MOUNT PLEASANT — When Ja’Marr Tiller was found bleeding near the broken-down cars, trailers and lawnmowers outside his home, relatives were quick to blame the two dogs that often sauntered into the backyard, looking for handouts.
“The dogs attacked him,” the 2-year-old’s grandmother, Cathy Tiller, told a 911 dispatcher Sunday night. “The dogs just tore him up.”
But the female Labrador-shepherd mixes never bared their teeth at people, family members said Tuesday. When someone approached them, they would retreat. Ja’Marr himself was terrified of all animals and wouldn’t go near the dogs, family members said.
And investigators still have no solid evidence pointing to the animals, which they called “yard dogs” because the toddler’s uncle had fed the animals scraps from the family’s table for about four years.
Authorities are considering other possibilities, including theories that a wild animal, possibly a coyote, played a role.
No one witnessed the attack, so investigators have enlisted experts on animal bites to help pinpoint the boy’s killer.
“We blamed the first thing we saw,” Tiller said in an interview outside the house in the 2700 block of U.S. Highway 17. “But the dogs were clean, and they were watching over him when we went outside. They were staying away.”
The most recent animal complaint in the neighborhood came in 2010, when residents filed three reports about stray dogs, said Maj. Jim Brady, a spokesman for the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office. Officers set traps but came up empty.
Deputies have received no reports about wild animals.
“It’s one of the things they’re looking at,” Brady said. “You have to consider all circumstances and all possibilities.”
Because too much remains unknown, the Sheriff’s Office has not decided whether any charges should be filed against those who were supposed to be watching the boy.
His mother, Deandra Tiller, had left about 8 p.m. Sunday to run errands. It was thought that Ja’Marr was in bed for the evening, but he somehow climbed downstairs and slid through a back door, relatives said.
Cathy Tiller, the grandmother, said she and other adults didn’t notice a commotion until his mother returned and found him.
Ja’Marr was considered the most adventurous of the five children staying at the house. He especially enjoyed riding his tricycle and bouncing in the jump castle his grandmother brought home for Christmas.
“Those kids don’t wander outside,” she said. “This was an isolated incident. We’re still trying to figure out what happened.”
In 911 calls, relatives described bite marks covering his body. The boy’s clothes had been ripped off.
Dispatchers struggled to relay CPR instructions as the callers occupied themselves with what seemed most sensible at the time — prayer. They wailed in grief for the toddler who loved running the aisles of his family’s church, Deliverance Tabernacle, and singing his favorite hymns, “What More Can He Do?” and “Jesus Will Turn it Around.”
“I think he’s dying,” his aunt, Octavia Johnson, shouted into the phone. “In the name of Jesus. ... Lord, we need you!”
Ja’Marr was pronounced dead at a hospital.
The dogs that were captured after the incident were often seen alongside U.S. 17 or in neighborhood yards.
Linda Blake, 58, often saw the animals when they ran through the dirt driveway of her mother’s house, which is next to the Tillers’ home.
Blake never considered the dogs or any wild animals, including feral cats, an issue.
“They don’t bother me,” said Blake, who sells sweetgrass baskets on the roadside. “I just sit out here and do my baskets, and they run by.”
Most days, the boy’s uncle heaved scraps of meat into a dish in the backyard. Relatives said the dogs were never penned or tied up.
“They don’t bother you,” said Althea Tiller, the toddler’s aunt. “They’ll sit out on the grass. They would never come up to us. I’ve never seen them acting crazy or anything.”
Joe Elmore, CEO of the Charleston Animal Society, said the backgrounds of the two dogs are not known. The two dogs are now being sheltered at the Animal Society.
“Stray dogs are a threat to both public health and public safety,” Elmore said. “Folks just need to know what kind of animal is going to be in the vicinity of their family.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.