Crime

Surviving victim tells of pit bull attack at Modesto home

Guadalupe Vela stands by her sister, Maria Fernandez, as she recovers Monday afternoon  in Modesto. Fernandez was attacked by pit bulls at her home  on Oct. 14. Her son was killed in the attack.
Guadalupe Vela stands by her sister, Maria Fernandez, as she recovers Monday afternoon in Modesto. Fernandez was attacked by pit bulls at her home on Oct. 14. Her son was killed in the attack. jlee@modbee.com

Maria Fernandez, who survived a vicious dog mauling three weeks ago, talked Monday about an incident she does not want to remember.

Her 54-year-old son, Juan Fernandez, was killed and she was seriously injured when four pit bulls attacked them Oct.14 in the backyard of their Glenn Avenue home in Modesto’s Bret Harte area.

Fernandez, 77, was treated in a hospital intensive care unit for multiple injuries and is recovering at Evergreen Nursing and Rehabilitation Care. Her hands were broken during the attack and her right leg was broken below the knee, among other injuries. Despite the traumatic experience, Fernandez maintained a calm demeanor as she told of the incident.

Family members, who were gathered around her bed Monday, said she could remain in the facility for another month.

Fernandez said the dogs owned by a next-door neighbor had previously come onto her property two or three times after digging a hole between the yards. Each time, the dogs were returned to the neighboring property and the neighbors patched the fence. The dogs often barked at them, said Fernandez, who was afraid of the animals.

Fernandez and her son were in the living room shortly before 6p.m. Oct.14. Juan Fernandez saw the dogs in their yard and went outside. She soon heard her son shouting, went to the door and witnessed a terrifying scene: the pit bulls attacking him.

Fernandez said she went outside with a broom to chase away the dogs. That’s when the snarling animals turned on her, knocking her to the ground, she said.

“I put my arms over my face, and they were biting my arms,” Fernandez said. She also suffered multiple bites to her legs and head.

Fernandez said she was able to get to her feet when her son came to assist her. The dogs then resumed what would be a fatal mauling.

“I kept shouting for help, but no one came,” Fernandez said. She stumbled back into the house and lay on the sofa, bleeding from a serious leg wound.

Deputies responded after a 911 caller said he heard a man screaming for help. Arriving about 10 minutes later, deputies found three of the dogs mauling Juan Fernandez, while a fourth dog circled them. Deputies shot and killed the pit bulls.

An autopsy later determined that Fernandez bled to death from his injuries. Two family members said the neighbors who owned the dogs moved after the incident.

“I try not to think about it,” Maria Fernandez said of the attack. “Sometimes it gets into my mind, and I try to get it out of my mind.”

Her sister, Guadalupe Vela of Mercedes, Texas, said she was astonished by the call she received from Stanislaus County authorities last month. “I could not believe it,” Vela said, and asked a family member who had taken the phone: “Did I hear that right?”

Vela took a bus 1,900 miles from south Texas to Modesto, where she was joined by another sister. They have been raising funds to pay for Juan Fernandez’s funeral and burial next to his father’s gravesite in Ceres Memorial Park.

Juan Fernandez had worked as a forklift driver for a Livermore company that made paper plates and cups, but the facility closed, his wife said. Patricia Fernandez said they had been together since 1985 and were married in 2003. The couple had not been living together while she took care of her mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, and Juan Fernandez lived with his mother.

Patricia Fernandez said she met Juan when they worked for a pharmacy in Modesto. “He had a really big heart,” she said. “He liked to hang around with friends and listen to music. He liked to make people laugh.”

She added, “I know Juan fought hard and he was willing to sacrifice his life for his mother.”

Sheriff Adam Christianson said a detective continues to investigate the mauling. The results of the criminal investigation will be delivered to the district attorney “and they will decide whether or not to file charges,” he wrote in an email. Much will depend on whether there is evidence of negligence or criminal activity, the sheriff said.

Maria Fernandez will need rehabilitative care until she can put weight on the broken leg. She wasn’t able to celebrate her birthday Oct. 16. Vela said they plan to move Fernandez to Texas when she is able. Her 96-year-old mother lives there, and being in Texas will make it easier to care for Fernandez, who may need dialysis before long, Vela said.

Family members have raised about $1,000 for a funeral for Juan Fernandez by placing donation cans at businesses and flea markets. They still need to raise about $2,600, Vela said.

“It was a horrendous way to die,” said Ceres resident Sue Allison, who is related to Patricia Fernandez. “I just think people would open up their hearts if they knew what dire straits they are in.”

Anyone wishing to assist the family may donate to the Funeral Expenses for Juan Fernandez fund at Bank of America, or call Guadalupe Vela at (209)404-3800.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or (209) 578-2321.

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