Cat Owner Turns to DNA in Pet Whodunit, but Case Isn't Closed

THE VICTIM THE INVESTIGATOR THE SUSPECT Marylin Christian's cat Cody was killed in August outside her Loudoun home. She suspected a neighbor's dog, Lucky, and had DNA evidence tested to try to prove he was the attacker.
THE VICTIM THE INVESTIGATOR THE SUSPECT Marylin Christian's cat Cody was killed in August outside her Loudoun home. She suspected a neighbor's dog, Lucky, and had DNA evidence tested to try to prove he was the attacker. (Family Photo)
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 9, 2006

Marylin Christian found Cody under the tree in front of their Loudoun County home, his white fur covered in saliva. She scooped up the lifeless remains of the cat whose friendship she had counted on for 13 years and sat under the tree, sobbing, for two hours.

The next day, Christian set out to discover what, or who, had killed Cody -- no matter what.

When a veterinarian said the culprit had to be a dog, she canvassed her rural Lovettsville neighborhood in search of a suspect. After she spotted a bouncy 4-year-old German shepherd mix named Lucky, she asked authorities to declare him dangerous. And when Loudoun animal control officials dropped the case, she took a cue from television's legal dramas: She hired a California DNA laboratory to analyze evidence -- dog saliva and fur -- that ultimately linked Lucky to the incident.

Yet despite the strong forensic evidence -- and a five-month saga that has tested the fragility of neighborly relations and pitted motherly instincts against carnivorous ones -- Lucky remains free.

County officials say they need an eyewitness to make a case.

"All I want is to protect my family," Christian, 35, said as she sat in her family room with her infant son, Denison, and Yo Mama, one of her four remaining cats. "I'm trying to get my neighbor held responsible for a dangerous dog that they let roam in the neighborhood."

Christian said that since Cody was killed, she has repeatedly asked Lucky's owners, Sean and Janet Daryabeygi, to return the dog to the local animal shelter, where they adopted him in the summer. The Daryabeygis think she is asking too much. They said Lucky would never harm a human, though they do not dispute that he could have been a cat killer.

"He probably did it. We don't know that. Nobody saw it. It's the nature of the dog -- chasing cats, squirrels and small animals," said Sean Daryabeygi, 62, a Metro engineer who lives in a cabinlike home across an unpaved road from Christian. His neighbor, he said, "is obsessed with something natural."

Christian and her husband, Eric, moved from Herndon to their five-acre farm a year ago, in part so their animals could roam free. Cody and the other cats spent a few hours outside a day, and Christian said she kept a watchful eye on them. But Aug. 19, the Christians, hurrying for a dinner engagement, did not herd the cats inside before leaving.

When they got home, Eric Christian, 39, discovered Cody's body. The next morning, the Christians spied tan hair around the scene. Anguished and wanting to know the cause of death, they put Cody in a box and went to Blue Ridge Veterinary Associates in Purcellville for a necropsy.

In a letter provided to the county, Ross W. Peterson, the veterinarian, concluded that the cat's punctured lungs, broken ribs and frayed claws indicated that he had been pulled off the tree by a larger creature and "fought back intensely prior to his death." Christian said the veterinarian told her a dog must have done it.

She then went door-to-door. Eventually, she and her husband approached the Daryabeygis, who had recently moved in.


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