As dusk fell behind the sweetgrass basket stalls on U.S. Highway 17 on Sunday, family members put Ja’Marr Tiller, 2, in bed for the night.
His mother, Deandra, left to get some gas and run an errand, but there were plenty of others in the house to watch Ja’Marr, including his aunt, uncle, grandmother and a 12-year-old sibling.
But at some point, Ja’Marr, who loved to run, climbed down a flight of stairs and slipped unnoticed out the back door. On a dirt-packed yard next to some junked cars, a dog or perhaps two or more attacked the toddler, biting him all over his body.
When the boy’s mother returned to their home near Mount Pleasant moments later, she found Ja’Marr on the ground with his clothes torn off, said Octavia Johnson, the boy’s aunt.
“She came in the house screaming, ‘A dog has killed my son!’ ”
Johnson, 36, rushed out to the boy, and with the help of a neighbor, performed CPR until paramedics arrived.
“His eyes flickered to life, and there was some movement for a second,” she said. “It’s so tragic. He was so loved by everyone who came into contact with him.”
Paramedics took the injured child to Medical University Hospital, where he died.
Ja’Marr’s death follows another fatal attack April 20, when a dog in Ridgeville killed Aiden McGrew, a 2-month-old boy. The infant’s father, Quintin McGrew, was charged with homicide by neglect.
Statistically speaking, it’s exceedingly rare to have two fatal dog attacks in the same area so close together in time. In 2011, the entire country had just 31 deaths related to dog bites, according to dogsbite.org, a nonprofit that tracks fatalities.
Yet dog attacks themselves are quite common. Dogs bite about 4.5 million people in the U.S. each year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A 2008 study found that these attacks annually put roughly 9,500 people in the hospital.
After the incident Sunday, two Lab-shepherd mix dogs were taken into custody by Animal Control, officials said.
Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon described them as “yard dogs” that the child’s uncle had been feeding for years, and that they tended to stay in the area behind the child’s house.
Many questions remain, even after an autopsy Monday morning, Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten said. It’s unclear whether both dogs participated in the attack and whether another dog or animal also was involved.
Cannon said outside forensics experts would be consulted, and that bite mark measurements might provide some answers. No charges have been filed, and Cannon said “there’s obviously a lot of grief” and that it is “too early to make any statements” about whether any neglect was involved. He said there were no immediate plans to put the dogs down.
He added that deputies were summoned to the area in 2010 in connection with a dog attack, but that he had no immediate details about that incident and whether it involved the same dogs.
The morning after the attack, family members and friends gathered in and around the house where Ja’Marr lived. The boy’s father, Tarry Robinson, 22, shook his head as relatives talked about his son and showed photographs of the toddler eating a hot dog and playing beside a pool.
“He liked to run around and play a lot,” Robinson said. “I can’t really talk more about it.”
Johnson, the boy’s aunt, said the dogs “didn’t belong to anyone” but had lived in the area for some time. They had never attacked any children, but she said her nephew was afraid of them.
“They were big dogs,” she said. “But we had never had any problems with them.”
Johnson said she and other family members took good care of the boy, and that they had no idea how he got out. She said no one witnessed the attack itself and that she was surprised that no one heard the boy scream.
She smiled as she recalled how the boy used to run to her when she got home from her job managing a nearby hotel.
“He would say, ‘Auntie Mom is home! Auntie Mom is home!’ We’re so sad about what happened but grateful for the two years we had with him.”