FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — An autopsy has confirmed that a 13-year-old girl was killed by pack of dogs while taking a walk near her family’s home on the Navajo Nation.
Lyssa Rose Upshaw had extensive injuries that were consistent with canine teeth marks, including cuts and abrasions on her neck and head and deep soft tissue wounds on her legs. Her clothes were torn, and she was covered in dirt, according to the autopsy released this week in response to a public records request from The Associated Press.
While her mother, Marissa Jones, suspected dogs since she saw her daughter curled up off a dirt trail in Fort Defiance in mid-May, she had been awaiting an official cause.
“I never thought that would ever happen to my daughter,” she said. “She was a dog lover.”
The medical examiner’s office in Coconino County classified Upshaw’s death as accidental. The deadly attack has renewed discussion across the reservation about how to hold people accountable for their pets.
Tribal lawmakers recently passed a resolution to establish criminal penalties. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez vetoed it, saying it didn’t go far enough and needs more input.
At least a handful of deaths on the Navajo Nation over the years have been blamed on dog packs, and numerous other people have been injured. None of the tribe’s animal control laws, which are considered civil offenses, holds dog owners responsible for deaths.
Michael Henderson, the tribe’s criminal investigations director, said tribal charges are being considered in Upshaw’s death as authorities gather more evidence and await results for specimens collected from the dogs that belonged to a neighbor.
“The case is pretty far from being closed, far from being just put aside as an accident or a civil matter or anything like that,” he said. “We’re still very aggressively pursuing to understand the case to the extent to where if there are any criminal elements attached to what happened.”
The FBI is conducting some of the lab testing. Henderson said he has spoken with federal prosecutors whose initial response was that the case is not one that could be charged under a limited set of crimes for which the federal government has jurisdiction on tribal land.
Tribes have concurrent jurisdiction but often seek federal charges because they carry much stiffer penalties than under tribal law. The maximum time in jail that the Navajo Nation could impose for any crime, regardless of the severity, is one year.
Esther Winne, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Arizona, couldn’t say whether Upshaw’s case has been referred to federal prosecutors. The FBI did not respond to a message from the AP.
Jones said her “baby girl” who had aspirations of running on the high school cross country team deserved more compassion and sympathy from the neighbors who owned the dogs and more attention from investigators on the case.
She has been pushing for jail time and fines for whoever is found responsible, though Henderson acknowledged there’s not a clear path.
“I’m hoping and I’m praying for my daughter to get her justice,” Jones said.