are charged with second-degree murder and remain in the Lapeer County Jail, unable to post $500,000 bonds. They will be in Lapeer District Court on Friday for an ongoing hearing to determine if there is enough evidence to send them to trial.
Metamora Township is southeast Michigan’s premier horse country, a community of about 4,000 just north of Oakland County, known for its rolling hills and large equestrian estates. It’s a place where well-to-do people still engage in fox hunting, and where carriage driving is considered a competitive sport.
People with city jobs and less money have hobby farms, where they raise ponies and alpacas and handfuls of chickens on a few acres.
It was in just that kind of neighborhood that Craig Sytsma chose to jog that evening after work.
Sytsma, a divorced father of three, had beaten colon cancer the year before and had taken up running as a way to keep the cancer at bay. A sports fan and athlete, he worked as a metallurgical engineer at Eltro Services, a small engineering firm with offices just off M-24 at the corner of Thomas Road.
Thomas Road was a jogger’s dream. A soft surface. Little traffic. No chance of crime. And it was shady that evening in July, with trees providing a rich, dark canopy along the road. The temperature was hovering around 80.
Sytsma set out that evening wearing shorts, a shirt, and Brooks running shoes. He’d left his ID back at the office, as well as his cell phone, something that would later play out as police struggled to identify the man in the ditch.
About 5:30 p.m., Edward Elmer was mowing his grass on a riding mower in the 5500 block of Thomas and waved at Sytsma as he jogged past. But when Elmer swung back to finish up his lawn, he saw a terrifying thing.
“Sytsma was in the ditch being attacked by two large dogs. Elmer stated he approached Sytsma but realized he couldn’t do much due to the size of the dogs,” the report said.
Elmer ran into his house and got his 44-caliber Magnum and fired four shots at the dogs, shooting one in the leg.
Elmer’s girlfriend, Helen Barwig, a first responder with medical training, ran out to help, armed with paper towels. But she could do nothing to save the man in the grassy ditch. She told police Sytsma “was losing a lot of blood and begged her not to let him die.”
Less than an hour later, Sytsma was pronounced dead at Lapeer Regional Hospital.
According to police reports, an autopsy later would reveal much of his injuries were in his arms, with no injuries to his head or neck, possibly because he used his arms to shield those areas.
He had bites to his chest and back as well. He had abrasions to his knees, where he likely fell onto the gravel during the attack. And he had bites to his back left upper thigh and buttocks.
Dog owner Quagliata arrived home that night to find police in his drive. His wife, Lucaj, and their three children were in Boston for a family reunion.
Quagliata eventually would tell police that he had locked the dogs in a kennel that morning before he left for his job as a house painter but that the dogs frequently tunneled out.
Police, in investigating the property, found that a kennel made up of cyclone fence, had been patched with logs to cover up holes in the fence. But one hole was open, without “anything to deny the animals from leaving the area,”‘ according to the report.
And police would learn that the dogs had bitten a woman in 2012 and a 73-year-old man in November 2013. That same man, James Salego, was sitting outside on his deck with his wife the evening Sytsma was attacked, and heard the screaming and the gunshots.
He told his wife, “those dogs are involved in something.” The pair drove down Thomas Road and spotted Sytsma in the road, as neighbors tried to revive him. Salego’s wife “became very upset and they drove straight home.”
In the days following the killing, neighbors told the police that the dogs had become a growing menace in the nearly three years since the family had moved to the neighborhood. Geoffrey Petz said his grandmother lived next door to Quagliata and Lucaj and was frequently menaced by the dogs running loose.
Last summer, he was confronted by snarling, threatening dogs who backed him into his grandmother’s pole barn.
“It was alarming enough to make me carry a weapon while riding the mower out of fear that the dog would be loose while I was mowing,” he said in a written statement to police.
In the days leading up to his arrest, Quagliata remained concerned about his dogs and contacted Lapeer Animal Control to make sure that Toni, one of the dogs involved in the fatal attack, was getting adequate care for his gunshot wound.
Officials told his attorney that the dog was scheduled for euthanasia and that any medical treatment would have to be paid for by Quagliata.
The dogs since have been put down. Seven puppies seized from the home have been sent to a rescue league in Texas.
Quagliata and Lucaj face up to life in prison if convicted.
AFP Photo/Scott Olson
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