Updated July 06, 1987 12:00 PM

On a summer evening in the San Jose suburb of Morgan Hill, 2-year-old James Soto—a dark-haired, energetic child—was toddling about in the fenced backyard of his family’s modest house. It had been a good day for the Soto family: Arthur, 31, an unemployed construction worker, and Yvonne Nunez, 30, also jobless, had taken James and brother Perry, 5, to a round of garage sales. Arthur had found a lawn mower, the boys had picked out a few used toys, and the four had made a celebratory stop for ice cream before heading home.

The night was growing cool, and Yvonne had put James into a jacket and sweatpants before allowing him to play in the yard with his newly acquired Tonka truck. When she went out soon afterward there was no sign of the boy and the gate in the wooden fence was standing open.

Arthur, who had been unloading the family pickup, hadn’t seen little James leave the backyard, but the woman who lived in the dilapidated house next door had. She had just noticed him heading across her porch, she told Arthur. Moments later the frantic parents found their son in the powerful jaws of Willie, the 52-lb. pit bullterrier chained in that neighbor’s back yard. By the time Michael Berry, the dog’s owner, emerged from his house and wrenched his pit bull off the child, it was too late. Unconscious and bleeding profusely from gashes in the head, face, arms and torso, the little boy was “unrecognizable as a human being,” in the words of a paramedic called to the scene. James died at 3:52 a.m. in the emergency room at Santa Teresa Hospital. Cause of death: a massive loss of blood. Says Morgan Hill police chief John Abbey: “It was the worst trauma case that hospital personnel had ever seen.”

As hideous as it was, the June 13 mauling was hardly an isolated incident. Statistics compiled by the Humane Society of the United States show that seven of the 13 fatalities attributed to dog attacks last year involved pit bulls like Berry’s. The James Soto incident brought this year’s death toll to five, with pit bulls responsible in every case. Small children are frequently the victims. “When a pit bull is looking at a 3-year-old eyeball to eyeball, it sees another animal,” explains Minneapolis animal-control officer Dave Nordmeyer. “Every city in this country is going to have tragic problems with the breed.”

With America’s pit bull population at an all-time high (half a million, by some estimates) and growing fast, the breed is at the center of a furious debate. Those who see the dogs as hair-trigger killers want them outlawed; pit bull fanciers argue that any badly trained dog is capable of such savagery. In the meantime stories like the Sotos’ are becoming all too familiar:

•Graphic TV footage of a pit bull attack actually occurring caused a furor when it was aired on network news last week. A Los Angeles TV crew had accompanied animal-control officer Florence Crowell when she visited the home of Edlyn Hauser to investigate an earlier alleged attack by the woman’s pet pit bull. The tape showed the dog suddenly hurling itself at Crowell, biting both her hands and her breast before being beaten off by a neighbor. L.A. City authorities are considering what action they can take.

•On June 6, 5-year-old Avery Bowden of Hyattsville, Md. was watching television when he was attacked by the family’s pet pit bull. The 90-lb. terrier jumped on the bed, dragged him to the floor and bit him on the face, arms, back, legs and groin. Brother William, 7, beat the dog off with a curtain rod. Avery will undergo extensive plastic surgery to erase scars from the slashing wounds.

•Last January Baltimore narcotics officer Bert Ricasa was attacked by a pit bull belonging to a suspected drug dealer. As Ricasa was mounting the stairs, the guard dog lunged and kept biting even after it was shot through the neck. Knocked to the floor, the 5’10” Ricasa pumped four more bullets into the animal. Not until a colleague clubbed the dying dog on the head were Ricasa and his men able to pry open its jaws with a nightstick.

•In Pittsburgh, 10-year-old Nia Calvert was jumped by a pit bull during her family’s June 10 fishing excursion to the city’s Carnegie Lake. While Nia was near the shore, two teenage boys unleashed a pair of pit bulls and threw them in the lake to swim. One of the dogs tore out of the water and into Nia, biting her five times. Hearing her screams, one of the boys pulled the dog off the little girl and slammed it against a tree to subdue it.

•On June 10, 1986 in Bessemer, Mich., a pit bull tore through a fence, almost strangling itself before breaking free of its chain. The animal then attacked a 20-month-old child playing near his mother. The pit bull snapped the child’s neck, then carried his body into a wooded area.

Described by one vet as “the Rambo of the dog world,” the common pit bull—a crossbred strain of the American Staffordshire Terrier and the American Pit Bullterrier—has an unparalleled reputation as a canine warrior. Descended from a line of dogs trained in 19th-century England to attack tethered bulls for sport, they bite without provocation and fight to the death. Short, muscular and tenacious, the dog can exert an astounding 1,800 pounds of pressure per square inch with its powerful jaws. “They grab hold and keep shaking like a shark. They tear huge chunks of meat out of you,” says Elson Duvall, an animal-control official in Maryland. Adds Dr. Patricia O’Handley, associate professor of veterinary medicine at Michigan State University: “Pit bulls have a tendency to be aggressive and territorial. When they defend, they don’t bark—they bite. This is not the breed for average people.”

Pit bulls are, in fact, less popular among ordinary dog lovers than among back-alley types who prize them for the very qualities that make them dangerous. Although organized dog fighting is illegal in the U.S., thousands of fans still savor the so-called sport. To satisfy the demand for combatants, unscrupulous breeders peddle hundreds of pit bulls crossbred for great strength and explosive temperament. Drug dealers and other lowlifes favor pit bulls as fearsome guard dogs, and inner-city teenagers have begun to adopt them as symbols of manhood.

In Philadelphia, where poorer neighborhoods are overrun with youths who train their dogs to fight one another, the number of pit bulls has grown from 25 to more than 4,000 in just five years. “The situation for the dogs is often desperate,” says Pat Owens, director of the Philadelphia-based Women’s SPCA of Pennsylvania. Typically, the creatures are starved or fed irritant substances like hot sauce and gunpowder to make them mean. Ears and tails, which would be vulnerable in a fight, are hacked off. To sharpen the dogs’ taste for blood, they are fed live kittens and other small animals. When the dogs are ready for battle, they are pitted against one another on street corners; often hideously injured, the losing animals are left to die in agony. Even those survivors brought to the SPCA are doomed; like most animal shelters, the Philadelphia facility puts pit bull strays to death rather than place a potential killer in an unsuspecting household.

Lawmakers across the U.S. are beginning to crack down on pit bulls. Some communities have banned the dogs outright, others have imposed strict licensing and require pit bull fanciers to take out liability insurance. Since ordinances directed at specific breeds are difficult to enforce (in part because most offenders are of mixed bloodlines) laws targeting dangerous animals in general can be more effective. At least 35 communities have enacted measures imposing severe penalties on people whose pets are involved in attacks on humans. A Washington state statute, effective July 1, is particularly stringent: Dog owners there are now subject to felony charges and fines of up to $10,000 if their animals are involved in repeat attacks or cause death or severe injury.

Pit bulls have their defenders, of course—among them even the occasional victim. Jerry Lynn Miller’s son James, 4, was killed by her boyfriend’s pit bull in Magnolia, Texas. She was angered when a police officer shot the animal dead. “I lost my child, I didn’t have to lose my dog too,” she said. Pit bull loyalists decry the notion that their dogs should be banned from city streets (as they are in Lynn, Mass.). They argue that careless breeding has produced a few unstable specimens that have tainted the image of the pit bull; that badly handled animals are the unfortunate exception to the rule. The dogs, they claim, are what their owners make them. “You couldn’t make a truly bred pit bull bite a human,” says Al Isaac, an official of the Pit Bullterrier Club of Northern California.

But the dogs’ defenders have their work cut out for them. Deaths like James Soto’s are becoming all too common, and more and more pit bull owners are finding themselves in the position of Michael Berry—who agreed to have his dog Willie destroyed after it savaged James Soto.

A 37-year-old employee of the Santa Clara County transportation department, Berry had raised pit bulls for ten years. After the attack, police searched his property and said they found both dog-fighting magazines and a treadmill used for training pit bulls for combat. They also reported finding about 200 marijuana plants in the yard, and theorized that Willie had played some role in discouraging pot poachers.

Arrested on suspicion of murder and held in lieu of $100,000 bail, the beefy, mustachioed Berry held a jailhouse press conference after James’s death. Speaking in a soft, quavering voice, he denied any responsibility for the mauling. He said he had no knowledge of the marijuana crop and described Willie as a trophy-winning show dog who was “more or less a pet.” Added Berry: “This was a horrible, unforeseeable accident, and it wasn’t planned or anything. But I feel the parents were largely negligent in letting a 2-year-old out at twilight time.”

The Santa Clara County district attorney’s office disagreed. Berry was arraigned June 16 on a charge of involuntary manslaughter—the stiffest possible under the circumstances, according to prosecutor Alan Nudelman.

James Soto’s mother is prepared to see that Berry answers for her son’s death. “It was such a horrible thing that words can’t express my feelings,” says Yvonne Nunez, who plans to campaign for laws regulating pit bulls. “I don’t want anyone else to go through what my family has gone through.”

—Written by Michelle Green, reported by Dirk Mathison and domestic bureaus