Mauling leaves family planning girl's funeral instead of 4th-grade send-off

Sarah Rahal Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Detroit — Emma Hernandez woke up Monday morning, ate breakfast with her family, went to the doctor for a back-to-school physical and was as healthy as any 9-year-old should be.

But instead of shopping for school clothes or planning her first day of fourth grade, hours later, her family was planning her funeral.

Claudia Stapleton holds a portrait of her niece, Emma Hernandez.

Emma was fatally mauled by three dogs in an alley close to her home Monday afternoon as frantic neighbors rushed to help, throwing bricks and whatever else could be used in the attack so horrific that counseling services were offered to emergency responders.

Claudia Stapleton, Emma's aunt and godmother, said their family is in shock and trying to make sense of the tragedy.

"After being at the hospital, I saw it on the news and I couldn't believe they were talking about my baby girl. I keep telling myself it's not real. She was so full of life," Stapleton, 25, said in tears. "It's frustrating and it could have been prevented."

One neighbor said she performed CPR before emergency services arrived because "you’re not going to wait even a second to help." Another said he heard Emma's screams and had to act, throwing bricks, but to no avail. 

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Family members say they had talked to the dogs' owner the previous week about properly containing the animals in his yard. And neighbors said they filed police reports, which The Detroit News was unable to verify, to complain about the skinny creatures who were often found roaming freely.

Now, the dogs' owner is in custody and the pit bulls are likely to be euthanized

At the home of Claudia Stapleton, aunt of Emma Hernandez, stuffed animals, candles, balloons and photographs of Emma Hernandez are set in a memorial in Detroit on Tuesday, August 20, 2019.

Flowers and candles now adorn a fence and sidewalk near Emma's home.

After returning from the doctor's, Emma did what any kid enjoying the waning days of summer would. She hopped on her pink bike and rode around the block.

She turned down an alley on Central, off Smart, and that's when three pit bulls leaped over the fence and attacked Emma.

The girl’s father, Armando Hernandez, said he warned the dog's owner that the fence used to hold the dogs was too flimsy. Hernandez was directed by neighbors to the scene, where he saw his daughter in a pool of blood. He rushed to give her CPR, his sister said.

"My sister and mom rushed (to the hospital), and by the time my fiance and I got there at 5:20 p.m., she was already gone," Stapleton said.

"Once they let us all into the same room, we knew she didn't make it." 

Claudia Stapleton, aunt of Emma Hernandez, now must plan a funeral for her 9-year-old niece, who was attacked and mauled by three dogs in her Detroit neighborhood Monday and died from her injuries.

The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office had not made a decision on charges Tuesday, the office said.

Detroit police Chief James Craig said the owner of the dogs should be held accountable.

"This should not have happened," Craig said. "How many more times? We hear these stories about some of these pit bulls. I think of an image of postal employees who lost a limb ... here we are sitting here talking about a child and a family."

The dogs are in the possession of Detroit Animal Care and Control, the city said in a statement. "Due to the severity of this case, it is very likely that the dogs will be euthanized," it said.

Her family said Emma was preparing to enter fourth grade at the Academy of Americas, on Konkel Street in Detroit, excited to see her friends and teachers again. Principals and teachers have reached out, saying her two brothers, ages 12 and 4, will be offered counseling services as they try to explain to students about Emma's death at the beginning of the new school year.

Her brothers are staying with their grandmother in Detroit while their parents take time to grieve, Stapleton said. 

"My brother can't leave her room and her mother is taking it worse. She won't eat or sleep, and they both need time," she said. "I haven't even had the courage to go back to the house. My family said there was a puddle of blood and I don't have the heart to see it."

Emma and her cousins at a sleepover.

Emma was a "girly-girl" who loved the colors pink and purple but was a little bit of a tom-boy, too, who preferred the Minions over Disney princesses. When she wasn't spending time with her many cousins, she and Stapleton would head to the park at her school, color, ride her bike or go to the Detroit Zoo.

"She was very caring. She could have been a doctor because she was always trying to take care of her grandmother when she was sick," Stapleton said. "She was so smart, and I can't believe that I'm not going to see her grow up."

Stapleton and her fiancé are planning Emma's funeral services for the weekend and trying to find the best way to honor her memory. They're planning for a viewing Friday and Saturday Mass before her burial at Woodmere Cemetery next to her father's cousins. The details for services have not been arranged.

The Hernandez family said they were not prepared for the high cost of a funeral service and were raising money for the funeral through GoFundMe, which surpassed its $25,000 goal Tuesday in minutes.

When Detroit millionaire Bill Pulte tweeted a call to action Tuesday to his online followers whom he calls "teammates" to raise money for a funeral. That's when the donations jumped.

"If we don't raise enough money for this 9-year-old, who was killed by dogs in Detroit, I will personally pay for her funeral," Pulte tweeted.

The CEO of Pulte Capital and Blight Authority is well-known as a philanthropist.

"A tweet," he said, "was the least I could do."

The attack was the latest in Metro Detroit after Xavier Strickland, 4, was pulled from his mother as they walked on the city’s west side on their way to Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in December 2015. The boy was grabbed by three dogs and pulled under a gate into the backyard of the home where the dogs were kept outside.

The dogs' owner, Geneke Lyons, faced up to 15 years in prison. He was convicted in June 2016 on charges of manslaughter and possessing dangerous animals causing death. Lyons was given nearly a year of jail time with five years of probation.

In 2014, Craig Sytsma, a metallurgist who ran a business in the Lapeer area, was jogging in Metamora Township when Cane Corsos from a nearby house chased him down. The dogs' owners, Sebastiano Quagliata and Valbona Lucaj, each were sentenced to up to 15 years in Sytsma's death.

Animal advocates say Emma's death, the second fatal dog attack in Detroit in the last five years, underscores a growing problem in the city with dogs left untended and too few animal control officers to address the issue.

“We’re seeing a lot of dogs not socialized because they’ve been chained up or stuck in the backyard," said Kristina Rinaldi, executive director at the nonprofit Detroit Dog Rescue.

"Essentially they become dangerous animals."

At the home of Claudia Stapleton, aunt of Emma Hernandez, stuffed animals, candles, balloons and photographs of Emma Hernandez are set in a memorial in Detroit on Tuesday, August 20, 2019.

Still, Stapleton said their family does not blame the dogs in Emma's death. She said they had pit bulls growing up and neighbors said the dogs weren't well treated and often seemed starved.

Stapleton said Emma should have been able to do "kid's stuff" and other children should feel safe enough to enjoy their neighborhoods in the city.

"People that have pets need to take proper measures so they don't become (aggressive), and we need to come together as a community to watch our neighbors and be sure our environments are safe for our children," she said.

Detroit News Staff Writer James David Dickson contributed to this report.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_