'It was perfect': Family says final goodbyes to Emma Hernandez, 9, mauled by dogs

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — Emma Hernandez’s family gathered Saturday at St. Cunegunda Church on the city's west side to say their last goodbyes to the 9-year-old girl who was "so full of life."

Pink and purple flowers, Emma's favorite colors, decorated the entryway of the church's pristine doors as mourners came to pay their respects. The private funeral began at noon, commenced by church bells that could be heard throughout the neighborhood near Lonyo and McGraw Avenue.

Every seat in St. Cunegunda Church was taken as Rev. Zbigniew Grankowski presided over Emma's mass and there were long pauses in the prayers before Emma's coffin when words would not come and prayers were replaced by hugs, Judith Kadela, a spokeswoman for the church said.

"At one point, Father Zbigniew stood before the suffering parents and sang a beautiful song," she said. "It was a song about a mother losing her child. The mother was Mary and the child was her son, Jesus Christ. Father Zbigniew sang the song in Polish — a highlight of a service that celebrated a child whose parents, and a majority of the people in the church, speak mostly Spanish. It needed no translation. It was perfect."

Alicia Castilo watched family members gather and carry Emma's small white casket inside from her porch, across the street from the church's facade. 

"A lot are dressed in white and they gathered around her casket. I wanted to pay my respects but from afar to respect the family's privacy," said Castilo, 50. "It was a very beautiful scene. It's just such a shame."

The small, private funeral at St. Cunegunda Church began at noon, commenced by church bells that could be heard throughout the neighborhood near Lonyo and McGraw Avenue.

After returning from a doctor visit Monday morning, Emma was riding around the block on her bike and turned down an alley on Central, off Smart, when three pit bulls leaped over a fence and attacked her. 

Frantic neighbors rushed to help, throwing bricks and whatever else could be used to try to stop the dogs. Her father attempted to give her CPR and rushed her to the hospital, but less than an hour later, she died.

The Wayne County Medical Examiner said the cause of her death was a fracture of the cervical spine, as a result of multiple injuries. The attack was so horrific that counseling services were offered to emergency responders.

Detroit police were well present at the funeral, guarding the streets and paying their respects. Emma will be buried in Woodmere Cemetery. The family chose Woodmere Cemetery because they want her to be laid to rest beside her father's cousins.

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

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

Claudia Stapleton, Emma's aunt and godmother, told The Detroit News this week 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 Tuesday. "It's frustrating and it could have been prevented."

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 to complain about the skinny creatures who were often found roaming freely.

Animal Care and Control investigators visited the dogs' home more than a year before the attack after neighbors complained about the loose dogs. The officer did not find the dogs or the owner during his visit in March 2018.

Emma Hernandez dressed as a graduate.

"She was very caring and so smart," Stapleton said Tuesday. "She could have been a doctor because she was always trying to take care of her grandmother when she was sick."

Now, the dogs' owner, Pierre Cleveland, 33, is charged with her murder and the pit bulls are likely to be euthanized.

"People have been talking about this a lot because it's so tragic," Castilo said. "I can't even put myself in that mom's position."

Just two days after her attack, Emma's uncle, Jesse Lopez, was attacked by two German shepards and said the coincidence was upsetting.

"I've known her since she was a baby, it's horrible what happened to her and it's crazy that this happened," said Lopez, 30. "It's a coincidence that it's family but what's more upsetting is that no one is doing anything about these dogs."

Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones said she too was shocked by the vicious mauling of Emma. She said after a similar fatal mauling of Xavier Strickland, 4, in 2015, she pushed for an overhaul of the city's Animal Control ordinance.

Jones said more effort is needed to address the city's dangerous animal problem and there should be a collaborative action to eliminate stray animals in neighborhoods. 

"We need to increase enforcement and strengthen laws against dogfighting," she said. "We need stronger rules on outdoor fencing, leashes and control of animals in our community.

"While I respect the rights of residents to have pets, the breeding of dangerous animals, lax care and the associated penalties must be dealt with definitively."

Lopez agreed.

"And it's not the animals' fault," he said. "More needs to be done about inspections and licensing of these owners."


Twitter: @SarahRahal_