July 31, 2014 at 1:00 am

Dog owners face murder charges in Livonia jogger's death

One of the two cane corsos that mauled to death jogger (Craig Sytsma)

Prosecutors filed second-degree murder charges against the Metamora Township couple they say owned two dogs that fatally mauled a 46-year-old Livonia jogger.

Lapeer County Prosecutor Tim Turkelson issued warrants Thursday for Sebastiano Quagliata, 45, and Valbona Lucaj, 44. They’re also charged with possessing a dangerous animal causing death.

The second-degree murder charges carry a penalty of up to life in prison; possessing a dangerous animal causing death charge carries up to 15 years, Turkelson said. An arraignment was scheduled for Friday morning. Both were in custody Thursday night.

The prosecutor said a hearing could be postponed from Friday on whether the two dogs in the attack and others in the couple’s home will be put down.

Craig Sytsma died after he was attacked July 23 by a pair of Cane Corsos while he jogged on a rural road about 45 miles northwest of Detroit.

Metamora Township police wrapped up their investigation Tuesday.

Police have not released the names of the owners of the dogs, but a lawsuit filed by the Prosecutor’s Office said Quagilata, who lives in the 5500 block of Thomas Road, registered the Cane Corsos in his name.

“The owner was served with papers to forfeit the animals,” Metamora Police Chief Dave Mallett said in an email. “We did conduct a search warrant last week on the house and took (nine) remaining animals out of the house. Eleven total have been removed.”

Federal authorities say the dogs’ owners, who are from Albania, were living in the U.S. illegally and facing deportation at the time of the mauling.

Sytsma’s friends have set up an online fundraising site to help raise money for funeral costs.

“Craig Sytsma was a 46-year-old colon cancer survivor who was known for his hard work and dedication to his everyday life,” a biography on the website said. “Craig was also a father of three loving children; Luis, Jordan and Tyra. He was a wonderful role model, companion & father to all 3 of his children. Not only will they miss their father’s guidance & physical presence, but also all the support and encouragement he provided to them.”

So far, $7,340 has been raised. The goal is $15,000. The website to donate is: www.youcaring.com/memorial-fundraiser/craig-sytsma-family/209876.

Metro Detroit attorney Glenn Saltsman said he has two clients who were bitten by dogs while walking near the same property where Sytsma was mauled. One used a walking stick in November to beat back adult and juvenile Cane Corsos, Saltsman said.

“He said he thought the dogs were going to kill him,” Saltsman said. “The adult dog bit him in the leg.” The 70-year-old victim had to get stitches, according to court records.

The other bite victim, April Smith of Oxford, was attacked May 15, 2012, as she and her sister walked their dog, according to Saltsman and court records.

“The same Corso charged from the house and just nailed her from behind,” Saltsman said. “Bit her pretty good in the calf.”

In that case, Valbona Lucaj, who also lives at the address, was listed as the defendant. She paid $285 in tickets. According to court records, the tickets were issued because the owner “allowed dogs to attack another dog.”

Smith sued the owners and reached a $20,000 settlement that has not yet been paid. Saltsman said he has not yet filed a suit in November’s attack.

Turkelson said after Smith was bitten, animal control officers went to the house and told the owners their kennel wasn’t sufficient for the dogs. After the incident in November, tickets were issued to the dog owners, but the prosecutor’s office wasn’t notified, Turkelson said.

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Detroit News Staff Writer Mark Hicks and the Associated Press contributed to this report.