CSI: Cat Slay Investigation

updated 01/23/2006 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/23/2006 01:00AM

First, the gruesome discovery: what looked like a crumpled trash bag beneath a willow tree in the front yard. “I got closer and realized it was our cat Cody,” says Eric Christian, a computer-systems engineer. “He had cuts and one paw was broken. My heart sank.” After Eric told his wife, Marylin, their beloved 13-year-old mixed breed was dead, she sat on the porch with its body for hours. “His claws were in the tree; he was fighting hard, and something ripped him out,” she says. “I was in shock.”

Cue the pounding rock music and fetch the swabs: What happened next could be a slightly weird episode of CSI. Distraught over Cody's death, the Christians went to unusual lengths to solve the crime, launching an investigation complete with forensic analysis, DNA samples and, ultimately, a prime suspect: Lucky, a 4-year-old German Shepherd mix belonging to the Christians' neighbors in rural Lovettsville, Va. That discovery has led to an ongoing squabble between the Christians and Lucky's owners Sean and Janet Daryabeygi. “I love dogs, but my concern is for the safety of my family,” says Marylin, 35, who feels Lucky is a threat to her four other cats and possibly to her 1-year-old son, Denison. “We didn't move to the country to have our boy grow up inside.”

Fans of the show CSI, the Christians asked a local vet to perform a necropsy one week after Cody was killed last Aug. 19. Multiple puncture wounds and broken ribs—as well as fur found in Cody's mouth—suggested a large animal grabbed and shook him. “Marylin asked me, if she took hair from an animal, could she match it with the hair that was found,” says Ross Peterson, the Virginia vet who examined Cody. “I told her we'd have to do a DNA test.”

Marylin—who occasionally allowed her cats to roam the five grassy acres outside her four-bedroom farmhouse—quickly zeroed in on Lucky, who was known to get loose. She paid the Daryabeygis, new to town, a visit. “We thought it was a neighbor bringing a housewarming present,” says Sean, 62, an electrical engineer. “But then Marilyn grabbed the dog and put some hair in her pocket.” The Christians even persuaded their neighbors to give them some of Lucky's saliva and sent it to Veterinary Genetics Laboratory (see box). Employing forensics specialists to solve a pet crime is a growing but still rare phenomenon; even so, the Christians were determined. They spent $500 on DNA tests that showed the fur in Cody's mouth matched Lucky's fur. They petitioned Loudoun County to have Lucky declared a dangerous dog, but officials weren't persuaded by the tests. “There are no witnesses,” says county animal control director Thomas Koenig. “There is no evidence to move on a dangerous dog order.”

The Daryabeygis were relieved but not surprised. “We feel sympathy for them, but thousands of dogs chase cats,” says Sean. “That is the nature of the beast.” Beverly Hills-based dog behaviorist David Reinecker says, “Even sweet dogs will kill a cat, especially if it invades their territory.” The Christians are worried that Lucky now has a taste for blood. “Once a dog kills a cat,” says Peterson, “most likely they will continue to do that.”

Since Cody's death the Daryabeygis have spent $1,000 on a dog fence. “I don't know what more they want us to do,” says Sean. Yet Marylin isn't content just to see Lucky behind a fence. “I want the county to have a dangerous-dog trial so the dog will be muzzled when it's off the property,” she says. “I will pursue this even without the support of the county.” As she does she continues to mourn the beloved feline she adopted from a shelter. Whenever Marylin felt blue, remembers Eric, 39, “Cody would look out for her. He'd go kill a mouse and bring it back.”

Makes you wonder how the folks at CSI would handle that.

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