Published: 16:36, 10 October 2018
| Updated: 20:26, 10 October 2018
The owners of a dangerous dog that "scalped" a young child when it clamped its jaws on her head have been jailed.
Michael Thornton was sentenced in his absence to two years, having failed to answer his bail. A warrant was issued for his arrest.
Hayley Eldridge showed no emotion as she was jailed for 21 months for the dog offence and 16 weeks consecutive for perjury during a family court hearing.
The 18-month-old victim was left disfigured after the banned Pit Bull breed, called Max, suddenly flew at her and attacked her in a park.
The toddler’s skull was left exposed and her scalp could not be reattached. She was too young at the time to have skin grafts from other parts of her body and will need major surgery in future.
Thornton, 27, and 29-year-old Eldridge had admitted being the owners of a dog which caused injury to a child while dangerously out of control in a public place.
Eldridge also admitted perjury by lying at a family court hearing that she was not facing a charge over the dangerous dog.
The maximum sentence for the dog offence after a trial and without credit for a guilty plea is five years.
At the time of the attack, Max was in the care of a 15-year-old girl who had been paid in cannabis by the couple to walk the dog.
She admitted the offence at youth court and was given supervision for 12 months with 150 hours unpaid work.
Maidstone Crown Court was told the teenager, who cannot be identified, was walking the dog in Jenkins Dale, Chatham, on April 4 last year.
Thornton, of Ryde Close, and Eldridge, of Gorse Avenue, had told the teenager they would pay her in either cash or cannabis to walk the dog.
She plumped for cannabis and took the animal to a nearby children's park.
Dogs are not allowed in the park, but the girl did not see the sign and took it into the area. The dog then attacked the child, ripping off her scalp.
It mauled the toddler's face before clamping its jaws around her head in front of other children, who tried to fight it off.
The Pit Bull became loose and was later shot dead by police.
Prosecutor Catherine Donnelly said the child’s scalp could not be replaced and left her skull exposed. The scalp could not be reattached because blood vessels had died and she was too young for “large muscle” and skin grafts from other areas of her body.
Video: Eyewitness Alisha Robinson describes the shocking dog attack
The previous owner of the dog, Dean Caiels, had bought the pet as a puppy five years earlier. He said it had been sold to him and his wife as a Staffordshire Cross.
Max, he said, was always friendly and affectionate, and although sometimes “bouncy and excitable”, had never shown any aggression.
Mr Caiels did not recall the dog being around babies or young toddlers. They decided to rehome Max because his wife had just given birth.
Max was advertised on Gumtree, “free to a good home”, as a Staffordshire crossbreed.
Eldridge and Thornton were given the dog on March 29 last year. Eldridge said she would be the owner.
“Despite what Mr Caiels said, the dog seemed to be aggressive and out of control almost as soon as the defendants took him home,” said Miss Donnelly.
“They seem to have been lax in his care, rather than having him on a leash. They did not appear to take time to get to know him, understand his temperament, instil discipline or retrain him and help him adapt to his new environment.
“It was utter folly, and showed reckless disregard, to the public to place such a dog in the charge of a child, aged only 15..." - Judge David Griffith-Jones QC
“They seem to have abdicated proper responsibility towards him and his care very quickly.”
There were a number of incidents before the attack.
On March 30, Amanda Crouch was leaving for work in Coronation Flats when the white and tan dog ran loose and barged past her with force, leaving her unsteady on her feet.
Another resident, Gary Evans, said he had seen the dog “running riot” and never on a lead.
The day before the attack, a three-year-old boy was knocked to the ground by the dog and left with a 3in scratch on his leg. His mother saw him lying on the ground with the dog on top of him, licking his face.
The teenager was asked to walk the dog on April 4. Thornton gave her a joint and extra cannabis as payment. She lit the joint and left the flat with the dog.
At lunchtime, Susan Hills came out of her front garden with her rabbit on a lead to take it to a grassed area.
The teenager had the dog on a lead, but lunged towards the rabbit, rearing up on its back legs. It went for the rabbit but Mrs Hills was able to pluck it to safety.
Shortly afterwards, Clare Hudson looked out of her window and saw the dog was off its leash. The teenager hit the dog’s face to get it to jump up. It became agitated and started barking.
The attack victim, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, was being looked after by her 14-year-old sister in the park. She later told how the teenager walking the dog was not controlling it properly.
As they were leaving the park, the teenager put her foot on the lead on the ground. But the dog broke free and jumped on the toddler.
It grabbed hold of one of her ponytails and started dragging her around. The ponytail was ripped out. The dog got hold of her other ponytail and then bit her head.
“It was pulling her around the park in circles,” said Miss Donnelly. “Blood was pouring out of her head. She was crying.”
The teenager and her friends walked away. The dog was tied to railings by its lead, but slipped its collar. It was later shot dead by firearms officers.
The victim needed an operation every week to replace the gauze shielding covering the exposed area of her skull. Doctors had been able to restore some of the skin.
"No doubt this will stay with her and her family for the rest of their lives..." - David Skelton, CPS
She will need major surgery in the future to attempt a more permanent muscle and skin graft.
The judge said it was clear the dog should never have been in the possession or Eldridge and Thornton, but said he gave them the benefit of the doubt that they did not know it was a banned breed.
“It should have been apparent to you that this was a dog that needed careful and thoughtful handling,” he said.
“In the event, as we have heard, the consequences were appalling and tragic. The injuries caused were horrific and life-changing. Her scalp was torn from her head.
“There are images I have viewed. They are graphic and distressing. It has to be said she was fortunate to survive this attack.
“As it is, she has had to endure numerous and regular surgical interventions under general anaesthetic and the disruption to her young life has been immense.
“No girl should have to endure such a dreadful trauma. It will surely live with her forever. It was life-changing not just for her, but also for he family.”
Judge Griffith-Jones said “one could only imagine the full extent of the devastation, pain and suffering such an awful event would cause to a loving family”.
No one could fail to be moved, he said, by the depth of emotion from the victim’s father in a statement read to the court.
“You both failed to respond to warnings that should have been apparent by the very nature of the dog, and to some extent the incidents that occurred previously,” said the judge.
He was not persuaded that the attack could not have been foreseen by the owners. It was “well and truly trumped” by the dog’s care being entrusted to a 15-year-old child.
It was to be noted that she was paid in cannabis.
“I accept your remorse is genuine,” he told Eldridge, whose three children have been taken into care. “I note you have had a number of problems in your life.
“But the offence is so serious a sentence of imprisonment is demanded. Appropriate punishment can only be achieved by immediate custody.”
John Fitzgerald, for Thornton, said the dog had been presented with a pet rabbit on a lead and it was “no great surprise” it reacted excitedly.
“For reasons best known to her, she started striking the dog on the nose and face. The incident couldn’t have reasonably been foreseen by the defendant.”
Nicholas Jones, for Eldridge, said the attack had left devastating and lasting effects.
The mother, he said, had suffered and witnessed domestic violence as a child. She also had problems with alcohol.
“This led her to spiral into depression,” said Mr Jones. “The irony is this dog was obtained in an attempt to bring her out of that spiral.”
He added: “All I can advance is a plea for mercy. She is starting to rebuild her life.”
The victim’s father said in a moving statement that the injuries were “horrible – just horrible”.
He added: “How could the owners be so reckless to let this happen? How could this happen to my little girl? This incident has changed my family’s life forever.”
Investigating officer Detective Constable Phil Pead, from Kent Police, said: "This was a horrific incident which left a young child with severe injuries to her face and head and has left her with permanent scarring.
"Thornton and Eldridge left this dog in the care of a teenager and their sentences reflect their total lack of responsibility and the danger into which they put members of the public.
"Max was of a banned type under the Dangerous Dogs Act and the presence of dangerous dogs within communities can cause fear and tension.
"Residents should be able to enjoy their local areas without fear or worry caused by such dogs.
"Kent Police will take any report of dangerous dogs seriously and I’d like to encourage anyone with concerns to get in touch with us.
"This incident will stay with the victim and her family forever as well as being etched into the memories of children in the play area and nearby residents who witnessed this terrible event.
"I’d like to commend the victim’s family for the courage and dignity they have shown in dealing with this tragedy throughout the investigation and this court case."