Last Updated: 8:53 p.m.
When Caroline Johnson approached the dog in a grassy ditch on County Road 205, off of County Road 13 in Espanola, Sunday morning, the dog was in agony.
“Awful, no energy, totally depleted of energy,” Johnson, a tireless animal advocate and volunteer who runs the Lost and Found Pets of Palm Coast and Flagler County on Facebook, said. The dog she and Flagler Humane Society Director Amy Carotenuto would later call Grace was “pretty much lifeless.” She had open wounds, the biggest one on the front paw toward the chest, “which was so badly infected it was pouring out infection, she couldn’t move or anything or get her head up.”
The dog had many signs of being a bait dog, a dog used to train fighting dogs, which has long been illegal. Espanola has long been on authorities’ radar as a problem area with dogs. “Sometimes they get loose,” an official said.
Grace was emaciated down to perhaps 35 pounds, her every rib and spine protruding. Johnson wrapped her in a sheet, placed her in the front seat of her car and drove her to Flagler Animal Hospital.
Johnson had been alerted about Grace by Lauren Myers, who found her as she was driving and first posted images of her on Facebook (an injured back kept her from lifting the dog). Johnson then put out a call on Facebook for donations to pay the bills of her care and to raise awareness about the discovery and the possibility that dogs are getting abused to that extent. Between three Facebook posts Johnson published, she raised some $8,000 in that short span, all of it directed to the Flagler Humane Society. “Amy and I were just discussing a name and saying we need something fitting with her, with everything she’s been through. I came up with the name Grace,” Johnson said.
Sunday morning around 6, Grace died.
The Humane Society is offering a $2,500 reward to “the first person with information leading to the conviction of the person responsible for this dog’s injuries and lack of care,” according to a flier circulating since.
Residents wrote several messages to the Sheriff’s Office as word of Grace’s fate went viral in the county and beyond. By Monday, the Sheriff’s Office had launched an investigation, but a deputy found out that the examining doctor would not be back until Wednesday. But from conversations with other veterinarians at the hospital, “it was determined the dog was approximately 7 to 8 years of age and arthritic,” a sheriff’s report noted. “It was also septic due to its untreated injuries.” A doctor at the hospital said “the dog’s injuries are consistant of that of a dog being used as a bait dog,” the report continues. “The dog’s teeth appeared to have also been filed down,” a technique their owner-abusers use to keep them from fighting back or injuring attack dogs.
Deputies searched the area where Johnson had found Grace, and extended the search to the Espanola Cemetery for clues, but came up empty. Flagler Animal Control went door-to-door in Espanola, handing out a flier soliciting any information about the dog, again with no fruitful responses. Deputies visited one particular address on Knox Jones Road, known to have many dogs.
Even if Grace was not a bait dog, her injuries were so severe that the neglect amounts to felony abuse. “We just don’t know,” Carotenuto said. “It’s not necessarily organized dog fighting, it could just be an irresponsible owner, the dog could have been attacked by another animal and they didn’t seek veterinary care. Either way it’s animal cruelty.”
By Tuesday, Adam Leath had offered to work with Flagler County authorities on animal abuse cases. Leath, who took part in Flagler’s last extensive seminar on animal cruelty in 2018, at the Emergency Operations Center, is Volusia County’s animal control director and played a key role in the arrest of three men in mid-March accused of running a dogfighting ring. Some 42 dogs, all of them pitbulls, including 18 puppies, were rescued. Grace will also be taken to an animal hospital in Gainesville for a necropsy by a forensic pathologist. The necropsy will more accurately determine what led to Grace’s injuries.
Meanwhile, Johnson is continuing her campaign in Grace’s memory. “My hope is that we can raise awareness and start having people be the eyes for the animals and start reporting what they see,” Johnson said. She has little doubt that due to the extent of Grace’s injuries–and her age, now that it has been established–she could not have passed unnoticed. Someone saw. Johnson is hoping even for anonymous tips. (Johnson adopted her first pitbull from the Humane Society when she moved here many years ago, when she’d still head fears of pitbulls–until she learned of their loving and loyal capacities. She began helping out on the Lost Pets page, eventually taking it over and getting into different areas of rescue over the years, volunteers with the shelter and running adoption events.)
“The hope is that we can save others,” Johnson said. “It’s far-fetched that to say we’re going to put an end to dog fighting because they always find a way, but the more of them we can save, the better.”
As for the reward, it may grow, as people continue to donate toward it. The money, Carotenuto said this evening, “will more than cover” the hospital bill, “it will cover the reward, it should cover anything that we do from here.” If money is not spent on Grace, “it’ll be spent on another animal with another sad story. They’re not at the shelter unless they have a sad story. That’s a message I’d love to get across: everybody wants to help the dog with the super, super sad story, but the shelter is full of heartbreaks. Anybody that feels bad for this dog, come adopt another one that needs a home.”
Animal-cruelty cases are common, convictions of abusers are not. In 2010, a Seminole Woods man called Kenji X pleaded no contest to nine misdemeanor counts of cruelty to animals after dog-fighting paraphernalia were found at his property and several dogs were discovered to have signs of abuse and injuries. He was sentenced to 29 days in jail, a year’s probation, 240 hours of community service and had to pay fines. His sentence included his agreement to relocate to the state of Washington within 60 days, within the conditions of his probation. Yet two years later he was charged with felony battery in Flagler, and the charge was eventually dropped. He was still in Flagler in 2014, petitioning for an injunction.
If you have information helpful to the case of Grace, you may remain anonymous by calling Crime Stoppers at 1-888-277-8477 or submitting a tip through the P3 Tipps app, or on the sheriff’s website.