LAYTON — Four-year-old Austin Brown was playing in his backyard when he noticed “a puppy nose” peeking through a hole in his fence. According to Austin’s mother, Hope Brown, the young boy reached his hand through the fence to pet the dog when an animal’s jaws clamped down on his hand and tore it off from the elbow down.
It was a parent’s nightmare come true, but for the Brown family, it was just the beginning. For the past month, the family has seen has articles distorting the story and blaming them for their son’s injury, and they have received hate mail and threats online.
The Browns have been relatively quiet throughout the ordeal and have tried to avoid the spotlight. However, KSL’s Andrew Hull, producer of KSL Newsradio’s Dave & Dujanovic, has remained in constant contact with Hope Brown as the story has developed. She has shared some of the horrific messages she’s received with him and, yesterday, publicly shared her side of the story with the world for the first time.
Hope Brown’s version of the story
When Austin Brown was attacked on March 3rd, the first reports described it as a pair of confused dogs thinking they were playing a game of tug-of-war. The first account came from Layton Fire Battalion Chief Jason Cook, who told the media that Austin had covered his hand with a sock and stuck it under the fence. The dogs, thinking the boy’s sock-covered hand was a toy, grabbed hold of it and tried to pull it away, Cook told the press.
“This is one of those innocent child play moments,” Cook told Deseret News. “He’s seen them and maybe even done something similar with them before, but for whatever reason this one kind of took a tragic turn today.”
The Browns, however, tell a very different story. Austin, Hope says, wasn’t wearing a sock on his hands, he was just wearing mittens. And he didn’t harass the dogs. They dug their way under the fence.
In a long post on Facebook yesterday, Hope explained that, when it happened, Austin was outside playing with his dinosaurs and trucks. His father kept an eye on him the whole time he was in the backyard, she says, watching him from inside through the window.
This was something Austin did every day. The family didn’t imagine anything could go wrong. After all, he was in their own backyard, with his father was watching his every move, and they’d never been given any kind of warning that the dogs belonging to their new neighbor next door might be dangerous.
“We took every precaution we could to make sure our child was safe,” Hope says. “How could anyone have predicted … that something like this could happen?”
One of the dogs, Hope says, dug under the fence just enough to get his snout and part of his head under. Austin, excited to see what he believed was a dog looking to play, tried to pet it. Within seconds, the dog clamped down on his hand and started pulling the young boy toward the fence.
“I saw a puppy nose,” Austin would later tell his mother when she asked him how it had happened. “I touched the puppy nose and it bit my finger and pulled me.”
Austin’s father, a former marine, rushed to his son’s rescue without a moment’s hesitation, Hope says. He screamed at the dogs, trying to frighten them into letting his son go, but even in all the commotion, the dogs didn’t let go.
“This is NOT normal dog behavior,” Hope says. “All the screaming from a grown man and a child and they wouldn’t let go? How is that normal dog behavior?”
The dogs tore off most of Austin’s arm from the elbow down. It’s believed that either one or both dogs then ate the young boy’s severed arm, bones and all. Animal Care and Control has been unable to find any trace of his missing limb.
By the time his father had made it to him, he could do nothing but struggle to stop the bleeding and try to keep his young boy alive. Throughout, Austin never lost consciousness. Hope says that he was awake and lucid for every moment of the ordeal.
“The attack left him with only one bone below his elbow and 5 centimeters of forearm left,” Hope says. “Emotionally he is a wreck, he’s scared, he’s so angry. He can’t leave my side without panicking.”
The hate mail begins
Hope Brown’s version of the story is in almost complete contradiction to the official accounts released by the Layton Fire Batallion and Animal Care and Control.
It’s difficult to say for sure what really happened. Animal Care and Control were tasked with investigating the case, and they haven’t been able to confirm much for sure.
“It was a difficult case,” Rhett Nicks, Director of Animal Care and Control, told Hull. “We had no eyewitnesses, so it’s almost impossible to tell.”
But even that statement directly contradicts Hope’s version of the story, as she says that her husband watched the whole thing unfold. It also seems to ignore the one eyewitness who unquestionably saw the whole thing happen: young Austin Brown.
In cases like these, police and professional detectives are rarely asked to investigate. KSL Newsradio spoke with police experts and attorneys who have explained that these incidents like these are usually left up to Animal Care and Control. Unless the Brown family sues, attorney Greg Skordas told us, it’s unlikely that any deeper investigation will be conducted.
For the time being, however, some details have come to light that seem to support Hope’s version of the story. The Layton Fire Batallion has removed the claim that Austin had a sock on his hand from their public statement, while another neighbor has confirmed that the dogs do have a history of bullying children through fences.
Neighbor Kellie Henry, speaking to KSL-TV, said that the dogs have stuck their snouts through a hole in her own fence and aggressively barked at her children in the past. In light of what happened to Austin, she told KSL TV’s Caitlin Burchill: “It’s scary to think about how easily it could have been my kid.”
Cook’s version of the story, however, remains the one most people have heard. His claim that Austin put a sock on his hand and stuck it through the fence has appeared in news articles around the country, spreading a wide perception that the Browns were negligent parents who brought this upon themselves.
That’s the version of the story told in an online petition that’s receiving nearly 250,000 signatures calling for the dogs to be kept alive. It’s also the version told in a GoFundMe campaign set up by one of the dog owner’s friends to try to get the dogs released from animal control.
And it’s the version of the story that seems to have brought a flood of hate mail that Hope Brown shared with KSL Newsradio, much of which we’ve had to censor to share here:
This message is hardly the only one they’ve received. The story spread by Cook and the first media reports, Hope says, has “caused an unbelievable amount of threats and hate sent to our family.”
Despite the horrific messages, Hope says that she believes most people are still supportive of her and her family through their struggle. “We know that we have so many more supportive and loving people in our corner,” she says. “The hateful ones can just yell louder.”
Austin has now been released from the hospital and is at home. The Brown family says, however, that he will need both physical therapy and PTSD counseling to recover from the attack.
Anyone wanting to support the Brown family can make donations to Superman’s Army, an account that has been set up to help them pay the medical bills for Austin’s injuries. The Brown family has said that any additional money they might receive, either through insurance or through the support of others, will be kept in trust for Austin when he comes of age.
More to the story
The dogs that ate Austin’s hand will be sent to a rescue sanctuary or to another organization that cares for animals and will not be euthanized. And Animal Care and Control has dropped all citations against the dog’s owner in exchange for the rights to send away the dogs.
Is this the end of the story? And if so, is it a good one?
That’s a question KSL Newsradio’s Dave & Dujanovic spent an hour and a half discussing today on the air, especially after attorney Greg Skordas assured them that this is highly out of the ordinary.
“Under the law, the owners of the dogs are absolutely liable,” Skordas told Dave and Debbie. “Whether the child provoked them, whether the child was on the property and shouldn’t have been – no matter what was happening, they’re absolutely responsible for the conduct of their animals.”
Hear Dave & Dujanovic’s emotional coverage of this story, including conversations with Skordas and Animal Care and Control and messages from Hope Brown, on the Dave & Dujanovic podcast.