It began as a small-scale neighbourhood dispute between a Shih Tzu and a pit bull named Rex. A goldendoodle soon entered the mix.
The trouble did not really begin until the humans got involved. By the time the dust had settled and the police had arrived, the pit bull was dead — choked to death by the owner of the Shih Tzu.
The circumstances of the pit bull's death in July, and the arrest of the Shih Tzu owner, Toquoc Huynh, were unusual enough. But just how unusual things had gotten became clearer Thursday, when the matter came up for a hearing in Suffolk County District Court.
The courthouse was crowded with observers wearing T-shirts that read #JusticeforRex, a social media hashtag connected to an effort to persuade prosecutors to bring a more serious charge against Huynh, who is currently charged with animal cruelty, a misdemeanour.
One Change.org petition, begun by a sister of one of the pit bull's owners, has received more than 270,000 signatures; another has more 60,000. Even a court employee confessed empathy toward the protesters; he told them he had rescued two pit bulls himself, and shared photos of the dogs on his cellphone.
Such was the scene that greeted Huynh, as he was released on his own recognisance and told to return October 24. He exited the courtroom wearing sunglasses, and had no comment for reporters. He did not address the protesters, who shouted "savage," "murderer" and "animal killer" in his direction.
The statements given to the police after Rex's death paint a divergent view of the events that led to the dog's demise, and perhaps point to the difficulty in bringing more serious charges. The only thing seemingly not in dispute is that Huynh choked Rex, a blue-nosed pit bull, "to death in the presence of its owner," according to the police report.
It was about 8:30pm on July 14, when one of Rex's owners, Dominic Primerano, said he took him out for a walk around their apartment complex in Hauppauge. Primerano said that Huynh's Shih Tzu approached Rex and bit him on his back leg. Huynh said that Rex was the aggressor. The men both agreed that at some point, Huynh took his dog inside.
Primerano told the police that the goldendoodle, named Quincy, then attacked Rex, biting the dog on the neck. When Primerano tried to intervene, he said that the goldendoodle bit him on his face.
Huynh told the police that he saw Quincy in Rex's jaws from the patio of his apartment. Quincy's owner, Steven Rogers, credited Huynh with saving his pet's life.
"I choked Rex to get him to stop biting Quincy," Huynh wrote in a statement to the police. "Rex stopped bighting Quincy, but I kept choking Rex so he wouldn't bite me and told the owner of Rex to get a leash."
Rogers, 68, has his own court date, he said, for taking his dog outside without a leash.
Quincy had "eight puncture wounds, right in his chest," Rogers said Thursday at his home.
"I thought it was going to be curtains for my dog," he said.
Primerano told the police that as Huynh held Rex in a headlock, he said, "Your dog is going to die." Rex's other owner, Elana Greenfield, whose account was not in the police report, accused Huynh of additional taunts.
"I heard three gurgles, and he threw him on my lap, and said, 'One down, one to go; you're next,'" Greenfield said Thursday.
Nora Constance Marino, a Great Neck-based lawyer representing Primerano, said she has sent the assistant district attorney a letter making the argument for upgraded charges.
Those who gathered at the courthouse Thursday were on a mission not just to achieve "Justice for Rex," as they chanted, but to show their support for Greenfield and Primerano. They also sought to combat the negative reputation of the pit bull breed.
Craig Fields, founder off New York Bully Crew, brought his dog, Mac, to court. Greenfield and Primerano smiled as they knelt down on the lawn with him.
Rex had made their house a home, Greenfield said.
"It's our son," Greenfield said, her voice quavering. "We raised him to have every single bone in his body be friendly."
A spokeswoman for the Suffolk County district attorney's office, which is prosecuting the case, declined to comment.
Written by: Arielle Dollinger
Photographs by: Heather Walsh
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES