WINDSOR — There is a quiet corner in Windsor that Grace Vance thinks of as a mecca for carriage and driving enthusiasts.

With miles of driving trails winding through beautiful pine forests, friendly neighbors and sprawling paddocks full of miniature horses, Vance thought she'd found a little slice of heaven at her property off Spring Branch Road.

All that came crashing down in October when Vance saw two dogs standing over her mini horse inside its paddock. The mini horse, a 12-year-old driving pony named Coco Puff, had been brutally mauled to death.

Unable to see the extent of Coco Puff's injuries, Vance hoped he was still alive and could be saved. But the dogs, who Vance claims are pit bull-hound mixes, didn't back down.

"First they were protecting the kill," Vance said. "And then as I got closer and started screaming … they came toward me."

Vance said the dogs, who she described as "very large," rushed toward her, barking and growling. Fearing for her life, she hid inside her truck.

"I thought there were going to be two bodies," Vance said. "His and mine."

Vance said the dogs eventually left the paddock by leaping over the fence and vacating her property.

Aiken County Administrator Clay Killian confirmed the two dogs in question had been surrendered to the county by their owner and impounded. The owner, Jesus Moreno Negrete, of Windsor, is facing two charges for "dangerous animals" in violation of state ordinances, according to the Aiken County Second Judicial Circuit Public Index. 

Killian said the county would seek to hold Negrete liable for the death of Vance's mini horse.    

A court hearing will be held before Magistrate Donna Williamson in Wagener Municipal Court on Dec. 9.

Now, Vance and some other property owners in the area are furious and frightened over an issue they believe could have been prevented, and are pointing blame at Aiken County ordinances they believe kept authorities from being able to take action in the weeks leading up to the attack that allegedly left Vance's mini horse dead.

A recurring problem

Beginning in early October, the two dogs Vance saw in her paddock were sighted by other people in the area around Spring Branch Road. Vance claims several other property owners had reported seeing the dogs barking at livestock through fences and occasionally behaving aggressively toward horses and people.

One of those people was Aileen Munro, who had a run-in with the dogs on her rental property, located close to Vance's. 

Several days before the attack on Vance's mini horse, Munro said she heard "loud, aggressive" barking and went to investigate. She said she found the same two dogs at her paddock fence, and grabbed a pitchfork to defend herself.

"When they saw me, they charged the fence, and I just ran screaming at them with the pitchfork," Munro said. "Finally, they backed off. …Then they went into the woods and came back out barking again."

Munro said she held her ground and the dogs eventually left.

"I called my husband and said, 'we have a problem,'" Munro said. "This wasn’t a 'Hi, glad to see you' kind of bark… This was an 'I’m coming to get you' kind of bark, and I was really terrified."

Munro also noticed strange behavior from her horse, whose paddock was right next to Coco Puff's, on the day the mini was killed. Munro claimed her horse tried to bolt during a carriage ride and hid in his stall when she returned him to the paddock. She also noticed the ground in the paddock was "torn up." 

"I am sure that they (the dogs) chased him that morning," Munro said. "Thankfully, he’s bigger and has a large amount of area to run from, but he would not leave the stall that whole day."

Nilda Burke, another area property owner, claims she saw the dogs as well, and had personally asked the owners to keep them on their property. Burke said the dogs seemed "friendly" around their owners, but she'd heard other people complain about aggressive behavior and had concerns about them roaming loose. 

After residents contacted Aiken County Animal Control, an officer was dispatched to investigate the situation. Killian said the officer searched the area for the dogs, but was unable to locate them off the owner's property. Aiken County Animal Control visited the owner's property at least once, Killian said, and issued warnings against violating state ordinances which prevent animals from roaming freely beyond their owner's property.

Vance said she asked the officer to seize the dogs because she believed an accident was eminent, but the officer claimed he did not have grounds to do so.

Aiken County ordinances

According to the Aiken County Code of Ordinances, Sec. 4-68, a "nuisance animal" can be defined as one that is repeatedly found at large, molests or intimidates passerby, or attacks other domestic animals. 

However, South Carolina Code of Laws defines a "dangerous animal" as any animal of the canine or feline family that, among a list of criteria, executes an "unprovoked attack" outside of where the animal is confined as required by state law, or exhibits behavior that causes a person to "reasonably believe" that the animal will attack or injure someone.

Killian said the line between nuisance and dangerous animals is generally decided on a case-by-case basis, as the Aiken County ordinances also incorporate state law. Charges made against Negrete by officials were originally nuisance charges, according to public court records, but were upped to dangerous animal charges in November.

"If we have an animal that has bitten or attacked another animal, especially if there's a pattern, we take it seriously," Killian said.

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State law adopted into the Aiken County Code of Ordinances prohibits animals from roaming "at large" on property not rented, controlled or owned by the animal's owner. Animal Control does not generally seize animals on first-offense roaming unless the officers see aggressive behavior or proof of aggressive behavior, Killian said.

Instead, if the officer scans a chip and it is the animal's first time away from the property, the dog will be returned to the owner.  

Vance believes Animal Control was hindered by regulations she thinks are "outdated." 

"Because of the insufficiency of the current regulations, when they found the dogs that had been identified (in the complaints), they could not take them in a preventative measure to hold them," Vance said. "So while they were identified several days before and (we) knew where they lived, because of the current regulations that are ineffective, those dogs were not able to be contained."  

Vance's biggest point of contention with the regulations is that they do not reflect Windsor's shifting landscape from rural to "rural-urban," in her opinion. She hopes the ordinances will change in the future to reflect this perceived shift.

"There are a lot more people, a lot more residents, a lot more farms that are very close," Vance said. "So that one loose dog can affect easily 30, 40 properties within a very small radius. It’s not a minor issue. It’s a public safety issue for people and animals."

"I understand that people love their animals, but they need to understand that when your dog goes off your property, that family-friendly animal changes and becomes a huge risk to people and to other animals," she continued. "There are still other dogs on that property. I’m very scared this will happen again."

Other residents who blame the dogs for the attack are also concerned for their safety and the safety of their animals. Munro and Vance have moved their remaining animals away from their Windsor properties. Burke still has concerns for her family and for her neighbors, who often go driving in carriages around the neighborhood, which includes wooded areas with no cellphone service.

"The biggest thing for me is that I really thought by putting up a 4-, 4½-foot fence that myself, my dogs, my family, my horses would be safe," Burke said. "To realize that dogs can leap over these fences just as if a deer was leaping over astounds me. It has just turned my world upside down so far as the safety of my family and pets and horses."

Kristina Rackley is a general assignment reporter with the Aiken Standard.