Residents already saw Deanna Large as a dark figure in their neighborhood of Oak Crest before, according to authorities, three of her pit bulls mauled Dorothy Sullivan, 82, to death in March as she walked her Shih Tzu.
Large, 36, was known in the tiny Spotsylvania County subdivision for the sexual relationship she had with her son's 12-year-old best friend, who also lived in this heavily wooded tract in the rural, southern part of the county. The 1998 incident resulted in a three-year prison sentence for Large; all but four months were suspended.
As Large prepares to go on trial Tuesday on a charge of involuntary manslaughter in Sullivan's death -- with some of her neighbors scheduled to testify against her -- she said she does not need her community's support.
"This has really showed me who my true friends are," Large said last week in her first public comments about her case. In court appearances, she has communicated only by angrily shoving television cameras away and by stealing wide-eyed glances at Sullivan's sobbing children. Last week, she spoke calmly about her life but declined to discuss details of the case or specifics about her pets.
"I know who stood by me and who wanted nothing to do with me," she said.
Hashing over a neighbor's business in public is not typical in this part of the county, where residents have said they move to wooded five- and 10-acre lots for privacy. Even residents who have lived in the community for decades said they don't know most neighbors much more than to wave.
But in the aftermath of Sullivan's killing, residents spoke out about Large and her dogs, which they said had been running wild, killing pets, damaging property and scaring people for months. Residents also questioned why animal-control officials, who had made many calls to Oak Crest, never permanently seized any of Large's dogs or moved to have them legally declared dangerous. Neighbors said that the dogs always returned to Large's home and that officials knew they belonged to her.
Neighbors said they hope the trial brings justice for Sullivan and changes in how the county handles reports of dangerous animals.
"I just hope she gets in some trouble for letting this happen like it did," said Amy Carpenter, whose parents are scheduled to testify Tuesday. She said that neighbors repeatedly told Large her dogs were dangerous and that Large said she could not seem to stop them from escaping.
"She was warned, and she should have followed what was told to her. . . . She shouldn't just get a slap on the hand," Carpenter said.
Another resident, Donna Moore, said she told animal-control officials last summer that her kitten had been killed by pit bulls that also had torn metal siding partially off an out-building on her property. Moore said the responding officer went directly to Large's home on Cypress Court. Moore said that she never learned what action was taken and that she was frustrated that officials did not solve the problem.
"We have to see what we can do to make people responsible for their animals," she said. "And I think [county officials] see that they're in the hot seat, too."
A few houses away, Sullivan's daughter said she and her family are looking for spiritual guidance in the trial proceedings.
"You try to make sense of everything, and the only way we can is that maybe this happened for a reason -- maybe something worse was in the picture to happen, maybe something God saw in the future," said Betty Greene, 57. "It had to happen for a reason -- there had to be a reason for it."
She said the trial will be the family's most painful ordeal since her mother's death. The family members know that they will witness a courtroom of strangers looking at photos of Sullivan's mangled body and that they will be forced to face some ugly truths, she said.
"We're going to hear things we don't want to hear," said Greene, who lives down the street from her mother's home but does not drive in that direction anymore. Sullivan's six children sold her home on Oak Crest Drive after the death of the family's matriarch.
"I don't think any of us have really dealt with it," Greene said last week. "It's like you've got something hidden in a box and you're afraid to take it out and look at it."
Greene said that family members still see one another but no longer have big get-togethers. "Mom always took care of that," she said of planning such big events as Sullivan's birthday and Christmas.
For the first time, the trial will open records of how county animal-control officials handled complaints about Large's pit bulls. Commonwealth's Attorney William Neely has declined to release public records related to the complaints, saying they were part of the prosecution's case.
Large's trial -- which Circuit Court Court Judge Ann Hunter Simpson said she expects to last one day -- could set a precedent. No Virginian has been convicted on charges of involuntary manslaughter in a dog-related killing.
Neely has said that the lack of a clear felony charge for such a case is a legal loophole and that since Sullivan's death, he has been working with state Sen. R. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania) to draft legislation to propose to the General Assembly. Large also faces two misdemeanor counts of letting dogs run loose.
Neely has said in court that he is in "uncharted territory" in prosecuting the case. During a recent hearing, he told Simpson that he has to prove that Large owned the three dogs that Sullivan's daughter found attacking her mother that day and that Large knew -- or should have known -- that her dogs were dangerous.
It's not clear how Neely will navigate those questions: If Large knew her dogs were dangerous, does that mean animal-control officers informed her of that? And if they believed that the dogs were dangerous, why didn't the officers move to declare them so?
"I think that's how it usually works, right?" said Eugene Frost, Large's court-appointed attorney.
Shortly after Sullivan's death, Neely said that animal-control officers often responded to the Oak Crest subdivision for pit bull complaints but that many pit bulls were in the neighborhood. Without witnessing an attack, officers were unable to prove which dogs were dangerous, Neely said.
Under local and state law, animal-control officers can ask a magistrate to declare "dangerous" a dog that has hurt a person or companion animal or killed a companion animal. The dog is then required to be confined and muzzled. Spotsylvania code, however, says that an animal-control officer who believes "after investigation" that a dog is dangerous can order the owner to comply with certain constraints even without going before a magistrate.
The tricky nature of the issue was evident this month, when Frost successfully argued that Neely could not prosecute Large on two counts of letting "dangerous" dogs run wild if the dogs were never legally declared dangerous. The distinction dropped the two counts from Class 1 to Class 4 misdemeanors.
Neely said witnesses will testify that the three dogs that were destroyed after Sullivan's death belonged to Large. Large and Frost, however, will confirm that she owned only one of the three. Asked whether the other two belonged to her, Large said she "can't say one way or another."
"Everything I want people to know is coming out at the trial," Large said.
Meanwhile, Large said she has been trying to live as she did in the 15-plus years her family has been in Oak Crest -- privately. She never spoke publicly before about the case, she said, because she simply was not sure what to say.
Large, who is divorced, has four children, ages 13 to 20. She lives next door to her parents, sister and brother-in-law, who usually accompany her to court appearances. She said she is living "day to day" until the trial. She has worked as a grill cook in the past but is unemployed. She said too much has been going on in her life lately to allow her to work.
Prompted by her attorney, Large said that though she did not know Sullivan, she thought her death was "horrible."
"I wouldn't want anyone I know personally to have something like this happen to them," Large said.
"I wouldn't know what to say [to the Sullivan family]," she said. "Sorry doesn't cover anything at this point."