By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
All his life, Lobo had the run of his neighborhood. Then last month Montgomery County officials seized the six-year-old, 85-pound Siberian husky mix and sentenced him to die.
Lobo's crime? It's hard to say.
Lobo's owners Erik and Rosalyn Frazier say their family pet may look big and intimidating, but he's really docile and harmless.
"He's a lazy-like, lay-around dog," says 28-year-old Rosalyn Frazier, who is 20 weeks pregnant with her second child. "He sleeps and cuddles with our two-year-old daughter Reagan. All he does is wag his tail and lick you."
Dozens of their longtime neighbors agree. Many have posted signs on their lawns to "Save Lobo." In fact, 18 of the 19 homes on the Frazier family's street signed a petition attesting that Lobo was "falsely accused" and "never exhibited any form of aggression."
The lone household not included on the petition belongs to Matt and Jennifer Calk, who in October 2006 moved from their River Oaks apartment into the woodsy 177 Lake Estates subdivision in southwest Montgomery County. Signs posted by Lobo's owners throughout the neighborhood claim it became the Calk family's "sole purpose in life to have our dog killed."
This is strange, since the Calks are devoted animal enthusiasts who dream of one day owning a pet shop. Husband and wife for years worked at Petco stores in the Galleria and River Oaks areas. Twenty-nine-year-old Matt Calk even participated in animal-rescue efforts in New Orleans in the weeks preceding Hurricane Katrina.
But the Calks had problems with Lobo. They say the dog was frequently off his leash and on their property, growling and barking. They worried about their nine-year-old son and Matt Calk's 50-year-old mother, Lisa Luttrell, who lives with them.
Matt Calk and his mom each phoned in numerous complaints to the county's animal control department and filed sworn affidavits that the dog had lunged at them. Luttrell formally requested that the dog be destroyed.
The case eventually landed in court, where after several hearings Justice of the Peace Matt Masden on January 16 ordered Lobo euthanized.
Lobo never bit anyone. Animal control officers never even saw him off his leash, though they were called out to retrieve him nearly a dozen times in the last year. According to the Fraziers, some of the complaints against Lobo were made when the dog was visiting relatives out of state.
The Fraziers appealed Masden's ruling and retained an attorney, then set up a Web site and launched an investigation of their own. They discovered a rookie judge who misinterpreted the law and a top animal control officer who may have lied under oath.
But the county still wouldn't release Lobo. Then the family found seminude photographs of the animal control officer posted online.
Matt Masden has served as a justice of the peace for just one year. The Lobo case marks the 49-year-old former law enforcement officer's first involving an animal dispute.
Masden insists he didn't base his ruling to kill Lobo solely on complaints made by the Calks and Luttrell. "Most of the complaints were from the one family — but it wasn't just them," he says. "There was also a school-district complaint."
John Geiser, who oversees bite-case investigations at the county's animal control department and signed the affidavit to seize and impound Lobo, testified in court that an employee from the Montgomery Independent School District phoned in a complaint about the dog attacking children at a bus stop.
But Geiser failed to document any such complaint, in violation of department policies. A representative for the school district insists no complaint was ever made.
In an interview with the Houston Press on January 22, 2008, Geiser said that another resident, Tina LeBeck, testified in court that her own child was bitten by Lobo. LeBeck could not be reached for comment, but her husband told the Press: "That is a lie — our child was not attacked by a dog."
LeBeck's testimony remains in question since the hearings were not recorded.
On January 28, 2008, Montgomery County Constable Tim Holifield, who oversees the animal control department, opened an internal investigation into Geiser's handling of the Lobo case after receiving several complaints. "We're looking into whether anything was done inappropriately," Holifield says. "If [Geiser] testified untruthfully, I have a great issue with that."
And in a bizarre twist, county officials that same day opened an additional investigation into whether 37-year-old Geiser used county equipment to maintain his MySpace page, which includes several suggestive photographs and statements while also citing Montgomery County as his employer.
The site features a photograph of Geiser posing shirtless with pants unzipped beneath a tag labeled "Sex Fiend: Nymphos, Sluts & Freaks Welcome." On the site, he describes his mood as "horny" and writes, "...if you're a hottie with tattoos and piercings, I definately [sic] want to hear from you!! Any bi girls that think my wife and I are hot drop us a line!"
The Fraziers, seeking any opportunity to damage the county's credibility and save their pet, discovered Geiser's MySpace page last Monday and reported it to Holifield. "It is my goal to get John Geiser fired," says Rosalyn Frazier's sister, Kimberly Parrish, who posted the link on her Web site, savelobo.com, which has received hundreds of hits from supporters.
Hours after being notified of Geiser's MySpace page, Holifield told the Press he was considering "a mediation or something that would be reasonable to save the animal's life and to make sure that the community is safe with the animal around."
At that point, Lobo had been in county custody for nearly three weeks.
Two days later, on January 30, the county released Lobo back to the Fraziers without bond, granted them temporary custody and set a February 5 court date to hear the appeal. The county agreed to release Lobo only if the Fraziers took down their Web site.
Matt Masden says the Lobo case has been his most controversial. He describes his ruling as "extreme," but sticks by it.
The judge justifies his decision, saying, "If the dog is out and harms somebody, it's on me."
Last summer, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed several bills into law long championed by animal-rights activists across the state. They include increasing penalties for dog fighting and strengthening the animal-cruelty law to protect strays.
Lillian's Law, named for a 76-year-old Milam County resident mauled to death in 2005 by a pack of dogs, imposes stiffer penalties on owners whose dogs seriously injure or kill people in unprovoked attacks. Even owners of dogs that are first-time offenders can now be charged with a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
Nationally 4.7 million people are bitten by dogs and around 20 are killed each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some recent high-profile cases included a 50-year-old Friendswood man attacked by his own dogs and found dead in his backyard in March 2007, and a 40-year-old Montgomery County man killed by a pitbull he had considered adopting for home protection in October 2006.
Masden's ruling to euthanize Lobo garnered scant support. But the Conroe Courier community newspaper on January 19, 2008, backed the decision in an editorial titled "Owners have responsibility to control pets."
Kathy Barton, spokeswoman for the City of Houston's Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care, says animal disputes often have nothing to do with animals but rather involve neighbors lashing out at each other over petty squabbles.
All the publicity given to dog-attack cases has led some judges to abandon common sense, according to Don Feare, who teaches animal law at Texas Wesleyan University School of Law in Fort Worth.
"In 50 percent or more of the cases I've seen like this, it's one neighbor getting back at the other — and the poor dog pays the price," Feare says. "[Lobo's] is a rather egregious case because there is no allegation of injury."
The Fraziers insist all allegations against their dog were fabricated.
"I don't believe it's possible that Lobo was aggressive — he's been raised with too many children," Rosalyn Frazier says. "It's absurd, unless they did something to him."
Sara Frost, who lives next door to the Calks, says she frequently saw Matt Calk and his son strike Lobo with rocks and sticks.
"Anytime Lobo got anywhere close to them, they threw stuff at him," says 55-year-old Frost, adding that she had scolded Matt Calk about hitting Lobo as well as the Calks' own dog, a one-year-old miniature schnauzer.
Matt Calk's response, according to Frost: "He's in my yard, I can do anything I want."
Matt Calk denies hitting Lobo, though he says he occasionally lifted yard equipment over his head to frighten the dog away.
When discussing Lobo, Matt Calk sounds sympathetic and reasonable. He calls dogs creatures of habit and admits that he may have been to blame for accidentally startling Lobo on their first encounter.
"The dog didn't like me," he says. "We were on his property, in the dog's mind. He felt cornered. But the bottom line is, this is my property."
Matt Calk says he, too, opposes Masden's ruling and would have signed the petitions supporting the dog, if asked.
"Why wasn't I offered to sign that?" he asks. "I agree with everybody that the dog should not be put down."
This sentiment rings hollow, since his mother filed an affidavit with the county explicitly requesting that the dog be destroyed for barking in their driveway.
Masden says he based his decision on state statutes, claiming he had no flexibility to rule any differently. But a close reading of the law shows that Masden actually had zero authority to order the dog destroyed since Lobo never injured anyone, according to Skip Trimble, an attorney and treasurer of the Texas Humane Legislation Network, an Austin-based nonprofit organization that lobbies for animal protections.
"If this dog doesn't bite anybody, there's no rush to euthanize," Trimble says. "I don't see any basis, any authority in the code for the judge to order this dog destroyed."
Rosalyn Frazier in December 2001 gave her husband a six-week-old pup as a gift. Erik Frazier named the tiny, playful ball of shock-white fur Lobo since his triangular ears and sickle tail made him appear wolf-like.
Erik Frazier, who is now 30 and co-owns a fireworks warehouse in Conroe, has lived in 177 Lake Estates since he was eight. The 50-year-old subdivision has grown to include more than 100 houses on large lots. Many have the feel of rustic cabins and cottages. Nestled amid tall pine trees, they circle a pair of large, man-made lakes populated by scores of black-bellied whistling ducks.
Before moving into their current house on Trailway Drive, the Fraziers rented a place just four doors down and across the street. Lobo's routine for years included going back to his former home and sniffing around the property. The new owners there didn't mind and often invited him inside for treats.
Then they moved out, the Calks moved in next door to the Fraziers' old residence and the problems began.
Matt Calk says his first run-in with Lobo occurred in December 2006, several weeks after his family first moved into the neighborhood. He was washing his jeep in his driveway when Lobo suddenly appeared. He says he may have startled the dog, which responded by barking and lunging at him.
Matt Calk described the incident in an affidavit filed with animal control several months later, on March 8, 2007. His mother also filed an affidavit that same day recounting her own encounters with Lobo. Lisa Luttrell wrote:
"1/31/07 the dog was outside my front door. As I tried to go outside to meet my grandson he crouched, put his ears back, growled, showed his teeth. I tried to talk to him nicely and playful. He started to bark and become more aggressive then lunged towards me. He held me at this position for approx. 5 minutes. I closed the screen and he left. Another time he barked at me when he was in my backyard."
Luttrell continued: "[Lobo] has been reported to keep children from riding there [sic] bikes by biting their ankles. The school bus drops grade school children off across the street from this dog and I am very concerned."
It remains unclear who has reported that Lobo had bitten children's ankles. Luttrell could not be reached for comment; Matt Calk declined a reporter's request to interview his mom.
Matt Calk says he expressed his concerns about Lobo to the Fraziers three times before ever contacting animal control. The Fraziers say they were never approached.
In addition to the two affidavits, Matt Calk and Lisa Luttrell called animal control to complain about Lobo at least three times in March 2007.
On March 26, 2007, Geiser at animal control signed a "notice of determination" that Lobo be declared a "dangerous dog," hand-delivered to the Fraziers the following week.
There are two legal definitions for a "dangerous dog," according to Chapter 822 of the Texas Health & Safety Code, the law governing regulation of animals.
The first is a dog that "makes an unprovoked attack on a person that causes bodily injury." The second, which was applied in Lobo's case, is a dog that "commits unprovoked acts...and those acts cause a person to reasonably believe that the dog will attack and cause bodily injury to that person."
The Fraziers appealed the determination, and the case landed in Masden's court. At an April 25, 2007, hearing, Masden sided with the Fraziers and instructed the neighbors to exchange phone numbers and work things out themselves.
Then the very next day, Matt Calk called animal control to report that Lobo was off his leash. The Fraziers dispute this.
In the early morning on May 1, 2007, the Calks again complained to animal control. This time, they said that Lobo had lunged at their son as he waited at his school bus stop, located directly in front of the Frazier home.
"The dog was barking crazy at him," says Jennifer Calk, who witnessed the incident while standing in front of her house still wearing pajamas. "I'm surprised he didn't pee his pants."
Later that month, the two families again appeared in Masden's court. The Calks' case was bolstered by resident Tina LeBeck, who reportedly testified that she had witnessed the bus stop incident and even came to the boy's rescue by using her car as a buffer against Lobo.
At this same May 30, 2007, hearing, Geiser testified that a local school-district employee had also complained to animal control about the incident.
"I spoke to somebody from the bus barn myself who said the bus driver was concerned that the dog was going to bite someone," says Geiser, who inexplicably did not document the complaint. "That one, we don't have a name. I don't know who called from the school district or when."
In fact, Jennifer Calk instructed the school bus driver to file a complaint with animal control even though the driver did not witness anything, according to Babette Eikenberg, assistant superintendent for human resources and administrative services at Montgomery Independent School District.
"We're not going to make a call to animal control unless we see it," says Eikenberg, who discussed the matter with the school district's transportation supervisor and the bus driver whose route includes 177 Lake Estates. "The driver never witnessed a dog chasing a child, so we didn't report it."
At the May 30, 2007, hearing, basing his decision at least partly on Geiser's now-disputed testimony, Masden declared Lobo a "dangerous dog" and set the appeal bond at $2,500 — an exorbitant amount, according to Don Feare, the animal-law professor.
"Oh Lord, that's ridiculous," Feare says, adding that the appeal bond was nearly three times the amount it would cost the county to house Lobo for three months.
At the hearing, Masden told the Fraziers he was "tired of dealing with this" and vowed that if there was "one more complaint about this animal getting out of his fence, I will have him put down," according to the Fraziers. Masden insists he never made these remarks, though they were confirmed by Geiser, who took notes.
The Fraziers did not appeal the "dangerous dog" ruling — a decision they later regretted.
"I never saw this escalating like this," Erik Frazier says.
According to state law, the owner of a dangerous dog must take the following steps: Register the dog with animal control, which usually includes an annual fee of about $50; restrain the dog at all times on a leash or in a secure enclosure; obtain liability insurance coverage of at least $100,000 to cover damages resulting from an attack; and comply with municipal and county requirements.
On September 11, 2007, Geiser signed a form acknowledging that the Fraziers were in full compliance with the law.
Then early last month, Lisa Luttrell filed complaints with animal control on a near-daily basis that Lobo was off his leash and roaming the neighborhood. Rosalyn Frazier disputes this.
On January 11, 2008, Masden issued a warrant to impound Lobo. Erik Frazier had been away that entire week visiting his ailing father in Iowa. On the morning he returned, a pair of animal control officers seized his dog.
On January 16, in a hearing that lasted maybe ten minutes, Masden ordered Lobo destroyed.
"I thought our petitions would open the judge's eyes," Erik Frazier says.
But Masden's mind was already made up.
"I was instructed they had petitions," Masden says. "I did not — no, I did not look at the petitions."
Matt Calk stands in his driveway one recent afternoon chain-smoking Camel Lights. Short and skinny with wispy blond hair, he leans back against an old Buick, his black-and-white sneaker pressed against the bumper. The air is bitterly cold, but he doesn't seem to notice.
"They think I'm trying to kill dogs in the neighborhood," he says, shaking his head. "When I feel threatened, I gotta react. It doesn't take my son getting bit for something to happen."
Matt and Jennifer Calk say they moved from Houston to 177 Lake Estates seeking a safe, peaceful community to raise their son.
"We came out here to get away from the sexual predators that are out there," Matt Calk says. "We really didn't want to be out here and be the outcasts."
Even with Lobo locked up during these last several weeks, the couple insisted on accompanying their son to his bus stop, and no longer let him outdoors unsupervised.
"We don't know how angry people are," says Jennifer Calk, pointing to the "Save Lobo" sign in her next-door neighbor's yard.
Her husband adds: "Residents here walk with sticks."
For years, it was not at all uncommon to see small packs of dogs roaming the subdivision's streets. Today some owners say they are no longer letting their dogs out, fearing retribution. Some are building fences.
"My dog Maggie is the real terror of the neighborhood," says 75-year-old Anna Thomas, who lives next door to the Fraziers. "Lobo is a breeze compared to my brat dog."
Thomas prominently displays a "Save Lobo" sign in her front yard, pointing out that she scrawled the words on the back of an old campaign poster to "Elect Matt Masden for Justice of the Peace, Precinct 5."
Many of Masden's staunchest supporters have turned against him since his ruling on Lobo.
The Web site savelobo.com for weeks has served as a vibrant community forum, garnering hundreds of impassioned and frequently hostile comments. Many expressed love for Lobo and disgust with Masden and the Calk family.
"This judge is a total A**Hole and he needs to be euthanized along with the neighbor who complains not the dog," wrote one resident.
Another chimed in: "Let Lobo live peacefully with his loving family. If his psycho neighbor gets his way, it's only a matter of time before he comes after someone else's beloved pet."
Teri Suehs, a longtime former election judge and precinct chairman who lives on the other side of the Fraziers, voted for Masden and even hosted a meet-and-greet at her home back in October 2006 to support his candidacy. Now she questions his judgment.
"The first thing he does is screw up the neighborhood," says Suehs, who is particularly upset that Masden did not bother to glance at the petitions of community support. "Everybody loves Lobo. This whole thing's all wrong. Why would you euthanize a dog for barking?"
Two days before county officials seized Lobo, Suehs heard what sounded like a firecracker blast across the street, which quickly filled with police cars. She later learned a petty domestic dispute had turned deadly.
Standing in her yard smoking a Marlboro Light, 38-year-old Christy Moore says that night her older brother shot and killed her new boyfriend for deleting some programs from her computer.
"First my house becomes a murder scene and now they want to kill Lobo," says Moore. "I don't think there's ever been anything that's happened like this in this neighborhood."
Lobo spent three weeks in county custody quarantined in a four-by-16-foot steel kennel. He was never petted or played with or allowed outside.
His name was not included on the animal shelter kennel card. For those three weeks, he was Animal No. A082342.
When Erik Frazier visited Lobo, the kennel was filled with feces. He learned from talking with a county employee that many of the other dogs warehoused there were involved in bloody attacks.
"The boxer beside him tackled a kid on Halloween and ate his face off," Erik Frazier says. "Every dog in there is vicious. Lobo doesn't fit in."
Last Wednesday, when the Fraziers received temporary custody of Lobo, they trotted him around to their neighbors and thanked them for their support. Rosalyn Frazier says she made a point to pass in front of the Calk residence, but the family wasn't home.
The Calks and Lisa Luttrell could not be reached for comment on Lobo's release back into their neighborhood.
Rosalyn Frazier says Lobo lost as much as 15 pounds while in county custody.
"That first night he came home, he just ate and ate and ate and ate like he hadn't eaten at all," she says.
Last week, the Fraziers suspended their Web site and Geiser deleted his MySpace account. Still, Geiser denies any wrongdoing.
"It's my personal Web page. I have not used any county equipment for the page. I don't know what the fascination is with it."
Constable Holifield says the investigations into Geiser remain open.
Holifield says the Lobo case marked the first time he had ever intervened to save a dog from being euthanized when the owners had fully complied with state law.
On February 5, in a hearing that lasted four minutes, Montgomery County Court Judge Jerry Winfree made it official.
"I'm just so glad it's over," said Rosalyn Frazier after the hearing.
Holifield insists that neither the discovery of Geiser's MySpace page nor the heated comments posted on savelobo.com had anything to do with it.
"As far as being threatened or coerced or blackmailed into releasing Lobo, that's not the case," he says.
So how is it that a beloved family dog that never bit or attacked anybody was almost destroyed? Where exactly did the screwup occur?
Did Masden, the justice of the peace, overreach in his decision to euthanize Lobo?
"It's always easy to armchair-quarterback anything anybody does," Holifield says. "I will never put myself in a position to judge a judge."
Was Geiser too hasty or somehow biased in issuing the order to impound Lobo?
"Animal control sometimes gets caught up in neighborhood squabbles, but our goal is not to choose sides," Holifield says. "They get drawn into it because one party or another will use them to get even with somebody.
"Did that happen in this particular case? I can't say."