For weeks, Ralph Conwell could not sleep.
He had this image in his mind that wouldn’t go away: His dog, Lacy, laying six feet away, covered in blood, looking at him with pleading eyes, as if to say, “Help me.”
But Conwell couldn’t help. He lay on the ground for 35 minutes, hanging onto the dog that attacked them both, trying not to pass out, his arms torn apart and bleeding. Lacy later died.
“I keep thinking it’s my fault,” he said.
Aug. 28 at Calvin Burrows Field in Groton.
Conwell was rushed by ambulance to the hospital with torn arms and legs. He was so seriously injured that emergency personnel considered airlifting him to a trauma center in New Haven, but a helicopter was unavailable, so they brought him to Lawrence & Memorial Hospital.
Lacy was brought to Companion Animal Hospital and died that evening.
Two hospital stays
The dog involved in the attack, a 4-year-old Boxer Pit Bull mix named Bronson, was euthanized after the required 14-day quarantine. Another dog owned by the same family that owned Bronson was relocated elsewhere.
The Conwells said they decided not to press charges against their neighbors, but retained a lawyer to go after the family’s homeowner’s insurance to cover medical bills. Ralph Conwell said he doesn’t know how much they’ll be, but he guesses at least $50,000.
He spent six days in the hospital after surgery to clean and staple his wounds, then another five days later, after infection set in. His legs are all right now. His arms are healing. He still has one surgery left, to repair a knuckle he had replaced due to arthritis, and he’s not sure if one of his other fingers will ever work the way it used to.
The worst part, he said, was losing his dog, and knowing he could have been more prepared.
Two earlier attacks
Conwell said Bronson had attacked them twice before but he didn’t report it.
“The first time it happened, I failed to do three things,” he said. “See the owner and insist on better control of that dog, call the dog warden, and arm (myself).” He could have carried a stick or a knife, he said. He has a stun gun, but under the law, he’s not allowed to use it outside. Conwell is a former Marine who worked for 20 years at Electric Boat, then as a contractor for nuclear plants.
The Conwells live on South Road, across from a neighbor whose daughter and son-in-law moved in with their four children and two dogs. One was Bronson, a Boxer Pit Bull mix.
In the summer of 2011, Conwell said the children were walking the dogs, lost control of them and started yelling. Conwell said he saw the Pit Bull coming at Lacy, so he snatched her up and dropped her on the other side of a fence. She had small cuts, perhaps from the fence, but was otherwise unhurt. He grabbed Bronson by the collar and the children took the dog away.
Then in the winter, he was walking Lacy again when he heard dogs barking and children yelling. One dog knocked him to the ground and he hit his head, but he grabbed Lacy, he said. Bronson bit him, but he had on a heavy winter coat, and it didn’t break the skin. The neighbors came over later to make sure Lacy was all right.
Attack at the field
On Aug. 28, Conwell took Lacy out for one of her usual daily walks at Calvin Burrows Field. As he finished his loop and began walking down a steep hill, Bronson broke off his leash from the house nearby. Conwell said the dog knocked him over, and he rolled down the hill maybe 12 feet, by the stilts of a small building where announcers keep score at the games.
He got up next to Bronson, heard a horrible yelp, and saw Lacy in his jaws. Conwell said he jumped on the Pit Bull, punching him in the face as hard as he could, and the dog dropped Lacy and grabbed Conwell's arm. He reached for pepper spray but it didn't help.
Conwell tried to get between Lacy and the Pit Bull, and the dog grabbed his other arm, twisting and shaking it in his mouth.
“I just remember screaming,” he said.
Then somehow, he said he got Bronson's collar. “We started rolling around on the ground, and that tore my legs up from my knees to my toes,” he said.
They were on top of each other, wrestling on the ground, the dog on top of him, and Conwell said he started biting the dog’s chest. He said at one point he thought the dog might go for his throat. Then he bit the dog's ear.
“That hurt him I guess, because he came up and I got both hands on his collar and I pushed myself on my back. So now he’s on his back, on me, and I start pushing (us) up the hill,” Conwell said.
Bleeding and waiting for help
Then he spied about six feet of metal rope still attached to Bronson, and thought of a plan. He held the dog down with his legs, wrapped one end around the building post and pulled.
Blood was flowing out of his arms and he thought he was going to pass out. He knew the road was there, but he couldn’t see it, he said. And he began to cry out for help. Lacy had her eyes open, and sprinklers went on at the field. Water began running over her.
He lay there, bleeding, looking at Lacy. He knew he couldn't let go, or Bronson would finish her. Maybe 35, 40 minutes went by.
The Conwells know it was this long, because Ralph Conwell’s wife, Lorraine, knew when he left, and she was worried. The couple had an appointment to get a car, and she’d left the house looking for him. She went to the field but saw nothing, then figured he’d walked down Poquonnock Road.
A passerby stops
Meanwhile, Conwell lay on the field. A car went by with its windows closed and he called for help but the driver couldn't hear. Then Conwell remembers a second car, and it stopped.
He learned later that the man stopped because he saw water in the field where he thought it shouldn’t be, and decided to investigate. He hadn't heard Conwell yelling.
Then the passerby found Conwell and Lacy.
“And I remember saying, ‘I need an ambulance, a cop, and help my dog, Lacy down there,’” Conwell said.
Around this same time, Lorraine Conwell decided she was getting in her car and driving to look for her husband. And as she went to get in the car, two police cars and an ambulance, sirens blaring, passed her house and turned into the park. And she knew.
She ran across the street, and saw Ralph with his arms bleeding, his legs torn, being loaded into an ambulance. They wouldn’t let her near him, she said. Then she said the animal control officer picked up Lacy, wrapped her in a blanket, and put her in Lorraine Conwell’s arms.
The officer said she was taking Lacy to Companion Animal Hospital.
The woman who owned Bronson came to the park.
“Her husband was crying and saying ‘Oh my God.’ That’s all I heard all day long, was ‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” Lorraine Conwell said.
Screaming in pain
Then Conwell’s son came to the house. Throughout the day, he brought her back and forth between Lawrence & Memorial and Companion Animal Hospital.
She said the doctor warned them it was bad, and when they first reached Ralph Conwell's room, he was screaming, 'I’m in pain,' she said.
Lorraine and Ralph Conwell have been married 53 years. She said she's never heard him like that. He was headed into surgery.
By evening, the doctors at Companion Animal Hospital told Lorraine Conwell Lacy wasn’t going to make it. She'd seen her several times, and Lacy had looked at her; but the dog was bleeding into her stomach. She said goodbye to Lacy.
She said she felt so alone.
Memories of Lacy
Lacy used to make a bed in the walk-in closet in their house, and she loved to wear clothes. She’d run to the window if someone approached the house, and always seemed to know which window was closest, so she was smart that way.
Her favorite toy was a football.
“Everyone loved her,” Ralph Conwell said.
Just this week, he’s been able to sleep. Probably five out of seven days now. It’s just that he thinks about how he should have been prepared for what happened, and how he wants other people to be prepared.
“If a Pit Bull comes after you right now, what are you going to do, really?” he said. “What’s your defense?”
Lorraine Conwell said the worst part of it all is having lost their dog, and knowing her husband feels like it's his fault.
“When he’s feeling better about things, then I’ll feel better about things,” she said. “But he’s blaming himself for everything.”