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Editorial: State law should have helped prevent dog-mauling death

“I knew his dogs were vicious; we all knew that something was going to happen.”

– Leslie Martinez, niece of fatal dog-mauling victim Jose Ortega

The death of 53-year-old Jose Ortega wasn’t just horrifying. It was also entirely preventable, had the dogs’ owner and authorities simply followed a 2005 state law.

Ortega’s body was found the afternoon of May 24 in the tiny town of Veguita, southwest of Belen. He had gone to water the plants at the home of a neighbor of Dominic Ribera when police say Ribera’s dogs got loose and attacked him.

Ortega’s niece, Leslie Martinez, said her uncle never had a chance. He was disabled with a slew of health issues. “He couldn’t fight the dogs off; he wasn’t strong enough,” she said.

Ortega’s body was found covered in bite marks, his clothes ripped off his body. A pack of dogs was found nearby, some with blood on their faces. A Socorro County sheriff’s deputy shot one of them in self-defense, and an animal control officer pepper-sprayed several others. The pack of pit bull-mixes was seized, including six puppies. In addition to the one shot by the deputy, three other adult dogs were put down.

Ribera said he found Ortega dead but didn’t call 911 for three hours because he didn’t have a phone. Police noted there were numerous nearby neighbors in the area. Police said Ribera instead tried to cover the hole in the fence from which his dogs apparently escaped.

Ribera is charged with third-degree felony possession of a dangerous dog that caused the death of a person, fourth-degree felony tampering with evidence for allegedly trying to conceal the hole in his fence, and a misdemeanor count of failure to report a death.

While noting more details of Ortega’s death may be forthcoming, including what led up to the attack, Jessica Johnson of Animal Protection New Mexico told the Journal that Ortega’s death could possibly have been prevented if the state’s Dangerous Dog Act had been activated sooner.

The 2005 act, under which Ribera is now charged with possession of a dangerous dog that caused the death of a person, allows an animal control authority to order the immediate impoundment or humane destruction of a dog previously determined to be dangerous if the owner fails to abide by registration, confinement or handling conditions, or to petition a court to impound a dangerous or potentially dangerous dog.

So Ortega’s death raises serious questions. Martinez says the danger posed by Ribera’s dogs was well-known and authorities had received numerous calls about them. She said the dogs had previously come after her and her boyfriend and had attacked her chickens. Martinez also said a neighbor had recently killed one of Ribera’s dogs for attacking his animals. Even Ribera told a deputy one of the dogs recently bit a neighbor. So why were dogs known to be aggressive not properly confined? Why did Ribera have that many aggressive animals controlled by what law enforcement agrees was a flimsy fence? Martinez says people had confronted Ribera about restraining his dogs, but he refused.

Johnson, APNM’s chief government affairs officer, says she hopes the tragedy will serve as a reminder for people to take seriously their responsibility to securely confine their dogs and for witnesses to report, and law enforcement respond, to reports of aggressive dogs. “We must hold dog owners responsible for the actions of their animals, and there will be serious consequences for these dangerous dogs’ owner thanks to the Dangerous Dogs Act signed into law in 2005,” she says.

Being afraid a dog or pack of dogs might attack is all too common in New Mexico, especially in rural areas. Just Google “dog mauling” and you’ll see the pain inflicted by irresponsible owners and their animals in our state.

To that end, Ribera should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. And Ortega’s family and the public deserve some answers as to why Ribera wasn’t held accountable for his dogs’ previous attacks until a man was lying dead outside his home.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.