Up to 15 years for couple in fatal dog mauling
Lapeer — After emotional impact statements from the family of a Livonia man who was mauled to death last July by two dogs, the animals' owners were both sentenced Tuesday to up to 15 years in prison.
It could have been much worse for Valbona Lucaj, 45, and Sebastiano Quagliata, 46, of Metamora Township who were facing potential sentences of up to life in prison after both were initially charged with second-degree murder and harboring a dangerous animal causing the death of 46-year-old Craig Sytsma.
A courtroom packed with friends and family from both sides heard brief but tearful remarks of their pain and suffering as the couple, both dressed in orange Lapeer County Jail jumpsuits, sat just a few feet away, fighting back their own pain.
The couple had both pleaded no contest to the harboring charge in April in Lapeer Circuit Court in exchange for dismissal of the more serious charge.
"No matter what this court does, the sentence will not be long enough for the victim's family and it will be too much for the family of the defendants," said Judge Nick Holowka, who noted he could not imagine a more horrific death.
The couple will be required to serve at least the minimum sentence before they are eligible for parole, likely within four years because they were also given credit for 346 days of time served.
Before sentencing, both defendants in halting English apologized to Sytsma's family and described the death as a tragedy.
"I think of this every day, what it has done to them and for my family and my children" said Lucaj, wiping away tears with a tissue.
Quagliata said he was "sorry" and has "tried to be a model citizen." He said he knew he had to accept responsibility. His wife was out of town, hundreds of miles away at the time.
Sytsma's parents, Richard and Jacqui Sytsma, recalled how their son had beaten colon cancer just two years before the incident and felt he finally had another chance at life. She said "my heart goes out to their (defendants') family as well because they have children and it's tearing them apart as well."
"This has been a tragedy for all of us," his mother sobbed to Holowka. "But we have to be accountable for what happened ... this was the third time the dogs had been involved in something like this. And the third time the dogs took a life."
She said she has nightmares that she is running to help her son, who is survived by a teenage daughter and two sons, both in their 20s.
"This is the first Thanksgiving, Christmas and birthday without him," said Sytsma's father, choking back tears. "It could have been prevented."
He directed comments to Quagliata: "You, sir, are the age our son was when he died ... you could have done something."
Sytsma's father said he favors legislation "to prevent something like this from ever happening to anyone else. For anyone else to go through what we are going through now."
Pending legislation would have public safety officers immediately involved in cases involving attacks by animals rather than referred to animal control agencies to monitor.
Sytsma, a metallurgist who ran a business in the Lapeer area, was jogging on Thomas Road near the couple's house when their cane corsos chased him down. His parents said it was a route he has jogged for two years.
"He liked jogging there," his mother said. "He felt safe there because he was running in the country, not in the city."
Prior to the mauling, county animal control investigated two other dog attack incidents at Quagliata and Lucaj's home in May 2012 and May 2013 but had resolved the matters with fines and warnings. In both cases the victims sued the couple for damages. A veterinarian testified in the current case she had warned the couple just weeks before Sytsma's death that the dogs, Tony and Julia, were dangerous and should be seen by an animal behaviorist.
After Sytsma's death, the prosecutor's office removed three adult and eight puppy cane corsos from the Quagliata's and Lucaj's home.
The adult dogs were euthanized, while the puppies were sent to a cane corso rescue group in Texas, where they could be adopted to specific homes based on training for the specific breed.
Jason Malkiewicz and Sanford Schulman, defense attorneys for the couple, had argued to Holowka that scoring in sentencing guidelines followed by the judge should have been considerably lower since there was no intent on their parts that their animals should attack or kill Sytsma.
Neither was home at the time the animals got loose and chased down Sytsma. They had escaped their locked pen in the past, officials said.
Assistant prosecutor Michael Hodges said the scoring was correct and within state guidelines for the crime, especially considering the pair "created a very high likelihood of death and this was the third attack by the dogs."
"They created a danger zone," Hodges told Holowka. " ... It shocks the conscience. That's why this case is so amazing."
Hodges noted neighbors who came to Sytsma's aid — one of them armed with a handgun — were also in danger of being in the "kill zone or blood-thirsty zone" of the two dogs.
"The death of Mr. Sytsma has been psychologically damaging to members of his family and sufficient to cause psychological injury," Holowka said.
Holowka said the couple were grossly negligent and did not take adequate measures to restrain their dogs knowing they had a propensity to escape and also attack victims.