'She just started living': Family devastated after Detroit girl, 9, mauled by dogs

Kat Stafford
Claudia Stapleton, aunt of Emma Hernandez, 9, holds a photo of her outside of her home in Detroit on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019.

DETROIT – Emma Valentina Hernandez loved riding her bike on hot summer days in Detroit.

It’s what she did nearly every day – sometimes with her two brothers, 4 and 13, in tow.

Hernandez was riding her bike Monday afternoon when three dogs mauled her in an alley, just steps away from her home on Detroit’s west side.

Hernandez, 9, died shortly after the attack, rocking the tight-knit Detroit neighborhood, which has since erected a memorial site in front of her family’s home, adorned with balloons, candles, bears and photos of her.

"We weren’t expecting this,” Claudia Stapleton, Hernandez's aunt and godmother, said while crying and clutching a framed photo of her. “She just started living and it’s hard to believe that one day you have her and then you don’t. I just want to say, 'watch your babies. Watch your babies. Don’t take your eyes off of them for one second.' It’s hard. It’s really hard.”

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Neighbors tried to stop the attack by shooting and throwing a brick at the dogs, which have been described as pit bulls, but it was too late.

“We knew it was bad as soon as we got to the hospital,” Stapleton said. “It was dead silence in the room and you could see it in everyone’s face that it was bad. She was gone. By the time my brother got to her, she was gone. ... The dogs, they just kept attacking her.”

A photo of Emma Hernandez, 9, taken Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019. Hernandez was fatally mauled Monday, Aug. 19, 2019, near her Detroit home.

Stapleton said her brother, Hernandez's father, told her the scene keeps replaying in his mind. 

“He’s so devastated right now,” she said. “He can’t even think. He was saying he’s having flashbacks and he’s seeing his baby girl. That’s his only baby girl. I just can’t picture it. I’d like to think that she slept and didn’t feel anything and that she’s in a better place. Her mom loved her so much. She feels like she didn’t get to say that enough but I know she knew.”

The three dogs who attacked the girl are being evaluated by Detroit Animal Care and Control, but probably will be euthanized.

The neighborhood is full of families and children, according to residents.

Stapleton said the family has lived in the home for just over a year. 

The dogs' owner was arrested by Detroit police, who are handling the investigation. A warrant request is pending in the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, Chief James Craig said in a Tuesday news conference.

"Certainly, the owner has a responsibility when they have violent animals that those animals are to be secure at all times," Craig said. "I believe that, and if you can't secure the animal, you shouldn't have the animal – period, not open for conversation."

Stapleton said the dogs have been an issue.

"The neighbor on the next street over made a report a year ago and the police never followed up," Stapleton said, adding that her brother had spoken to the owner about a week ago about the dogs. "My understanding is that the fence isn’t tall enough and they were able to jump over and that’s how they got to Emma." 

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On Tuesday night, it could not be corroborated with police that a report was made a year ago.

Right now, the family is just searching for answers.

"We’re trusting that the city does its job so people don’t have to take matters into their own hands but it just shows that there are places where they still fall short," Stapleton said. "It’s unfortunate that it takes it to get to this point to realize that OK, this is an issue. And this is something that needs to get correction."

Hernandez was just a few days away from starting fourth grade. As Stapleton was remembering the vivacious girl, people continuously walked up to pay their respects and share stories about her.

Emma Hernandez, 9, was attacked by three dogs in this Detroit alley on Monday, Aug. 19, 2019. The photo was taken Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019.

"She was such a smart kid," Stapleton said. "She was always the first one to jump up and do her homework. She loved to read. She was such a bookworm."

Hernandez also cared deeply for her grandmother, who is blind.

"When she lived with us at my mom’s house, she would wake up and say, 'What could I help you with?' " Stapleton recalled. "Her and my mom would pray every night. When we were in Mexico, she would call and say, 'Can we pray tonight?' She and my mom had a strong bond."

Although the family is grieving, Stapleton said they are grateful for the outpouring of support from the community. Detroit millionaire and founder of The Blight Authority, Bill Pulte has offered to pay for Hernandez's funeral. Stapleton said the family is finalizing her services.

"I’m very grateful," she said. "We appreciate it. It's unbelievable. They (her parents) just can’t find the words to say it right now. We’re just trusting that God has received her with open arms."

Follow Kat Stafford on Twitter: @kat__stafford

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit girl's dog mauling death: Family searches for answers