Two men killed, five dogs blamed, and now the verdict. The dogs must die

Robert Lee Simonian, one of two men whose deaths have been linked to five dogs in the Biola area. A hearing officer has recommended that the dogs be destroyed.
Robert Lee Simonian, one of two men whose deaths have been linked to five dogs in the Biola area. A hearing officer has recommended that the dogs be destroyed. Special to The Bee

A Fresno County hearing officer has rendered his verdict on five dogs linked to the deaths last year of two men near Biola: The dogs must die.

In his five-page ruling, hearing officer Fred Rinder said Roscoe, Boss Hogg, Trigger, PePe and Shrek are considered dangerous under the county ordinance because the dogs often roam loose and without provocation they exhibit “menacing, threatening and terrorizing” behavior. After hearing testimony from a Fresno County sheriff’s homicide detective, he ruled the dogs should be humanely destroyed.

The dogs belonged to 70-year-old Harold Matthews, who could not be reached to comment. County officials say Matthews has filed an appeal of Rinder’s May 3 ruling in Superior Court. But he also has been sued in Superior Court by the family of one of the victims, Robert Lee Simonian, 74, a longtime Fresno resident.

At a hearing on April 28, sheriff’s homicide Detective Hector Palma linked Matthews’ dogs to the April 14, 2016, killing of Valente Lopez Aguirre, 58, of Kerman, and the July 5 death of Simonian, who was a member of the Biola Congregational Church, an avid hiker, and a grape farmer.

Palma testified that Lopez and Simonian each died about 100 yards from Matthews’ home on Barstow Avenue, west of Floyd Avenue, near the Herndon Canal.

It’s unclear what Lopez was doing in the area, but Simonian’s family members say he was training for a hike in Yosemite National Park, according to a lawsuit filed by Fresno attorney Edward Fanucci. Simonian was found with multiple dog bites and submerged in a canal wearing a backpack that weighed 30 to 40 pounds.

The wrongful death lawsuit accuses Matthews and his family of negligence and knowingly owning dangerous dogs.

In his argument to save the dogs, Fresno attorney E. Marshall Hodgkins told Rinder at the April 28 hearing that no one saw Matthews’ dogs attack either Lopez or Simonian. He also said neighbors did not complain about the canines, but have had concerns about other dogs that roam loose in the area.

Hodgkins said the sheriff’s office also served a search warrant at Matthews’ home and did extensive DNA testing on 25 seized items, including the dogs bedding, but found no trace of human blood. In addition, sheriff’s officials took molds of the five dogs’ teeth and hired an expert to compare the molds to the victims’ dog bites. The expert could not say for certain if the dogs killed either man, Hodgkins said.

But Rinder said in his ruling that on April 14, 2016, one of Matthews’ dogs barked and advanced toward a sheriff’s deputy, who had to pepper spray the animal.

Matthews’ dogs also barked and harassed sheriff’s search and rescue crew members who were looking for Simonian along the canal bank, Rinder said.

In addition, at least two people told sheriff’s detectives that Matthews’ dogs barked and chased them down Barstow Avenue, Rinder said.

The coroner’s office determined that Lopez died from an animal attack. But Palma testified that the expert could not determine whether Matthews’ dogs killed Lopez, because Lopez had been dead more than a day and his body had decomposed.

The coroner’s office said Simonian died of drowning after he went missing during a walk on July 4. But a medical examination showed that Simonian had multiple dog bites on his body, Palma testified.

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts