Above a small blue casket decorated with a teddy bear, a video screen flashed a photograph of 9-year-old Tyler Trammell-Huston in a white dress shirt and striped necktie, his grin wide, his blond hair styled and gelled.
In the front row of a funeral chapel in Sacramento, Tyler’s four older siblings wept and hugged and clung to one another. Around them, a roomful of people struggled to come to terms with a child’s death, all the more difficult to fathom because he was killed in a savage attack by pit bull terriers.
Tyler died in a dilapidated trailer in rural Yuba County on Jan. 3 after his sister, Alexandria Griffin-Heady, 24, left him alone with her three dogs while she went to work. He was a foster child whose mother died on the streets in 2011 and whose father was mentally incapable of caring for him. Tyler’s care was being overseen by Sacramento County Child Protective Services.
CPS had approved of Tyler’s overnight visits with his sister, who recently moved to Sacramento to pursue custody of him and to try to reunite her fractured family. The case has raised troubling questions about who bears responsibility for Tyler’s death and whether his sister was capable of caring for him. No criminal charges have been filed in the case. John Huston, Tyler’s father, has filed a wrongful death claim against CPS.
Hours before the memorial service, attorney Moseley Collins addressed reporters with Huston at his side.
“I loved my son very much,” said Huston, who reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a cellphone displaying another grinning photo of his son.
The wrongful death claim alleges that CPS, by allowing Tyler to spend time with Griffin-Heady, “refused and failed to perform mandatory legal duties” to protect the child.
Griffin-Heady has said she left her brother for only a few hours while she worked a security guard shift, and that she had never known her dogs to be violent. At a tearful news conference last week, she said she had promised to protect her little brother and would never forgive herself for leaving him alone. The dogs – a mother and two offspring – have been in custody at a Yuba County shelter since the attack; Griffin-Heady isn’t fighting the decision to put them to death.
At the memorial service Tuesday afternoon, Huston sat on the other side of the aisle from the boy’s siblings, who have different fathers. Tyler’s 18-year-old sister, Emilee Griffin-Trammell, rose and spoke about her little brother.
“Every time he looked at me I felt like a superhero, like I could do no wrong,” she said, sobbing. “His smile lit up every dark place in my body. He was so beautiful and so perfect. You couldn’t be sad around him.”
She looked at Tyler’s casket, then at her sister Griffin-Heady, whose eyes were hidden behind large, dark glasses.
“He’s not mad at anybody. He’s not mad at you,” she said, “and he loved every single one of us. He knows we loved him, and that’s what he always wanted.”
At John Reith Elementary School in Elk Grove, Tyler made a lasting impression on students and staff members, said principal Louise Roachford-Gould, who recounted walking him to class on his first day.
“My constant observation during his short time with us was that he was such a kind, loving soul,” she said. “He was so protective of the people he cared about.”
“He was a little boy who had a rough life and yet he was never bitter, he was positive, he was kind,” she said, directing her gaze to Tyler’s family. “He was a special, special boy. I want all of you to carry that in your hearts.”
Guests wiped away tears as a video montage showed Tyler playing in the yard with his foster sister Princess; swimming in the family’s backyard pool; clutching stuffed animals he’d won at a carnival; showing off a new haircut. Most of those images were taken in the past six months while he was living with his foster mother, Gloria Hudson, and her family in Elk Grove.
Hudson said she has cared for many foster children over the years. Tyler had come to her after a chaotic early childhood. His mother was mentally ill and a drug addict. He and his siblings scattered after her death.
From the moment she met Tyler, Hudson said, “I felt a spirit between us, and he felt the same thing.” Initially shy and softspoken, “he really grew into himself” and especially enjoyed Princess. The two were born just two days apart, she said.
“Tyler was so patient, obedient, caring and giving,” she said. “Tyler just fit in. He was like a little angel who came into our lives, and then he went to God.”
“In the six months I had with him, I tried to give him as much care and compassion as any parent would give a child,” she said, struggling with her composure. “Something went terribly wrong. I’m not pointing fingers. But when I look into my heart, I’m at peace with what I did for Tyler.”
Her eyes settled on Griffin-Heady. “If you can look into your heart and feel you did the best you could, God bless you. But if you didn’t, God have mercy on you.”
“Tyler, sweetheart,” she said, “may you rest in peace.”