WETV takes on dog-mauling case

Published 9:56 pm Monday, April 20, 2009

Nearly a year after being catapulted into the national spotlight by a tornado that ripped through the city, Suffolk will once again be in the small-screen limelight – but this time for a much more gruesome event.

“Women Behind Bars,” a WeTV series that profiles women who are doing prison time for homicide, will profile Heather Frango, a Suffolk woman whose son was mauled to death by the family’s pit bulls in October 2005. The episode will air tonight on Charter channel 23 and DirectTV channel 260 at 10 p.m. tonight. It will feature Senior Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Susan Walton and Detective John Jones of the Suffolk Police Department talking about how they investigated and prosecuted the case.

On Oct. 3, 2005, 2-year-old Jonathan Martin got out of bed to go downstairs and get a bowl of cereal. He lived in a Whaleyville home with his mother, Heather Frango, his father, James Martin, his younger brother, Daniel, and two pit bulls.

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The dogs were usually chained in the backyard, but they had been brought into the house the night before because the female had puppies, according to a synopsis of the case on the WeTV Web site.

At some point, the child went into the room where the dogs were being kept, Walton said.

“He went downstairs and went in a room with these two dogs, and the dogs killed the child,” Walton said during a phone interview on Monday.

The boy had more than 100 bite marks on his body, and his ears had been removed, Walton said. There also was evidence that one of the dogs had nipped the child previously.

“His face was just horrible,” Walton said. “It was just a horrible case.”

An autopsy revealed that the child had bled to death. The report also showed that despite the numerous bite marks, the child’s throat and larynx were intact, indicating that he likely was screaming during the attack until he fell unconscious, Walton said.

The parents admitted they had smoked marijuana the night before, but fellow inmates were prepared to testify that the parents had said they were smoking marijuana at the time the child was killed. Drug paraphernalia was found in the open in the parents’ bedroom, said Detective John Jones, and the dogs were used to guard a marijuana crop in the backyard.

Frango was charged with felony homicide, child abuse and neglect and involuntary manslaughter. In a plea deal, Frango pleaded guilty to child neglect and involuntary manslaughter. Both she and Martin were sentenced to three years in prison. Frango is scheduled to be released from Fluvanna Correctional Center in June.

Jones, who responded to the scene that day, said the show’s crew filmed him last year driving from police headquarters and past the crime scene, and they stopped at a point shortly past the crime scene to do an interview. Jones admits he got emotional during the interview for the show, as he did several times when working the case.

“When I saw the pictures of this case, it bothered me more than the autopsy,” he said. “It was very emotional.”

The case is unique, because police believe it marked the first time parents were charged with the death of their own child after it was mauled by their own dog.

Although Frango initially agreed to an on-camera interview for the show, she later declined, according to the WeTV Web site. She did answer a letter from the producers of the show, saying that she misses the child “every second of every day.”

Walton said she is a “little nervous” about how the show will depict the case, but hopes that the story will prompt other parents to think twice about allowing their young children around animals.

“It could save a life; it could save a permanent scar,” Walton said. “You don’t know what an animal’s going to do. There are so many times it doesn’t attack, but all it takes is just that one instance. You have to be cautious.”

“You can’t even say what humans are going to do, much less animals. You just don’t know. Their instincts are to do what they do.”

The Suffolk case will share the episode with the story of Jackie Alexander, who is serving life in prison for the murder of her roommate. The man’s body was found scorched in the trunk of his car.

Anyone who misses the show tonight can catch it at 1 a.m. Wednesday morning, or several other dates and times in the next two weeks. Visit www.wetv.com for more information.