Pet owner found guilty in dog-bite case

GREENFIELD — A jury decided Wednesday the owner of a pair of pit bulls that attacked two people in a Greenfield neighborhood last year is responsible for her pets’ actions.

Karla Johnson, formerly of Greenfield, was found guilty of two Class D felonies — criminal recklessness causing serious bodily injury and obstruction of justice — as well as a misdemeanor dog-bite liability charge at the conclusion of a two-day trial Wednesday in Hancock Circuit Court.

Jurors deliberated for just more than an hour after hearing testimony from 17 people: 12 on Tuesday and five Wednesday, including the defendant.

While Tuesday’s testimony focused on the severity of the victims’ injuries — a 7-year-old boy and 82-year-old woman were attacked within days of one another — Wednesday’s witnesses spoke about the investigation following the attacks.

Prosecutors argued Johnson should have suspected her dog, Roscoe, had bitten a 7-year-old boy on the afternoon of April 9, 2014, when investigators came knocking at her door in the 1400 block of Persimmon Circle.

If she would have taken extra precautions to keep Roscoe contained in the days following, an 82-year-old woman might never have been bitten a few days later on April 12, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors argued Johnson was deceptive about what dogs she owned when questioned by police after the first attack.

Johnson testified that Jeff Leffel, former director of Hancock-Greenfield Animal Management, asked her if she had any white pit bulls, and she intentionally kept Roscoe in another room because he was white with brown spots.

“So, you intentionally didn’t bring Roscoe out because you decided he wasn’t white enough?” asked Emily Fehr, a fellow with the Hancock County Prosecutor’s office, during the trial Wednesday.

“Yes,” Johnson answered, later stating she did not believe the dogs involved in the attacks were hers.

Johnson’s son and boyfriend told the jury they were home in the hours leading up to the attacks: Kaleb Moore, Johnson’s son, was home at the time of the first attack April 9; Esteban King, Johnson’s boyfriend of three years, was with Johnson during the second attack.

Moore told the court he came home from school around 3:30 p.m. April 9 — the day 7-year-old Jesse Hawkins was attacked by a dog down the road from Johnson’s home — but never let the dogs out. He said he was outside getting the mail when he saw a young boy lying on the ground crying in a nearby driveway.

When called to the stand Tuesday, Jesse Hawkins’ mother and sister testified they saw a young man matching Moore’s description standing nearby when a pit bull attacked Jesse. Moore denied seeing any other people in the area and said he did not see any dogs.

King testified that on April 12 — the day Thelma Spencer was attacked outside her home in the 1200 block of Morningside Drive in Greenfield — two of Johnson’s dogs got loose from the backyard.

King said he chased the animals and caught them not far from the house. King said he never saw the dogs go south of McKenzie Road, which would mean they never made it as far as Spencer’s home, but admitted he lost sight of them.

“I ran the whole time, so it could only have been a few minutes,” King said as to how long the dogs might have been gone on the day of the second attack.

Johnson’s attorney, Randy Sorrell of Fortville, said his client never should have been charged in the case because there wasn’t sufficient evidence to prove her dogs were responsible.

Leffel visited Johnson’s home after the first attack then returned the evening of April 12 — the day Thelma Spencer was attacked outside her home in the 1200 block of Morningside Drive in Greenfield.

This time, he asked Johnson to bring out Roscoe and Lily — names neighbors told him they heard Johnson calling after the animals got loose. The animals were taken to animal management and later euthanized.

While quarantined there, the dogs showed signs of aggression, Leffel said.

“They were geared up for a really bad incident,” he said.

Johnson, who cried on the stand while talking about her dogs, declined to comment following Wednesday’s verdict.

She is scheduled to be sentenced at 2 p.m. Aug. 13. The two Class D felonies Johnson faces carry penalties of six months to three years in prison, as well as a fine of up to $10,000.

Prosecutors have said they plan to seek some compensation for the victims as well.

Melissa Hawkins, mother of the 7-year-old victim, said she was happy with the guilty verdict and was anxiously awaiting sentencing.

“I’m confident the prosecutor’s office will get justice for my son,” she said.

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Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or