Gloria Hudson had concerns about her 9-year-old foster child leaving her Elk Grove home and going to live with his older sister in rural Yuba County. But life had been so hard for him – losing his mother in 2011, floating through the foster care system apart from his four siblings.
He seemed excited at the prospect of finally having close family again. So, she decided to accept it.
“I was at peace,” said Hudson, 62. “He really seemed happy. His therapist said the same thing. Everything seemed like it was going OK.”
In recent months, the blond-haired boy, Tyler Trammell-Huston, had been staying with his sister on weekends with the permission of Sacramento County Child Protective Services. During his winter break from school, he had spent two or three weeks with her, in her small travel trailer south of Marysville. Hudson said a judge was supposed to decide later this month whether he could move in with his sister full time, provided she got an apartment.
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She said she was expecting Tyler home Sunday when she got a call saying he was dead. He had been mauled to death by his sister’s three pet pit bulls, after she went to work and left him alone in the trailer.
“To die like that, it was just horrific,” Hudson said. “When Child Protective Services called me, I just screamed.”
As of late Tuesday, Yuba County sheriff’s detectives had made no arrests in the case, though they said Tyler’s 24-year-old sister, Alexandria Griffin-Heady, could face child endangerment charges. The three dogs that attacked Tyler, a female pit bull and two offspring, were being held in an animal shelter. A lawsuit against CPS was in the works. And opinions abounded about who should be held responsible.
Tyler’s aunt, Laura Badeker, said she believes CPS is largely to blame. For her, concerns about Tyler stretched back months. She believed her niece had the best of intentions, trying to reunite with her four siblings, who had scattered after their mother died, addicted and homeless, in Sacramento in 2011. But she didn’t think her niece was capable of taking care of a young child.
On Tuesday, Badeker sat with her laptop computer, reviewing a series of plaintive emails and messages she had traded with various social service workers about the case. In May, she had a Facebook exchange with a worker from a nonprofit helping oversee Tyler’s care, and urged her to “do your research very carefully” before granting custody to Griffin-Heady.
She wrote that her niece was “unstable” and said she was “angry about her life,” which had included regular stints on the streets. Tyler, she said, “deserves better” than what he and his siblings experienced with their mother.
In October, Badeker sent Sacramento County Child Protective Services a similar email, telling Tyler’s social worker that her niece’s “very recent past is not anything that any child should have to endure.” That past included living in a motel room in Florida with her pit bulls.
CPS was working with the nonprofit EMQ FamiliesFirst to provide care and protection to Tyler while he was in the foster care system. In the message exchanges, neither agency ever directly addressed Badeker’s concerns, but promised to do what was best for him.
On Sunday, after getting word of Tyler’s death, Badeker sent a final message to the EMQ worker: “So you know Tyler is dead,” she wrote. “I tried to warn everyone.”
“From the bottom of my heart, I think that Alexandria was trying as hard as she could to do what she thought was best for Tyler,” Badeker said Tuesday. “This tragedy is about CPS dropping the ball.”
CPS and EMQ FamiliesFirst have declined to answer questions about the case, citing privacy issues.
Tyler’s father, John Huston, is pursuing a lawsuit against CPS. Sacramento attorney Moseley Collins said Huston is mentally disabled and unable to care for his son. But Huston, who lives in Sacramento, visited Tyler regularly and kept a photo of him as “wallpaper” on his cellphone, said Collins.
The attorney said he plans to file a tort claim with the state, a precursor to a lawsuit. The suit “would start with CPS for negligence and improperly allowing this boy to go live in this dilapidated trailer with no bathroom and three large dogs and be left unattended,” Collins said.
According to authorities, Griffin-Heady had Tyler overnight Saturday and left him alone with the pit bulls for a few hours Sunday morning while she went to work as a security guard. When she returned to the trailer, on property owned by the adoptive parents of two of Tyler’s other siblings, she found his mangled body and her bloodied dogs.
She has declined requests for an interview.
Yuba County Undersheriff Jerry Read said Griffin-Heady could face criminal child endangerment charges in the death. But the case is hardly cut-and-dried, according to legal experts.
“We’re always mad when something terrible happens, but that doesn’t mean someone is liable in a criminal way,” said Michael Vitiello a criminal law professor at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento. “Child endangerment and involuntary manslaughter, the two crimes that might be afloat here, are defined extremely broadly.”
The case, he said, would hinge on questions such as whether it was “foreseeable” that the dogs could have harmed Tyler, and whether their owner was “taking an unjustifiable risk.”
“If I were to leave a kid at home with a Labrador retriever and the dog caused harm, no one would point a finger unless my dog had a history of aggression,” he said.
“Was there any reason to know that these dogs are particularly vicious?” he asked. “That would be the kernel here.”
John Myers, a McGeorge professor and expert in child abuse cases, said Griffin-Heady could be charged with manslaughter or even “depraved-heart” murder depending upon what investigators find. “If you engage in extremely reckless behavior and know of the danger to human life, and somebody dies, even if you don’t want them to, you could be charged with second-degree murder,” he said.
On the other hand, if the owner was unaware that the dogs were vicious, she might not be held criminally liable at all, he said.
Roberto Marquez, a criminal lawyer representing Griffin-Heady, said his client raised her dogs from puppies and was “shocked” that they attacked the boy. “She never thought it possible,” he said.
Badeker and another relative, Tyler’s great-uncle Donald Thorpe, said Griffin-Heady has drifted around the country in recent years with her dogs, and recently moved back to Sacramento to reunite with her siblings. She has posted dozens of videos of her animals on YouTube, mostly under the title “My Wolf Pack.” Many show her interacting with the dogs as they lick her face and playfully romp with her.
Thorpe, a correctional officer in Nevada, said he urged her to find homes for the dogs before she began pursuing custody of her brother.
“She wouldn’t do it,” Thorpe said. “She left Tyler alone in that trailer, and she kept those dogs there even though I believe she knew the dogs were not good with kids. It was a tragedy that didn’t need to happen.”