Damon Tyler Austin Koehn
Wheeler, AR - On May 13, 1996, 4-year old Damon Tyler Austin Koehn was violently killed by a pack of loose chow-mix dogs. The boy's father, James Koehn, discovered his son badly mauled in a ravine near the family's home. Prior to the attack, James and his son had laid down for a nap, but Damon had awoken first and wandered outside. Authorities seized a total of 15 dogs from Dan Doiel, who lived in a mobile home 200 yards from the Koehn residence.
In early November, just after 2-year old Matthew Hurt was killed by a pit bull in Prescott, the older half-brother of Damon, Ricky Austin, contacted DogsBite.org. He said that he felt his brother's death had been in vain and worse, had been forgotten. Prior to reaching out to others and us at this time, Ricky had not spoken of the tragedy in many years. The death of Hurt prompted him to search for information about his brother's attack online, but he came up empty handed.1
"To be recognized then fall off the end of the world? For there to be nothing?" Ricky said in a phone call to DogsBite.org.
"You can find aggravated assault charges from 1996 online, or a drunk driver," he said, "but I could find nothing about the event that destroyed my family's life and left my family with massive obstacles." The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette fortunately does have online archives that date back to 1996 and Ricky was able to purchase some of these articles and forward them to us to help in the documentation of Damon's story and the unraveling of his family that followed.
The Day of the Attack
On the morning of May 13, Ricky's mother, Mary Koehn, took 12-year old Ricky and his 8-year old sister to school then drove to work. Damon's father was an ironworker and had recently fallen off a 2-story building. He was homebound and on pain medication. Damon had stayed the day with him. After lunch, the two laid down for an hour nap. When the alarm clock rang at 2 pm, Damon was gone. James discovered his son's body at 2:20 pm. At that time, Ricky and his sister were still at school.
The incident quickly gained national coverage. According to Ricky, the media "swarmed" his small Wheeler community. About 300 to 400 cars a day came out to see where the tragedy unfolded, he said. The media then attacked James for "being asleep" and omitted the fact that the father had been on legal pain medication at the time. The problem grew so great that the family had to leave town. The media attacks2 compounded by the horrific death of Damon, proved ruinous for both parents.
After the funeral, James began questioning whether the incident was his fault and subsequently tried to commit suicide. Ricky's mother, who had recently gotten back on track after past drug abuse issues, began to abuse drugs again. Meanwhile, both families blamed the attack on Ricky and Shannon, the dog owner's daughter and girlfriend of Ricky, for walking across the ravine that connected the two homes, whereby making the path "safe" for Damon to walk.
By allowing his 15 dogs to run loose, Doiel was wholly negligent in Damon's death. Yet the media blamed Damon's parents and the traumatized parents then blamed their children.
Shortly after the attack, school let out. Ricky left to visit his father in Texas and his sister went to live with his grandparents in Oklahoma. Ricky said that he does not know how long his mother and James lived in the home after the attack -- the grandparents "shielded the children" from information after the attack. But upon receiving the life insurance policy funds after Damon's death, the two had spent it all within two months. Several years later, that house "mysteriously" burns down.
The Trial and the Penalty
On December 10, 1996 -- moments before Doeil's trial -- Doeil switched his innocent plea to 11 misdemeanor counts of violating the county's vicious animal ordinance to guilty after striking a plea agreement with prosecutors. Dan Doiel, 41, was sentenced to one year in jail and fined $1,000 -- both to be suspended if he performed weekly community service for six months, did not keep dogs on his property for one year and wrote a letter of apology to Damon's family.
"The sentence reflected recommendations by Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Kim Weber-Wall.3
Doiel had pleaded innocent in October to 11 counts of violating the county's vicious-animal ordinance. He entered the new plea after meeting with prosecutors moments before his trial was to begin Tuesday.
Doiel was charged after Damon's father found the boy's mutilated body in a ravine separating the Koehn and Doiel residences near the Wheeler community." (Michelle Brandford, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, 12/11/1996)
We asked Ricky if the letter of apology had ever been written. He said that he did not think so. He added that by December, the family had totally deteriorated. He said, "The letter would not have mattered and possibly would have made matters worse." DogsBite.org contacted the West Fork Municipal Court to follow up on several issues: 1.) Why was there a last minute plea bargain? 2.) What happened regarding the civil case Washington County brought against Doiel?
To clear up a related matter first, according to the West Forks Municipal Court clerk, the reason why there are no Internet records regarding the guilty plea of Doiel is due to lack of technology capabilities. In 1996, Washington County did not have the capability to place such records online nor did any other Arkansas county. Such information today, 1996 records, is found only "in brief" electronically. Accessing the full case requires pulling archived paper documents.
In the criminal case against Doiel, DogsBite.org could not learn why prosecutors agreed to a plea bargain4 regarding the 11 misdemeanor counts of violating the county's vicious animal ordinance. It is understandable why prosecutors could not bring "enhanced criminal liability" charges. As in many states, Arkansas law required proof that at least one of Doiel's dogs had been reported to officials as vicious prior to the attack that killed Damon. Prosecutors could find no such proof.5
"The plea deal made my little brother die in vain," Ricky said. "It also set up another attack to happen. No repercussions!"
Doiel was not ordered by the West Forks Municipal Court to pay restitution to the Koehn family because restitution is only ordered for living victims. Damon's family could have brought a wrongful death suit against Doiel, but the idea was likely dropped at the time due to Doiel's limited assets. The Washington County Attorney's Office told us that wrongful death suits have a statue of limitations of 3 to 5 years, so the Koehn family no longer has the opportunity to file one.
The county did file a civil judgment against Doiel for nearly $16,000 due to the extensive costs of the criminal investigation, including DNA and forensic testing of the dogs. The West Forks Municipal Court clerk said that Doiel makes a monthly, in-person cash payment of $40 to the court and has been since 1997. "He's out here every month religiously," she said. While this amount may seem small, the court deemed this was all that Doiel could afford to pay each month.
Years of Therapy
After spending time with his father following the attack, Ricky joined his sister in living with his grandparents. Both grandparents are doctors and had the means and understanding to enroll the children into therapy. Ricky said that he underwent two years of therapy and his sister had even more. He told DogsBite.org that both he and his sister were able to "rise above" the event with the help of his grandparents. He said that his sister has a child now and a happy marriage.
His mother, Mary, is currently living in Oklahoma and is no longer married to James.6. Still struggling with drug additions, she is unwell. Ricky said that she was very happy about our phone call. "This was a big event for me and my family -- this phone call," he said. According to Mary, whose words may or may not be accurate, the Doiels are still living in the same trailer home and have more dogs now. Information about Ricky's former girlfriend, Doiel's daughter7, could not be found.
About Ricky Austin
Currently, Ricky Austin is 25-years old and resides in Tyler, Texas near his father. He is a single father of a 5-year old boy. At one point, Ricky did own a Lab, but it brought back too many memories and he feared for his son. He gave the dog away. Ricky works in database and Internet development for the East Texas Lighthouse for the Blind (etlb.org), whose mission is to provide employment to people who are blind or visually impaired. His father, Ricky Austin Senior, is blind.
DogsBite.org greatly thanks Ricky for sharing his painful story that dates back thirteen years and continues to cause pain. As demonstrated by the story of Damon Tyler Austin Koehn, fatal dog attacks are multi-generational and not only devastate multiple families, but entire communities for many years. As the U.S. media typically abandons such stories after the initial "gory details" have been shared, the American public is unaware of the lasting effects of these tragedies.
2 Several media accounts also tried to blame the attack on a Doritos bag that was found near Damon's body -- placing the blame back onto the victim. Sadly, such ridiculous "blame tactics" after an unprovoked serious or fatal dog attack by a vicious dog(s) are common. Ricky said that Damon and his sister had eaten the chips the weekend before and had left the empty bag in the yard.
3,4Eight days prior to publishing this post, DogsBite.org sent an email to Arkansas attorney Kimberly Weber; online references show that she is the same Kim Weber-Wall referred to in the Democrat-Gazette article. Weber did not respond to our email. On December 11, we spoke to Weber on the phone and she confirmed that she is the same person. When asked why Doiel was given the plea bargain, the phone call that had started off "tense" turned hostile. After reminding her that the case regarded the fatal dog attack of 4-year old Damon Tyler Austin Koehn, Weber said, "I'm not recalling it; I don't recall the case." It is important to point out that fatal dog attacks are rare and the incident involving Damon dominated local news and made national headlines. Kimberly Weber's current area of law practice is criminal defense.
5Most state laws allow for "one free mauling" prior to serious charges. Some states allow up to three maulings, each resulting in "serious bodily injury," prior to felony charges.
6Little additional information was provided about James. Ricky said that after he tried to commit suicide, he was later arrested. "He became a different person," Ricky said.
7Shortly after the attack, the two parted ways. The families "were at war," Ricky said. In our phone call, Ricky expressed great concern for Jennifer Shannon Doiel and what happened to her after the attack. The Doiel family did not have resources like his grandparents did.
10/29/09: 2009 Fatality: Toddler Wanders from Babysitter's Home; Killed by Pit Bull