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Mauled: New questions surround the death of a desert woman attacked by four pit bulls

Mauled: New questions surround the death

NEAR YUCCA VALLEY, Calif. - On January 16, deputies from the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department received a call about a "vicious animal attack" at the 59000 block of Sunflower Drive. 

When deputies arrived, they found 70-year-old Lana Bergman suffering from major injuries as a result of being mauled by four pit bulls. She died a short time later. 

A month later, questions remain unanswered, with some saying that her death could have been prevented. 

 

The coroner has not revealed an official cause of death for Lana Bergman.
 
The 70 year old's bloody body was found surrounded by four dogs in the yard of her home near Yucca Valley on Jan. 16, 2019.
 
"I would have bet everything, I would have sworn on my child's life that my dog would never bite or harm a person," said Stephanie Johnston, known to her friends as Embers.  
 
Johnston says her family was in Joshua Tree celebrating two of her children's birthdays when they got a call from Bergman.  The family had parked their converted school bus on Bergman's property a couple weeks before, and had been living there with their four children and four dogs since that time.
"(Lana) was super upset," explained Johnston.  "She says, 'your dogs were out.'  How did our dogs get out?  That doesn't make sense."
When they arrived back at the property minutes later, Johnston described, "The scene my husband and his best friend walked in on was pretty gruesome... (Joe Fairbanks) walked up to her and was like, 'Lana, Lana, are you ok?'  And he shined his light on her, and that's when he started screaming, because her neck had been torn open."

A bite report News Channel 3 obtained from San Bernardino County Animal Care and Control Services shows Bergman was 'mauled and killed by these four dogs.'

"I do know that our dogs are not aggressive," asserted Johnston.  "And this is just an inconceivable scenario."

Johnston claimed the family's staffordshire bull terriers are service dogs that were raised with her four children.

"I'm just sick about it," said Bergman's next door neighbor Pat Lake.  "Just literally sick.  To think that that would happen."
Lake said Johnston's dogs had gotten loose before.  One of them tried to get over the fence into her yard, but got it's harness caught on the wood.  Lake's own dog started barking, and when she went to the front, she saw the white pit bull hanging from it's torso on the fence.

Lake said "no," Bergman did not want the family's bus parked on her property.
But Johnston said Bergman never gave her that impression.
"What we were getting was the opposite," said Johnston.

But Bergman's family shared a voice mail left to her sister in law the very day she died, in which she assured her family that "Thursday, they are being pulled out no matter if it's raining or what, they have to leave this premises."

Listen to Lana's voicemail to her sister-in-law the day she died.

Another startling sign of Bergman's terror however, comes in the form of a text message obtained by family but verified by the sender, in which Bergman writes to a long-time friend at 9:50 p.m. "Help-- (stet) there dogs broke out.  They all around my house... They in my yard.  I am so sooo scared."
Ten minutes later, police got the call that Bergman's roommate and Johnston's husband arrived to find her dead.
Det. Emanuel Popa of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Dept. would not comment on the text message or voice mail.
"Unfortunately there was no one there to witness the incident so a lot of these questions may go unanswered," he said.

 

But Bergman's family has suspicions, and across the country, in Austin, TX, Colleen Lynn does as well.
Lynn is the president of the nonprofit Dogsbite.org, which advocates for dog bite victims and their families.

"It was a red flag that (Bergman) was alone," said Lynn.  "The news release came out and then it was quickly learned within a day or two that there were some very questionable parts of it.  Such as the family had been living there for a year, as opposed to a week and a half or something like that...we already know somebody didn't tell the truth to police, and it may be the same people who found her, discovered her."
The initital news release from the Sheriff's Department also stated Bergman was living on the property with her husband.  However Alan Bergman admitted he was estranged from his wife for the last 16 months, and had not lived with her during that time.

"I'm totally baffled by this whole thing," Alan Bergman said. 

Johnston is not convinced her dogs are responsible.

"Something else where they either felt like they had to protect their puppies, or there's some other element that hasn't come up. Some piece that nobody knows yet that is going to come up that's missing, like oh there's a coyote, or somebody murdered her, or she self harmed herself in a blackout."

 Johnston is also suspicious of why Bergman was found "at the corner of her property, and why she had a sword."

"The picture I get of what happened, that seems pretty clear, from the texts she sent out, that the dogs were going to attack her dog, Hunter," said Alan Bergman.  "(Lana) did not have a fear of dogs, even pit bulls.  She was an animal lover.  Whether she was under the influence or not, she was just went out to get her dog in, and from what I can tell, she tried to get the dogs back onto the bus.  And something could have happened.  More than likely she tried to get one of them in, and they attacked.  All they had to do was jump on her once to get her down.  She was very frail.  There was no doubt that it was just an accident.  It's unfortunate and it's terrible."  

The four dogs are on a legal hold at the Yucca Valley Animal Shelter.  While they are there, the dogs cannot be adopted, euthanized or returned to their owners.

Det. Popa said he is still interviewing anyone who knew either family.  "A lot of different sources have come out after the incident, and everybody is giving their stories.  So we just have to sift through everything and figure out what really happened."

Popa said that social media posts regarding Johnston's family and their history, intimating they had child custody issues appear to be unfounded and that they appeared to be in good health.

Johnston said that even if the family's dogs are proven to have killed Bergman they would want them back.  "Yeah, if I had the opportunity.  If I had the option. We're not giving up hope."

The results of the sheriff's and coroner's reports could determine if the owners are prosecuted for having a mischievous animal.  California PC 399A states "If any person owning or having custody or control of a mischievous animal, knowing its propensities, willfully suffers it to go at large, or keeps it without ordinary care, and the animal, while so at large, or while not kept with ordinary care, kills any human being who has taken all the precautions that the circumstances permitted, or which a reasonable person would ordinarily take in the same situation, is guilty of a felony."

Bergman said he believes that some responsibility lies with the family who was staying on the property, because he believes it is clear the dogs were not properly restrained.

"They were absolutely responsible, and should be prosecuted," said Bergman.

John Papp, Cpt. of Field Services for San Bernardino County Animal Control said he was aware of only two deadly dog attacks in unincorporated San Bernardino County in recent memory, "One in 2000, a 10 year old boy named Cash Carson in the Newberry Springs area, and this current one in Joshua Tree."  Papp pointed out that his agency is one of 17 within the County "that enforce animal control regulations. Each agency would need to be contacted individually for any information they may have."

San Bernardino is the geographically the largest county in California.

In Riverside County, the Coroner's office has record of 7 deadly dog attacks since 2005. They are:

  1. 2009-Hill Andrew Williams, Jr.
  2. 2010 Christina Casey
  3. 2010 Edward Mitchell
  4. 2013 Elsie Helen Grace
  5. 2014 Annabell Martin
  6. 2015 Emilio Ross
  7. 2018 Hector Riano

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