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Owners of dogs that were ‘looking to kill’ charged in fatal mauling of jogger

Valbona Lucaj in District Court on Friday. (Associated Press/Detroit Free Press/Kathleen Galligan)

Two dog owners — who may have been in the country illegally — are facing second-degree murder charges following the fatal mauling of a 46-year-old jogger in Michigan late last month.

Valbona Lucaj, 44, and Sebastiano Quagliata, 45, appeared in court Friday morning, the Associated Press reported. Quagliata and Lucaj have also been charged with one count of possession of a dangerous animal causing death, which carries a maximum 15-year prison term, Lapeer County Prosecuting Attorney Tim Turkelson said in a statement.

Sebastiano Quagliata in District Court. (Kathleen Galligan/Detroit Free Press via AP)

Authorities believe Quagliata and Lucaj’s two Cane Corso dogs attacked Craig Sytsma, of Livonia, during his post-work jog, according to reports.

“We would hate to see this happen to anybody else,” Craig Sytsma’s mother, Jacque Sytsma, told the Grand Rapids Press after the attack. “You never think it would happen until it happens to someone close.”

Animal control officials seized the dogs — which had reportedly been linked to other, non-fatal attacks in the area — immediately after the incident, according to a news release. The animals have been kept at a shelter, in quarantine, and officials said a hearing will be held to determine whether they should be euthanized.

“To know that there were two previous incidents … and to know that on the third incident, they killed my dad, that’s what pisses me off,” Craig Sytsma’s stepson, Jordan Sytsma, told the Detroit Free Press. “They were looking to kill, they were looking to eat a human being.”

Sytsma, a cancer survivor, was attacked while jogging on his usual route on July 23, the Grand Rapids Press reported. “The takeaway from this, I would say, is this could’ve been prevented,” Jacque Sytsma told the newspaper.

Federal authorities believe Quagliata and Lucaj were in the country illegally, according to the Free Press, which reported:

The couple have been fighting deportation for years since immigration officials discovered that Lucaj had paid $3,000 to an immigration officer in New York to grant her asylum. That asylum was then granted to Quagliata because he was her spouse.

But on March 31 of this year, U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen refused to stop their deportation, siding with immigration officials who said that Lucaj “lacked good moral character arising out of fraud in obtaining asylum.”

The pair repeatedly lied to immigration officials as they sought asylum and then naturalization, according to the files.

“Given the posture of their immigration cases, ICE has not yet initiated removal proceedings against either individual,” U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Khaalid Walls said in an e-mail to The Post. “ICE will, however, continue to closely monitor the matter and take appropriate enforcement action once the local criminal proceedings are resolved.”

Charges like those faced by Quagliata and Lucaj are rare but not unheard of. For example, two dog owners — Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller — faced criminal charges following the 2001 death of Diane Whipple, a women’s lacrosse coach who was fatally attacked by Presa Canario dogs in San Francisco.

Noel was convicted of involuntary manslaughter; Knoller was convicted of second-degree murder.

Sarah Larimer is a general assignment reporter for the Washington Post.

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