One of three billboards supporting Boomer, a dog at the center of a contentious case in Madison Heights, is located at 10 Mile and Dequindre roads.

One of three billboards supporting Boomer, a dog at the center of a contentious case in Madison Heights, is located at 10 Mile and Dequindre roads.

Photo by Deb Jacques


Negotiations underway to let condemned dog live

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published May 3, 2019

 One of the billboards supporting Boomer is located at 14 Mile and Dequindre roads.

One of the billboards supporting Boomer is located at 14 Mile and Dequindre roads.

Photo by Deb Jacques

MADISON HEIGHTS — The heated debate over Boomer — a dog sentenced to death in Madison Heights for a killing that no one saw occur — has led to weekly protests in front of City Hall and three billboards in support of the dog. Now with several court cases ongoing, a new development has emerged in the form of a settlement offer.

The city has offered to let Boomer live, under certain conditions, including its permanent relocation to a sanctuary in White Lake. While supporters of Boomer are encouraged by the city’s admission that the dog doesn’t have to die — and the dog’s owner is OK with Boomer’s relocation — the two sides offer conflicting accounts of the terms of the offer.

One point of contention is the request that Boomer’s owner, Justin Christopher, plead guilty to twice violating a no-contact order with the owner of the deceased dog, who is his neighbor — a crime that could carry a sentence of up to 186 days in prison and up to $15,000 in fines.

These charges are based on a separate person posting two pictures to the Facebook group  “Save Boomer,” an account that Christopher started months before the no-contact order, but which he was no longer managing by the time the pictures were posted. The pictures showed an aerial view of his house, and an excerpt of a document that contains a partial view of his neighbor’s phone number.

The city believes this put the neighbor at risk of harassment by supporters of Boomer. Christopher’s attorneys counter that he cannot be held responsible for someone else exercising their First Amendment rights, and that both images are public record anyway.

The city’s prosecuting attorney, Jeffrey Sherman, said that the offer still stands if Christopher rejects this part of the deal. However, Celeste Dunn, one of Christopher’s attorneys, said that as of April 29, no written offer from the city has excluded or made exception to the request for a guilty plea.

The settlement offer arose in the context of a federal lawsuit, brought forth by Christopher against the city of Madison Heights, seeking damages for the manner in which the city seized his dog.   

Christopher’s defense counsel — which is working pro bono, reimbursed only for court-related fees such as transcript costs — state that the city violated his Fourth Amendment rights against illegal search and seizure. The defense claims that the city arrived 11 days after the incident under the false pretense of a home evaluation before taking the dog and deciding where it should be boarded without the owner’s input, which is required by state law. The city claims it did everything lawfully.

Christopher is willing to drop the federal lawsuit seeking damages against the city if his dog is allowed to live, and if the criminal charges against him are dismissed.

The original case deciding Boomer’s fate — in which the district and circuit courts ruled that the city was correct to order the dog’s destruction — may end up in the state court of appeals.

The defense believes that state law has been incorrectly applied here, maintaining that even if Boomer killed the other dog — and with no witnesses, no one knows — then state law would still require at least one prior incident of dog-on-dog violence in order to have Boomer put down. Instead, the defense says Boomer should be relocated to a sanctuary, and/or safety measures put in place, such as escape-proof fencing, muzzling, leashing and microchipping.


How it all began   
Court records show that at about 3 p.m. April 2, 2018, a Madison Heights resident let her two dogs — a Chihuahua named Chubbs and a Great Dane/Lab mix named Bear — out of the house into the backyard, surrounded and secured by a chainlink fence. A short time later, the daughter of Chubbs’ owner heard a commotion outside. She went outside and saw Chubbs gasping, dragging its rear legs, with a large open wound on its side. The Great Dane was reportedly hiding under the deck, and Boomer, a pit mix, was also in the yard. Chubbs died in the woman’s arms.

While originally writing in a witness statement that Boomer had attacked Chubbs, the court transcripts show that when testifying under oath, the owner’s daughter clarified that she did not see Boomer attack Chubbs. She said under oath: “I did not witness anything happen to Chubbs. I didn’t see what went on. … He (Boomer) wasn’t near Chubbs when I went out there.” Instead, Boomer was circling the other end of the yard sniffing the grass. She did not witness any other animals in the yard. She recalled seeing blood on the grass, away from Boomer.

Christopher, who lives next door, testified that he made a brief trip to the gas station at the end of the block, and that he had neglected to secure Boomer in his absence. Upon his return, he went into the neighbor’s yard and asked what happened. It appears Boomer jumped the fence since there were no gaps to crawl through.

The animal control officer at the time, Suzette Gysel, arrived shortly after Chubbs had died. Gysel testified in court that she did not see any blood on Boomer. When asked if she doesn’t know what animal wounded Chubbs, Gysel said, “That would be correct.”

The city of Madison Heights filed an order seeking to destroy Boomer as a “dangerous animal,” which is defined by state law as “a dog or animal that bites or attacks a person, or a dog that bites or attacks and causes serious injury or death to another dog while the other dog is on the property or under the control of its owner.”

The standard for a conviction in a civil case is a “preponderance of evidence” rather than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” With no direct witnesses to the attack, the city instead pointed to how Boomer seemed like the most likely culprit since he was the only element out of place, having never appeared in the yard before.

The defense countered that there are other plausible possibilities. For example, the city had earlier issued a notice warning residents to keep their small pets inside since coyotes had been sighted in the area. Birds of prey have also been known to attack small pets. Boomer may have jumped into the yard to chase off another animal.

And then there are cases like Jeb, a service dog in St. Clair, Michigan. In a 2016 episode that drew national attention, Jeb was accused of killing another dog because he was found standing over the dead body, and so he was sentenced to death. But DNA testing then revealed that the dead dog had actually been killed by another animal that no one had seen. Jeb was then exonerated.

DNA testing is not possible in Boomer’s case since the body of Chubbs was cremated and no tissue samples were taken for analysis. When asked why, Melissa Marsh, the city manager of Madison Heights, previously said that she does not know the reason.

The city maintains that Boomer is the only logical explanation for Chubbs’ death.

“In this case, the one and only time that Boomer jumps the fence and enters the backyard of Chubbs and then Chubbs ends up dead, speaks for itself,” reads an official brief by the city.

The city also points to pictures Christopher posted on social media showing Boomer with a dead rabbit and the hashtag #savage. The pictures were not considered admissible evidence in court, however, since state law considers dogs attacking wildlife to be irrelevant.

And the defense believes that the pictures actually work in Boomer’s favor: The dead rabbit is fully intact despite being smaller than Chubbs, suggesting that a larger animal killed Chubbs. And the skull-and-crossbones collar that Boomer wore — which the city said shows his “savage nature” — didn’t have any bloodstains on it.

There were also no bloodstains on Boomer himself, despite his muzzle, chest and paws having snow-white fur. A licensed veterinarian, Dr. Kristina Yee, testified in court that it’s highly unlikely Boomer could’ve ripped open Chubbs without staining his own fur. Bloodstains on white fur are virtually impossible for a dog to remove by itself, she said.

The defense also brought forth the testimony of Katelin Thomas, a certified professional dog trainer and behavior consultant with K9 Turbo Training, who described several tests in which she safely introduced Boomer to different dogs, observing no signs of aggression.

Ultimately, Judge Keith Hunt, of the Madison Heights 43rd District Court, approved Boomer’s death sentence in August 2018, which was subsequently upheld in Oakland County Circuit Court.

The federal lawsuit and the criminal case against Christopher are still ongoing, and the original case against Boomer may be appealed at the state level.


What happens next
The city is now willing to let Boomer live under certain conditions, including its permanent relocation and transfer of ownership to the Michigan Pit Bull Education Project, or MPEP, in White Lake. The defense said that they’ve offered this since the original trial started in June 2018, when a representative from MPEP appeared in court offering to take Boomer. The city maintains that the defense never made any such offer.  

The city also wants Christopher to agree to never own or even briefly possess another pet in Madison Heights. Christopher has said he plans to move from Madison Heights as soon as feasible.   

“Mr. Christopher was neglectful in his ownership of Boomer,” Sherman said on April 29. “Boomer was unlicensed at the time of the attack; Boomer was not up to date on his vaccinations; Boomer was not properly secured when Mr. Christopher left the home to buy a pack of cigarettes; and Mr. Christopher glorified Boomer’s killing of a rabbit by posting (pictures) on the internet. The city will not reward dog ownership or possession of a dog to someone who was previously negligent in that ownership and/or possession.”

The defense replied that the city cannot bind Christopher’s roommate to such an agreement, nor can the city bar Christopher from owning pets in the future.

“The city has no legal authority whatsoever on this front. It’s government overreach — period,” Dunn said. “The only statute in Michigan that prevents animal ownership in the future is the abuse statute under MCL 750.50, and that is for people who abused their animals. That is the only authority in Michigan that allows a judge to prevent future dog ownership.”

Another point of contention is the city’s requirement that Boomer never leave the MPEP facility except for necessary medical appointments.
“The city will not just safeguard children and animals residing in Madison Heights while exposing them to danger in other communities,” Sherman said.

Dunn said that MPEP is reluctant to accept this requirement since there may be cases where, for example, Boomer needs to be moved to a separate facility if he’s not compatible with dogs at the existing facility. That being said, Dunn noted that Boomer has gotten along fine with the other dogs at Bark Avenue, a daycare in Roseville where he is currently being kept.  

Whatever deal is negotiated will have to be approved by the Madison Heights City Council during a closed session.

“The city of Madison Heights has made it clear that it’s within their power to let Boomer live,” Dunn said. “So we want to see Boomer live.”