Just before Thanksgiving, Alexandria Griffin-Heady mused on her Facebook page about how life can take strange turns. Here she was, at 24, she wrote, trying to adopt her 9-year-old brother, who after their mother’s death in 2011 had been bounced through the foster care system.
She wanted, she said, to help raise him and “shape him into an amazing man.” Sacramento County Child Protective Services had given her permission to have the boy for overnight weekend visits in the travel trailer she shared with her dogs, on property adjacent to the rural Yuba County home of the adoptive parents of two of her other siblings.
But it all went tragically awry Sunday, when she left the boy alone with her three pet pit bulls. When she returned from her security guard shift a few hours later, authorities said, the small blond boy, Tyler Trammell-Huston, had been mauled to death.
No arrests had been made as of late Monday. The three dogs, a mother and two offspring that Griffin-Heady had raised from puppyhood, had been seized and placed in an animal shelter. They will be euthanized if they are determined to be dangerous animals, Yuba County Undersheriff Jerry Read said.
The mauling has left police, neighbors and authorities with troubling questions about the circumstances of the boy’s fractured life and terrible death. Was Griffin-Heady, who recently moved to Northern California from Florida, capable of parenting her young brother? Was the trailer where she lived, which Read said had no working bathroom, safe for Tyler? Why would she leave her brother with three dogs capable of killing him?
Griffin-Heady did not respond to requests for an interview. Read said officers were still investigating and that Griffin-Heady could face criminal charges of child endangerment.
Roberto Marquez, a lawyer representing Griffin-Heady, said criminal charges would be inappropriate for what was essentially an unpredictable tragedy. His client, he said, was trying to reunite a broken family and had no sense that her dogs could pose a threat.
“If she had any hint at all that these dogs had any propensity for violence, she would never have left her brother with them,” he said. “She raised them and cannot fathom what could have happened that caused them to attack a little boy.”
“I don’t even think it rises to the level of negligence,” he said. “She had no knowledge that anything like this could occur.”
Laura Badeker, Tyler’s aunt, said her niece was trying to “rescue” her brother from the foster care system, where he had lived off and on since his mother’s death. But she said Griffin-Heady was incapable of caring for him, and that her living circumstances and dogs put the boy at risk.
Badeker said Tyler was living in a foster home under the supervision of Sacramento County Child Protective Services at the time of his death. She said she repeatedly told the agency she thought Tyler was unsafe with his sister, who was granted unsupervised overnight visits with the boy after she moved from Florida several months ago.
“She was trying to rescue him from the system,” Badeker said. “But I told everyone on the team that was supposed to be protecting Tyler that Ali was not prepared to take care of him on any level. They were warned, over and over again.
“Why didn’t someone evaluate what was happening? Somebody needs to be held accountable for this.”
CPS issued a brief written statement in response to questions about the case.
“We are deeply saddened by the tragic death of this child,” said the statement, issued by agency spokeswoman Laura McCasland. “CPS is continuing to work with Yuba County law enforcement during this investigation.”
According to Badeker, Tyler also was receiving “wraparound services” from EMQ FamiliesFirst. The agency provides services designed to help children with “emotional and/or behavioral disturbances so they can be reunited or remain with their families and communities,” according to its website.
EMQ FamiliesFirst spokeswoman Eva M. Terrazas originally agreed to answer questions submitted in writing by The Sacramento Bee, but later issued a statement saying the agency was unable to discuss the case in detail because of privacy issues and a pending investigation.
Tyler and his four siblings endured a chaotic family life marked by crime, drug abuse and homelessness, Badeker said. Their mother, Natalie Griffin-Trammell, spent years homeless and addicted to drugs, and her criminal record included an arrest for felony child abuse in 1999. She died on the streets of Sacramento in 2011, at age 44. Loaves & Fishes, a Sacramento homeless services agency, held a memorial service for her shortly after her death.
Tyler was the youngest of the five children she left behind; his siblings range in age from 17 to 27. Two of his siblings live with their adoptive parents on property adjacent to where Griffin-Heady was living, Badeker said. Tyler’s father, she said, is mentally disabled and unable to care for his son.
Badeker said her niece had drifted around the country in recent years, and before arriving in Sacramento had been living in a motel room in Florida with her dogs.
Griffin-Heady’s dogs appear to be a huge part of her life. Badeker said her niece has an affinity for pit bulls, believing they have been unfairly stigmatized. She has posted dozens of videos of her dogs on YouTube, mostly under the title “My Wolf Pack.” Many show her interacting with the animals in bed as they lick her face and playfully romp with her.
On her Facebook account, Griffin-Heady lists her motto as “live fast, die young, be wild and have fun.” She recently posted comments about Tyler: “Life hits you sometimes in ways you cannot describe,” she wrote. “I never thought at 24 I’d be adopting my 9-year-old brother, but you roll with the punches.”
She added that she is grateful that “I get to raise him and shape him into an amazing man ... . God wouldn’t have made such an amazing boy just to be ordinary. In my life during all the bad I always wondered why I was here ... I know now it was to care for him.”
On the morning that Tyler died, Griffin-Heady left home before 7 a.m. for a “short shift” at work, said Marquez, her lawyer. She felt comfortable leaving him knowing that his siblings were close by, he said.
“She told him she would be back very soon,” he said.
When she returned, she found his mangled body and the dogs covered in blood.
The three dogs seized Sunday are a female pit bull or pit bull mix and her two puppies. When a visitor approached their kennel at the shelter, one wagged her tail in a friendly manner. Another barked loudly. Undersheriff Read said the dogs will be euthanized in short order unless their owner intervenes.
Read said he was deeply affected by the case.
“It made my heart hurt this morning,” he said. “That kid must have been terrified.”
“This one bothers me more than most,” he said. “I see lots of bad things, but none much worse than this. I have kids myself, so it goes deep with me.”
He questioned the boy’s living circumstances with his sister.
“Not having a bathroom in place is certainly not optimal,” he said.
The Linda neighborhood where Tyler died features large, semi-rural lots with older homes and trailers. On the Dunning Avenue property where Griffin-Heady lives, a white stucco house with purple shutters sits beside an aging travel trailer.
A man who answered the door at the house said the family was in mourning and declined an interview.
Across the street, Ronald Trapp said he had seen the boy with blond hair once or twice.
“It’s just an awful tragedy,” he said. “I’ve had dogs, pit bulls, my whole life and never had a problem with them like that. It’s awful. There’s no words to describe it, and I feel for the parents. May the child rest in peace.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story included a misspelling of the name of the 9-year-old boy killed by his sister's dogs. The boys name was Tyler Trammell-Huston
Reporter Marjie Lundstrom contributed to this report.