Betty Greene isn't someone you'd describe as confrontational.
"I sell stuff on eBay, and if someone sends me bad feedback, I practically cry," says Greene, 57. She chuckles in a gravelly voice. "I have to learn to be tougher."
Toughening up has been the theme among Greene and her brothers and sisters -- four of whom live within a few miles of her home in rural Spotsylvania County and the fifth in Southern Maryland -- since their mother died in March. Tears shut down brother Jimmy Sullivan as he tried to testify at the state Capitol in Richmond on Wednesday. Diane Just, a sister, was shaken when a store manager chased her out of his shop for trying to get customers to sign a petition.
The unfamiliar culture of public activism thrust itself upon this shy, tightknit family three months ago when three pit bulls wandered into the yard of their 82-year-old mother and fatally mauled her. News of the case traveled quickly throughout the country -- a horrifying story about a small, rural subdivision that had been terrorized by roaming dogs for a year, an elderly woman mauled to death, along with her Shih Tzu, Buttons, and a neighbor charged with involuntary manslaughter.
Spotsylvania County Commonwealth's Attorney William Neely warned members of the family that they might not get the justice they feel their mother deserves. There is no precedent here. Previous dog attack cases have always resulted in misdemeanor convictions. And that's why Dorothy Sullivan's children decided to step up.
"If another family should be unfortunate enough to find themselves dressing for their mother's funeral, the newspaper headline should not say: 'Dog Owner Faces Misdemeanor,' " said Larry Just, Diane's husband. He finished his brother-in-law's prepared comments Wednesday after Jimmy Sullivan broke down before the Virginia State Crime Commission, which researches and makes recommendations on criminal justice and public safety issues to the General Assembly.
The family is on a crusade to persuade legislators to toughen state laws related to dangerous dogs and their owners and has collected at least 2,000 signatures on petitions. Its members want the state to make it easier for officials to declare a dog dangerous and harder for people who know their animals are violent to avoid stiff penalties. Neely initially thought that the only charge he could bring against Deanna Large, 36, was a misdemeanor for letting her dogs roam off their leashes.
Large eventually was charged with one count of involuntary manslaughter and could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted. And as Large's August trial approaches, Greene and her siblings are working to make sure their mother's death was not in vain.
"Sometimes we just want it to go away, but then we think: We're doing this for Mom. Some good has to come out of it," Greene said after Wednesday's hearing where she and four of her siblings sat close together in pews, crying at some predictable points -- such as when photos of Sullivan were shown -- and at some unexpected places, such as when their mother's mauling was described in detached legalese.
As the siblings try to support one another, they also are trying to figure out the new family dynamic -- to redefine a family that was centered around a woman the whole neighborhood called "Maw." Sullivan, a Sunday school teacher who had lived alone for more than 20 years after her husband died, wowed her children by traveling to Hawaii and Florida. She loved planting flowers and doted on her grown children, who range in age from 47 to 64.
"I always thought I was Mom's favorite, but it came up recently that we all secretly felt that way," said Greene, a widow who teaches hearing-impaired children. "We were all saying, 'No! No! I was!' I don't know how she did that."
They all doted on Sullivan, too. She had taught herself to play piano and would play when members of the family were with her, all of them singing songs from the 1950s television show "Your Hit Parade," Greene said.
Now, she said, the family configuration is off. As some siblings are launching into activism, others are struggling with the events of that day -- such as Doris Phelps, who found her mother during the attack. Greene said they have never spoken about "that day."
"One time I asked her a little thing, and she just shook her hands. She's trying to protect me and my sisters," she said. "We're all so busy trying to protect each other."
Meanwhile, some officials have joined the family's fight to get state laws changed. Neely and state Sen. R. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania) attended Wednesday's hearing to ask the commission to recommend to the legislature that the definition of involuntary manslaughter be changed to include killings by animals belonging to reckless owners. They also want a provision added to cover cases in which someone is attacked and seriously injured but not killed.
According to the National Canine Research Foundation, about 20 people are killed in dog attacks each year in the United States. In Virginia, eight people have been killed by dogs since 1965, but each year about 90 people are injured to the extent that they are hospitalized at least one night, according to state records.
Commission members said they would consider the recommendations.
In the days after Sullivan's death, county officials said they had been prevented from seizing Large's dogs before the attack -- despite repeated complaints from Sullivan and others -- by restrictive laws that force animal control officers to prove their case before a judge. Large has several dogs, and Neely said when officers visited her home to investigate complaints, she made it difficult for them to identify the dogs in question.
County officials have refused to release records of their visits to Oak Crest Estates, saying they are part of the case against Large. Asked whether the family was angry with the county for not preventing their mother's killing, Greene said they are concentrating on the upcoming criminal trial.
"Now when we're together, we always say, 'If Mom was here . . . ' this or that," she said. "Sometimes we don't say anything."