The horrific scene is forever stamped on Lucillie Strickland’s retinas. Even when she closes her eyes, seeking solace or just a moment in the dark, it plays across the inside of her skull.
Four huge dogs converged on her and her son, knocking them down. Lying atop of tiny 4-year-old Xavier, her body a shield between the child and the dogs, she felt pain scissor through her ear, legs and back. She got up to run, and in an instant her son was yanked out from under her, dragged under a fence, viciously mauled. And all she could do was scream.
“That will never leave my eyes,” Strickland told the Detroit Free Press. “Never leave my mind.”
Xavier died from his injuries at a hospital in Detroit on Wednesday.
Lucillie Strickland, who is also identified as Dolly in some reports, and her son were on their way to volunteer at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School, just a few blocks from their house, on Wednesday afternoon. That’s when the dogs — four pit bulls from a nearby house — rushed toward them, Strickland told WXYZ.
The largest grabbed the little boy and pulled him away from her as Strickland screamed for help. The cries summoned her neighbors, who called 911 and hurried to fight off the dogs with sticks and crowbars.
But it took the arrival of armed police officers shortly afterward to put an end to the attack.
“They told me to stay back and they shot the dogs,” Strickland told WXYZ. “But the dog that was on top of my son, he had to keep shooting it.”
Yolanda Samuels, who had heard Strickland’s yells and called 911, clutched her own child to her as she watched emergency responders carry the preschooler away.
“When I saw them carrying her baby, all I could do was just grab my baby and say, “Oh my God. He’s lifeless,” she told WDIV.
An autopsy Thursday found that Xavier had died of multiple puncture wounds, according to the Detroit Free Press. The Wayne County Medical Examiner ruled the death an accident.
But it was an accident so brutal even Detroit police officers were left shaken by it.
Detroit Police Chief James Craig said that counselors have been called in for officers who dealt with the attack. Speaking to WDIV, he compared the struggle with the dogs to “dealing with armed suspects.”
Three of the dogs were shot, WJBK reported, and a fourth is in police custody.
Meanwhile, the dogs’ owner, a 41-year-old man, has been arrested, according to the Detroit Free Press. No charges have been filed.
“You should suffer,” Strickland said in an interview with WXYZ, speaking in a fierce staccato, “like we,” deep breath, “are suffering.”
She closed her eyes.
“We have lost our 4-year-old son.”
The family has set up a GoFundMe page to raise funds to pay for the boy’s funeral expenses.
Xavier was a typical preschooler, smart but small for his age, his family said. He loved to sing and dance. He was a junkie for cartoons. He had a broad smile and big, dark eyes.
Walking with his mother through an alley near the home where the dogs lived, he knew to fear them, WXYZ reported. The Stricklands and their neighbors say that the dogs — a father, a mother and two puppies — have menaced others in the neighborhood.
“This is not the first incident where the dogs almost got one of her children,” Xavier’s uncle, Ramone Cage, told the Detroit Free Press. He said one of the dogs bit Strickland’s 9-year-old daughter’s coat and book bag, but the girl was able to escape mostly unharmed.
“This is almost like deja vu,” Cage said. “It just went from bad to a worse situation.”
Roy Hardrick, 19, left his house one morning to find three of the pit bulls waiting alongside the building. They barked and growled, and he retreated back inside.
“I had to wait in the house til they went past,” he told the Free Press.
Abdul El-Sayed, executive director and health officer for the Detroit Health Department, which oversees the city’s animal control department, told the Detroit News that the agency hadn’t received any previous complaints about the dogs involved in the attack.
“We’ve had no prior contact with the owner of those animals, which means they were not licensed and there were no specific complaints about them,” he said.
The department had gotten complaints about stray dogs in the area, he added, but when animal control officers visited the neighborhood they didn’t find anything.
Police spokesperson Jennifer Moreno told the Detroit News that the pit bulls escaped through a “significant” gap in the fence.
Strickland told the newspaper she wants to see the dogs’ owner jailed and pit bulls banned.
Pit bulls — which aren’t a formal breed but instead considered a “type” of dog — have a reputation for viciousness, though advocates for the dogs say that reputation is unearned.
“It really boils down to being responsible owners,” she said. “Any dog from any breed can be aggressive, it matters how it’s treated.”
Advocates also say that pit bulls are disproportionately abused by the humans, making them more likely to lash out. The Humane Society estimates that a quarter of dog abuse victims are pit bull-type breeds. And although pit bulls are disproportionately represented in dog attack statistics, most dogs of the breed never harm anyone.
But critics argue the animals, which were bred for dog fighting and other bloody spectacles, are genetically engineered for combat in a way that other breeds simply aren’t.
“They are often insensitive to behaviors that usually stop aggression,” reads a scientific review cited by the New Yorker. “For example, dogs not bred for fighting usually display defeat in combat by rolling over and exposing a light underside. On several occasions, pit bulls have been reported to disembowel dogs offering this signal of submission.”
On the other hand, reports of pit bulls’ strength are often exaggerated, according to National Geographic. Their jaws do not “lock,” as some believe, and are capable of exerting 235 pounds of force per square inch, less than the average for all dogs.
According to a CDC report from 2000, pit bull-type dogs were responsible for almost a third of fatal dog bite incidents in the U.S. An oft-cited survey from the organization Animals 24-7 (which generally supports restrictions on pit bull ownership) put that number at 53 percent. Though the number varies by year and source, pit bulls are thought to make up about 5 percent of all dogs in the country.
But that data means little to the Stricklands as they attempt to envisage life without their son.
“My life is just torment right now,” Strickland told WDIV. “Because he’s gone.”