Three years ago, a police dog bit a 5-year-old Oregon girl in the face and ripped her cheek apart. The dog had a history of aggression and was under the watch of the police department's lead trainer — the girl's uncle. Trinity Loeb now lives with a thick, pink scar that begins at the left...
PORTLAND — Three years ago, a police dog bit a 5-year-old girl in the face and ripped her cheek apart. The dog had a history of aggression and was under the watch of the police department’s lead trainer — the girl’s uncle.
Trinity Loeb now lives with a thick, pink scar that begins at the left corner of her mouth and stretches to her left ear. Though her wound has healed, the incident has done emotional damage to her family.
Tensions grew amid conflict about how to best handle Trinity’s injury. The fallout strained a marriage and pitted family members against one another in a legal battle. Trinity’s parents, Chris and Darcie Loeb, ultimately filed a $2 million lawsuit against the city of Gresham, Ore.; Gresham police Officer Scott Cunningham, Trinity’s uncle; and Elisa Cunningham, Darcie Loeb’s sister and Trinity’s aunt.
As the trial loomed this month in Multnomah County Circuit Court, family members declined to comment about the lawsuit.
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“I can honestly say that if it was just an officer, and it was not my family, I would probably be a really mean person about it,” said Darcie Loeb, in her first interview about the struggles since Trinity’s injury.
“I would probably say, ‘Take their house and take their boat. And you know what, let’s picket outside their front yard.’ “
It came as a surprise to the Loeb and Cunningham families when they realized they would be living in the same upscale Pleasant Valley neighborhood on the outskirts of Portland. Trinity’s parents found property on a cul-de-sac, and the Cunninghams later decided to buy a home, one street over, that practically connected to their lot.
For the first year, the setup was almost too good to be true. The families’ nine children went from house to house through linked backyards. Darcie and Elisa worked together at a hair salon. Chris and Scott played in the same golf tournaments.
Then came Aug. 31, 2005.
Even before, the Loebs say they thought the dog, Lex, was scary. The German shepherd lived with the Cunninghams, and he lunged and barked. Scott Cunningham warned visitors never to look directly into Lex’s eyes.
But the Loebs trusted Scott, a trained professional, when he assured them Lex was under control.
That afternoon, Trinity went to the Cunninghams’ looking for 7UP to make a Shirley Temple soft drink. Scott Cunningham was working in the yard and didn’t see what provoked Lex. But he heard the attack and called off Lex, who obeyed.
Cunningham carried his bleeding niece back to her parents’ house.
Darcie Loeb’s cellphone rang at the supermarket where she was shopping.
“Lex got Trinity,” said her oldest daughter, who was baby-sitting.
Chris Loeb arrived home shortly to find Cunningham covered in blood, holding Trinity, her head tucked close to his chest. “Everything kind of blurs at that point,” he said.
The Cunninghams never called an ambulance, Chris Loeb said. And instead of going to Adventist Medical Center — the closest hospital — Elisa Cunningham drove them to Legacy Mount Hood Medical Center in Gresham, where Scott’s police commanders met the family.
“To me, that’s damage control,” said Chris Loeb, 34.
Eventually, Trinity went to Legacy Emanuel Hospital and Health Center in Portland for surgery. Darcie Loeb crawled into Trinity’s hospital bed and wouldn’t leave her side.
“What she said right when she came out of surgery was, ‘I went to get 7UP from Auntie E, and Lex jumped on top of me and started eating my face. And I didn’t look him in the eyes,’ ” recalled Darcie, 38.
When the family went home after four days at the hospital, Scott Cunningham offered a bottle of whiskey and apologized, Chris Loeb said.
The Police Department euthanized Lex a few weeks later.
The families didn’t get together again until Christmas 2006.
Far from normal
Life hasn’t returned to normal.
Chris and Darcie separated in September after eight years of marriage. Neither says the pending divorce is because of the accident, though Darcie said Chris hasn’t let go of his anger.
Scott Cunningham’s decision to let Lex off his leash in the backyard — which wasn’t completely fenced — was like “leaving a loaded handgun sitting out,” Chris said. He said he will never get over how his in-laws handled Trinity’s injury.
Darcie and Elisa “were able to behave like it didn’t happen for the sake of the kids,” he said. “I was never able to latch on to that.”
Meanwhile, Darcie Loeb said she felt caught between her own frustration and her husband’s hostility, at times forced to stick up for her sister’s family. Maintaining a normal relationship with Elisa proved difficult. But things are improving, she said, even though no one discussed the lawsuit.
“We kind of deal with it by ignoring it,” Darcie said. “We have very different views on it.”
Elisa Cunningham, 40, didn’t return phone calls for an interview. Scott Cunningham, 46, also declined an interview request through the Police Department. He has been on paid administrative leave since April 16, pending an internal affairs investigation of a separate incident. Capt. Tim Gerkman wouldn’t comment on the investigation.
In a deposition last year, Cunningham called Trinity’s injury an “emotionally traumatizing incident for me.”
“I take responsibility for the incident occurring,” he said. “I spent a lot of — many, many days and nights wondering what I could have done differently other than not having Lex out. But it’s hard for me to find blame in me specifically doing anything overtly that would cause that to happen.”
The Loebs’ case against Gresham was scheduled for trial June 9, but the city offered them a settlement of $200,000, which they accepted.
The money will pay for about $50,000 in medical expenses and attorney fees. The remainder will go into an annuity for Trinity. Still, the court victory is bittersweet.
A judge dismissed Scott Cunningham from the lawsuit, and the Loebs subsequently dropped their case against Elisa Cunningham. But the Loebs plan to appeal the judge’s ruling and pursue a claim against the Cunninghams.
Almost three years after the attack, Trinity is thin, with a heartwarming smile.
Until about six months ago, she would cry several times a week about her scar, Darcie said. When Trinity’s second-grade teacher assigned self-portraits, Trinity used a red crayon to form the bold scar.
“Obviously she still looks in the mirror and thinks that that’s the biggest, most outstanding feature of her,” Darcie said. “And that really bothers me. A lot.”
Through it all, however, Trinity may be coping best.
She believes Scott Cunningham saved her, because he called off Lex and took her back to her parents’ house, Darcie said.
Her parents, concerned she wouldn’t want to go to school, offered a present to make her feel better.
Trinity wanted a dog. An English springer spaniel.
“Daisy’s sweet,” Trinity said. “And fun, too.”
Already she sees a future for herself.
When she grows up, Trinity wants to heal injured pets.