The dog is only a year old – barely more than a puppy – yet his muscled head is already twice the size of his female owner’s. Though his outsized jaws are clamped as he naps in her arms, their latent menace is unmistakable.
Nuzzling together, tender cheek by chestnut brown jowl, this is the first photograph of dog walker Natasha Johnston with Stan – the humungous bull terrier that savaged her to death in January, after turning on her as she exercised him in the Surrey countryside with seven other pets under her care.
The attack was so spontaneous and severe that it shocked the nation and brought calls for so-called ‘devil dogs’ to be banned by law.
Until now it has been reported that Stan was an XL bully, a dangerous and relatively new breed genetically programmed to be super-strong and aggressive, and, indeed, Natasha’s friends say she always presented him as such.
In one of many twists to this harrowing incident, however, veterinary surgeon Dr Alison Robson, an expert court witness called in to investigate the cause of Natasha’s death, says Stan was a pit bull – one of four breeds that are already illegal in Britain.
Nuzzling together, tender cheek by chestnut brown jowl, this is the first photograph of dog walker Natasha Johnston with Stan – the humungous bull terrier that savaged her to death in January, after turning on her as she exercised him in the Surrey countryside with seven other pets under her care
Until now it has been reported that Stan was an XL bully, but veterinary surgeon Dr Alison Robson says Natasha’s (pictured) dog was a pit bull – one of the breeds already illegal in the UK
As such, 28-year-old Natasha ought never to have taken him out on that fateful day. That she allowed Stan to mingle with seven other dogs on the walk and let him off the lead unmuzzled in a public place – and a friend tells me he had already bitten her twice in the days before the fatal attack – was, says Dr Robson, a ‘recipe for disaster’.
Eight months on, the inquest into Natasha’s death has yet to be concluded. We still don’t know exactly why Stan set about her.
However, with the number of fatal or near-fatal dog attacks at crisis point (it emerged on Thursday that yet another man had been killed in Staffordshire) and the Home Secretary pressing for XL bullies to be added to the banned list, I have uncovered the full story.
It begins, ironically, with an act of kindness. For on November 27, last year, four days before our exclusive photo was taken, Natasha had rescued Stan from allegedly neglectful owners who planned to have him destroyed – because he had bitten one of their children.
When Natasha sent the picture to a friend, her affection for her youthful new companion was evident. ‘Back to the sofa! I was ordered back to bed for a while!’ her accompanying message read as she cuddled up to him in her fluffy onesie.
‘Natasha was sure she could change Stan’s temperament,’ says her friend, Delia Lewis, 38, whose own dog, Shiva, a gigantic leonberger, was among the eight-strong pack that January day, and was at first assumed to have carried out the attack, by dint of her size and her misbehaviour six years ago in a BBC2 series about puppies.
‘She felt Stan hadn’t been trained and with the correct care and affection he’d be fine. Her boyfriend said it wasn’t a good idea and, having seen how troublesome Stan could be, my response was, ‘Are you sure?’ But she loved dogs with a passion and she was still grieving for her black staffy, Missy, who had recently died, so she didn’t take our advice.’
It quickly became clear – to her friends, at least – that she had made a catastrophic mistake. The pit bull, who already weighed six-and-a-half stone, had a flashpoint temper and bit her calf and arm.
A second attack, causing a wound that needed to be bandaged, occurred on January 10.
Given his unpredictability, Dr Robson told me this week, it was ‘foolish’ to exercise him with other dogs. ‘He ought to have been rehabilitated on a one-to-one basis,’ she said.
Yet two days later Natasha took him, with the seven others, for an hour’s romp at one of her favourite haunts, Gravelly Hill – a secluded wood near Caterham, Surrey.
Delia Lewis, 38, and her dog, Shiva (pictured together), a gigantic leonberger, who was among the eight-strong pack that January day
Shiva was at first assumed to have carried out the attack, by dint of her size and her misbehaviour six years ago in a BBC2 series about puppies (pictured above)
On that rainy afternoon, Stan suddenly snapped again, showing no mercy for the woman who had given him a loving new home.
The wounds he inflicted were so extensive that many details have been redacted from the 18 witness statements gathered by Surrey Police, which I have seen.
However, when Dr Robson examined her body she found numerous deep bites to the neck, skull, shoulders and right wrist. Though a local walker attempted CPR, it was futile.
Since Stan’s canine teeth pierced her jugular, the vet tells me, she would probably have died within a minute. About six weeks after this well-meaning woman saved his life, he had had killed her.
Meanwhile, owners of the other dogs she was walking that day were plunged into a distressing and protracted ordeal.
When police arrived on the scene it seemed immediately clear, from the blood dripping from his mouth, that Stan had mauled Natasha. Indeed, the panting culprit still loomed beside her body.
Because no one had witnessed the fatal attack, however, officers couldn’t be sure whether any of the other dogs – now wandering loose in the woods – had joined in the fray.
Therefore, after rounding them up, with a lasso-like ‘catch pole’ that looped around their necks, they were all treated as ‘suspects’.
On Dr Robson’s recommendation Stan was destroyed. Whisked away to kennels, the location of which was kept secret from the owners, the others were held for seven long months while the investigation was carried out.
Two of the dogs, belonging to a well-known TV journalist, remain ‘in custody’.
‘Our dogs were really on death row,’ says Ms Lewis, a professional clairvoyant, who was reunited with Shiva after a hearing to determine the conditions for their release at Guildford Magistrates’ Court on July 27. ‘The police said if there was any indication they had bitten Natasha, even if the bite wasn’t fatal, they would be put down.
‘I knew Shiva would never have hurt Natasha. She had known her since she was a puppy, and anyway she always runs away from conflict. She wasn’t anywhere near the body when the police arrived.
‘Still, they made us feel our dogs were murder suspects and wouldn’t even let us visit them, I assume in case we tried to free them. It has been an absolute nightmare. Even humans accused of murder are permitted to have visitors.’
Natasha’s dog walking career began in her early 20s and she loved it. She was at her happiest among dogs and sometimes seemed to prefer their company to that of her friends.
When police arrived on the scene (pictured) it seemed immediately clear, from the blood dripping from his mouth, that Stan had mauled Natasha
Yet two days later Natasha took him, with the seven others, for an hour’s romp at one of her favourite haunts, Gravelly Hill – a secluded wood near Caterham, Surrey
Ms Lewis says she acquired Stan from a neighbouring family and described him as an XL bully. Perhaps that is how he was presented to her.
While there is no suggestion that he was treated with cruelty by his first owners, Natasha told her he’d been cooped up for long periods and under stimulated.
Believing firmly that a dog’s character is shaped by nurture rather than nature, she vowed to change him. But Ms Lewis believes he was already ‘a lost cause’. Natasha was late starting her afternoon round on January 12.
Though very fit from her long country treks, she suffered from fibromyalgia, a condition that can cause excruciating pain throughout the body and she hadn’t been able to sleep the previous night. It was past 1pm when, mindful of the inclement weather forecast, she donned her overcoat and woolly hat, packed some dog treats, poo bags and water bottles into her bag and set out from her terraced house in Croydon in her battered Land Rover.
The dogs on her daily round were as eclectic as their owners. By far the biggest was Shiva, Ms Lewis’s eye-catching, fawn and black leonberger, who weighed almost 10st.
Then there was Alfie, a labrador belonging to a middle-class couple from Godstone, Surrey; Nero and Rufus, two dachshunds – one with a red coat, the other black and tan – owned by a Croydon company director and his wife; and the TV newsman’s pets, Cookie, a yellow labradoodle, and Shadow, a black and white poodle cross.
Making up the eight were Stan and Natasha’s other dog, Benji, a gentle cream labradoodle.
Ms Lewis says she was aghast to learn, after the attack, that Natasha had picked up so many dogs, for she usually walked no more than five or six at a time – and, as Stan had bitten her two days prior, she would have expected him to be exercised separately.
‘Without wishing to be unkind, it was a gross error of judgment,’ says Ms Lewis.
As Natasha charged each owner up to £20 for an hour-long walk, internet trolls cruelly suggested after her death that she had paid the price for greed. Ms Lewis, who has also been targeted, is disgusted by these smears. Natasha always put the dogs’ interests first, and didn’t like to deny them their daily run, she says.
Perhaps so, yet as Dr Robson makes clear in her witness statement, her rashness was undeniable. The vet says she was 5ft 6in and weighed 12st 3lbs, yet the combined weight of the pack she took into the woods was three times heavier than her. Dr Robson wrote: ‘While I appreciate not all of the dogs were on a lead at the same time, all of these dogs had to be under control at all times.’
Natasha’s dog walking career began in her early 20s and she loved it. She was at her happiest among dogs and sometimes seemed to prefer their company to that of her friends
Police at the scene in Gravelly Hill in Caterham, Surrey, where Ms Johnston was attacked
For someone of Natasha’s size to expect to manage them ‘even for a short period of time’ was, she concluded, ‘foolish and irresponsible’.
Ms Lewis concurs, envisaging the 101 Dalmatians-like chaos that could overwhelm even an experienced dog walker, if eight dogs bounded off in different directions or picked a fight with a passing dog, as happened in this case.
The altercation believed to have lit Stan’s tinderbox fuse came sometime after 2pm, when he encountered Bertie, a Norfolk terrier scampering along a path on Gravelly Hill with his owner Samantha Ogden and her friend Julie Willimont, who lives nearby.
The first thing Ms Willimont noticed about Natasha, her statement says, was her ‘strange coloured’ bluish hair. Surrounded by her unwieldy posse – some on leads, others roving free – she also seemed ‘a bit strange… distracted’.
Ms Ogden recalled how ‘a long-legged brown staffy sort of dog’ – clearly the unleashed Stan – ‘came bounding up to Bertie, whereupon they started to growl at each other’. When she protectively gathered up her Norfolk terrier, Stan began circling then bit her left buttock causing a ‘searing pain’.
Now Natasha was shouting and screaming at him to come back to her, but the pit bull was ‘growling and barking, thrashing [his] head’.
‘I wish you had told me your dog was vicious, then I would have put this one on a lead,’ Ms Ogden recalls Natasha saying as she wrestled with Stan. Shocked, the two women beat a retreat.
The next sighting of Natasha and the dogs came around 15 minutes later. Cantering along the muddy bridal path, horse-riders Michelle Clarke and Susan Dove saw her sitting on the ground surrounded by the dogs.
By Ms Dove’s recollection, ‘four of them had a firm grip of her with their mouth [sic]. They were around her arms, pulling her arms and jacket. I would describe it as a frenzy. The dogs had seen red and there was no stopping them’.
The riders remember how Natasha, whose feet were tangled in the leads, screamed at them: ‘Go back! Go back!’ Then two of the dogs ran towards them, ‘spooking’ their horses and Ms Dove was unseated. They managed to escape the scene and Ms Clarke called the police. Officers were then sent to investigate the unfolding incident.
The courageous local man who tried to stop Natasha’s life ebbing away was Ben Kershaw, a young civil servant, who was out walking on the hill with his mother.
Told by police that a hunt was underway for a missing woman and some dogs, he joined the search and – by following the barking sounds – found her lying at the bottom of a slope.
From skid-marks in the grass, it seemed that she had either slipped or been dragged down. Beside her, he saw ‘a large, well-built dog’ with blood smeared on its snout and jaw.
The courageous local man who tried to stop Natasha’s (pictured with one of her dogs) life ebbing away was Ben Kershaw, a young civil servant, who was out walking on the hill with his mother
As he approached Natasha, the dog became ‘agitated’, but he managed to reach her and attempted CPR in vain.
In gathering darkness and driving rain, the operation to capture the dogs was filled with tension.
One sodden officer describes feeling ‘incredibly vulnerable… on my own with multiple insecure dogs who have potentially mauled someone to death. I was not carrying a Taser and should one of these dogs attack me there would be very little I could do about it,’ he later attested.
Though firearms officers had been dispatched, he didn’t know how long it might take for them to arrive. Thankfully, weapons weren’t needed. Where gentle persuasion didn’t work, the catch poles did their job.
When Alfie the labrador was caught, he was ‘friendly, wet and dirty’, one officer said. However, he also had blood in his face. The two dachshunds were ‘timid and yappy’ but not aggressive.
Tethering Cookie and Shadow also posed few problems, though Natasha’s labradoodle was ‘very skittish and difficult to get near to’. Shiva, whom Ms Lewis describes as ‘a big, fluffy marshmallow’ (an apt description, from my encounter with her this week) stood calmly away from the fray with no blood on her. Given her size, however, four dog handlers were deployed to lasso her.
As for Stan, when the noose was looped over his huge head he spun crazily around, tightening it to the point where he garrotted himself and lost consciousness.
After examining Natasha’s body, she visited the holding kennels and measured the length of each dog’s canine teeth and the distance between their upper and lower sets, hoping to match the size of their bites against that of the wounds.
However, as she told me yesterday, there were so many overlaying bites that it was impossible to prove which dog, or dogs, had inflicted them. The failure to take DNA samples from Natasha during the post mortem was a further hindrance.
She therefore relied on the witness statements and her experience of pit bull attacks (some of which she gained by treating animals wounded in illegal dog fights) to determine that Stan had almost certainly killed Natasha. However, as she couldn’t tell whether any of the other dogs had taken part, and if so how they been involved, they were all ‘tainted’.
So, she recommended that they should only be released under tight controls, including compulsory muzzling and being tethered in public.
When she was examining the dogs, they were all passive. However, the kennel manager showed her a heavy plastic shovel used to clean Stan’s cage. In temper, he had bitten clean through it.
Natasha’s cries would only have fuelled the dog’s frenzy and as she fell or slipped down the bank (scene pictured above) with the pack baying excitedly and the leads twisted around her feet
A woman brought flowers to lay on Gravelly Hill where Natasha was killed in January
Under the standard scale devised by leading animal behaviourist Dr Ian Dunbar, the severity of dog bites has six levels. Those inflicted on Natasha were at the uppermost end of the scale.
Dr Robson has an informed idea of how the attack unfolded. After being chastised by Natasha for snarling at the Norfolk terrier, she surmises, the pit bull might have harboured resentment towards her and waited for an opportune moment to exact revenge.
And having attacked her twice previously causing limited damage, this time his modus operandi would have been more effective.
Does a dog really possess the brainpower to scheme in that way? ‘Dogs can bide their time and wait until you are off guard to retaliate,’ she says. ‘In human terms, it’s, ‘Just you wait. I’ll get my own back.’
Natasha’s cries would only have fuelled the dog’s frenzy and as she fell or slipped down the bank with the pack baying excitedly and the leads twisted around her feet, there would have been no escape. ‘It sounds simple, but that’s all it takes,’ says Dr Robson.
Once the first bite had been landed, other dogs might become involved, intentionally or otherwise. They sometimes regard a prone person as ‘a large toy’, playing tug-of-war with their limbs, which would explain numerous injuries around Natasha’s wrist and arm.
That was why (excluding the two dachshunds, who had done nothing to suggest they were a danger and were first to be released) she had recommended that the magistrates impose strict blanket controls.
When the case came to court in July, however, some owners challenged her judgment, among them the TV journalist, whose dogs Cookie and Shadow are said to remain in custody pending an appeal.
Though Shiva was said to have jumped up at a passer-by shortly before the attack on Natasha, Ms Lewis’s lawyer argued successfully that she didn’t need to be muzzled.
The following day, the clairvoyant collected her overgrown ‘baby’ from a police station.
After a six-month separation the leonberger seemed momentarily confused. Mysteriously, her chest had been shaved, and she had lost almost 2st. Soon, though, she bounded into her owner’s arms, to be taken home for her favourite meal: chicken and carrots topped off with a boiled egg.
It was a rare moment of joy in an otherwise unrelentingly grim story. A story which those who oppose Suella Braverman’s plans for a ban on the most prolific attack dog, the XL bully, would do well to heed.
They would be advised to have another look at that photograph of Natasha and Stan cosying up cheek to cheek, too.
For when a mollycoddled mutt can swiftly turn into a monster – savaging the only human who has shown him affection – surely every one of these lethal breeds must be expunged from our streets.