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Judge Gives Probation to Dog Owner in Pit Bull Attack on Columbia County Boy

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The decision by Judge Kathy Palmer to give probation Thursday to the owner of the pit bulls who mauled Justin Gilstrap is sparking immediate outrage.

Dog owner Burt Thomas Baker III, 26, was reportedly given 12 months of probation in a blind plea Thursday morning in Columbia County. He could have been given 12 months in prison for the misdemeanor offense of reckless conduct, but the visiting judge chose probation.

The hearing was not announced and was listed as a status conference. But Baker entered the guilty plea, as he is legally entitled to do, leaving the judge to determine the sentence.

Erika Stevens, the mother of the 12-year-old victim, asked for prayers on Facebook after the judge’s decision.

“We just had court with the owner of the dogs, and he plead guilty BUT with only 12 months probation and a $4,800 fine to be paid in year,” Stevens said. “I am beyond furious!!!! My baby is worth more than a friggin slap on the wrist!”

Renee Rodkey reacted by calling it unbelievable. “This young man deserves so much more!!” she said on Facebook.

Gail Smith added this: “Where is justice? That’s like a fine. I can’t believe there is no punishment in this case. A boy almost lost his life & the trauma will always be there. Wow!”

Columbia County District Attorney Bobby Christine called it “a pitiful case where we are absolutely sympathetic to our victim.”

“That is why we charged this criminally,” Christine said. “It is what the law allowed us to do, and the judge’s sentence is the judge’s sentence. We reduced nothing.”

The heart-wrenching story of Justin Gilstrap being mauled by three unrestrained pit bulls on Jan. 6 in Columbia County resulted in worldwide attention and garnered almost universal anger at the dogs’ owner.

Baker was immediately charged with reckless conduct and released from jail on a $1,100 bond before Justin was even done with surgeries to repair the devastating injuries.

Justin, who was 11 at the time, was simply riding his bike in Appling when the dogs attacked him on his bike and eventually grabbed him and dragged him to a ditch on Langston Drive. All three dogs attacked Justin on the side of the road in the ditch, causing substantial injuries to his body.

Authorities said this after the attack: “The owner of the dogs, Burt Baker III, arrived on scene and admitted that the dogs were his and later stated they like to chase people on bicycles. After learning from Animal Control Officer Dana Csira that Baker has had reports and warnings in the past, Burt was taken into custody charged with reckless conduct.”

The family has incurred $1 million from medical bills. Earlier this year, Ericka Stevens has filed a civil suit in Superior Court on behalf of Justin.

The suit lists the dog’s owners, Baker and Brenda Johnson, as defendants in the case. The suit also names as many as 15 additional defendants, referred to as John/Jane Doe 1-15.

According to the lawsuit, “Defendants acted and or failed to act with the specific intent to cause harm to Justin Gilstrap. As a result thereof there is no limitation regarding the amount to be awarded as punitive damages.”

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Greg Rickabaugh
Greg Rickabaugh
Greg Rickabaugh is an award-winning crime reporter in the Augusta-Aiken area with experience writing for The Augusta Chronicle, The Augusta Press and serving as publisher of The Jail Report. Rickabaugh is a 1994 graduate of the University of South Carolina and has appeared on several crime documentaries on the Investigation Discovery channel.
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