Five and a half years of uncertainty ended for Peter and Rachelle Lucas on Wednesday, when the Canyon Lake couple was acquitted of negligence in the 2013 dog mauling death of an elderly neighborhood woman.
It took a Comal County jury less than four hours to find the couple not guilty of attack by a dog resulting in the death of Betty Clark on Dec. 21, 2013. The Lucases’ pit bulls were destroyed days after the attack on Clark, 75, who died from her injuries in a San Antonio hospital on Jan. 6, 2014.
After 433rd District Court Judge Dib Waldrip read the verdict, the Lucases — shedding tears of joy — embraced each other before thanking relatives, neighbors and defense attorneys Deborah Wigington and Tommy Vaughn.
“We haven’t really gotten to celebrate our anniversary in 5½ years because of all of the stress and everything going on,” Rachelle said of the couple’s 18th wedding anniversary. “Today’s the day — and there is a God!”
Clark, attacked by dogs at the intersection of Deer Valley and Overhill streets in Canyon Lake, was found unresponsive with nearly 100 bites on her limbs, torso, abdomen and head. She was airlifted to University Hospital but died days later, never having regained consciousness.
The Lucases weren’t charged until months later, when on June 4, 2014 a Comal County grand jury handed up an indictment charging both “did then and there with criminal negligence, fail to secure a dog or dogs and one or more of those dogs made an unprovoked attack on another person, namely Betty Clark.”
Both were arrested June 10, 2014 and didn’t gain release from Comal County Jail until 10 days later until nearly selling or pawning most of their possessions to meet separate $15,000 bonds.
“We’ve never been arrested in our lives, and when we were, we were ripped out of our beds at 6 in the morning and treated like we’d murdered somebody,” Rachelle said. “It cost us so much just to bond out — and my sister pawned her stuff and sold her car to help us out.”
Their trial dates were postponed 15 times before finally starting on May 7. Six days of contentious testimony in their trial concluded with closing statements by attorneys before going to the jury Tuesday evening.
The Lucases never took the stand in their own defense against the charge, a second-degree felony punishable by between two and 20 years in prison and fine of up to $10,000. Jurors, charged with unanimously deciding the couple’s guilt or innocence, agreed the state failed to prove the Lucases’ pit bulls attacked Clark, which exonerated the couple of negligence in Clark’s death.
During the trial, defense attorneys accused Comal County Sheriff’s Office investigators of making dozens of mistakes that were later inflamed by erroneous eyewitness testimony from neighbors — some of them owners of dogs that also could have attacked Clark.
“This has cost us so much,” Peter Lucas said. “I lost my job, almost everything. Something like this literally just flips your life upside down. If any good comes out of this — it’s that people can learn — not only just the other dog owners but also how law enforcement agencies can perhaps get a nugget on how to investigate things.
“This was a case that was unfamiliar to them — maybe this (case) can bring this to light.”
The Lucases said Clark was a good neighbor who never complained about their dogs, Kilo and Susie, which were quarantined immediately after Clark’s attack and destroyed 10 days later.
“That happened before (investigators) could prove they did anything,” Peter said. “I can understand why they were quarantined as part of the investigation, but they wound up being judge, jury and executioner.
“The dogs that did this to Miss Betty are still out there.”
Prosecutors Jessica Frazier and Kiera Kilday were not available for comment after the verdict. Wigington and Vaughn, appointed by the court to represent the Lucases, said that justice was served.
“We had a brave jury who told the district attorney’s office they didn’t believe the allegations, and my clients were innocent. We did the investigation the state didn’t do — even though the burden of proof was on them.”
Added Vaughn: “The jury got it right — we just brought them the truth of what happened.”
Both believed the county had never before sought to prosecute a dog attack that resulted in a death.
“This should have been handled just like any other kind of criminal offense, and it wasn’t,” Wigington said.
The Lucases are just happy to get their lives back. Both said their property has been vandalized, their dogs poisoned and they’ve both had medical issues in the half-decade it took to exonerate themselves.
“All of these years we’ve been guilty and trying to prove our innocence,” Rachelle said. “It’s supposed to be the other way around.”