July 09, 1990 12:00 PM

It was late afternoon, hot and muggy, when Betty Lou Stidham, 57, emerged from her sprawling ranch-style home in Memphis and walked toward her mailbox. A teacher of classical languages and mathematics for 27 years at St. Mary’s Episcopal School, Stidham was on summer vacation. It should have been a pleasant break, but she had a problem. Next door were police officer Edwin Hill’s two ferocious pit bulls, which six months earlier had so mauled her pug, Little John, that his left front leg had to be amputated. After she unsuccessfully petitioned the city to destroy the dogs, Stidham, who lived alone, had told friends she was terrified of them.

It was apparently when Stidham turned and started back to her house that the pit bulls, who were normally penned within a chain link fence, struck. Housewife Karen Gomez, driving onto Stidham’s street, paused at a stop sign, looked over into the teacher’s front yard and saw the horrifying attack. “There was this large body [Stidham was 6′ and 200 lbs.] with hardly any clothes on,” says Gomez, “and there was a dog on each side pulling on the body, which seemed lifeless.”

Meanwhile, another neighbor knocked on the door of Michelle Hayes and her housemate, Blake Tanner, asking them to call 911. When Hayes ran outside, she saw the dogs pulling Stidham back to their yard. “At times she would raise her right hand up,” says Hayes, “and when she did, they would attack the hand, and then she would raise her leg up. You could tell she was still alive, maybe barely.” Frantic, Hayes picked up two brooms and ran within 10 feet of the dogs before Tanner grabbed her and pulled her back. “She beat on me with her fists to let her go help,” he says. “But I couldn’t let her do it. They would have killed her too.”

By the time the ambulance arrived and the police cordoned off the street, the dogs had dragged Stidham some 20 feet, onto Hill’s property. It was only when the police started shooting, wounding the pit bulls, that the dogs stopped and ran back to their yard. “Finally,” says Tanner, “to get the owner [Hill] to come out, the police had to go and knock on the door.” Hill reportedly told police that although he was outside before the attack, he had been asleep when it took place. Hayes finds that hard to believe. “He didn’t hear her scream?” she asks. “He didn’t hear those horns, those sirens, those gunshots?”

Stidham was taken to St. Francis Hospital, where she died about four hours later. Hill, 43, who was on medical leave from the Memphis police because of a heart condition, also left in an ambulance for the same hospital after complaining of hypertension. Hill was in intensive care for several days before he was released and, as of last week, had not returned to his home or spoken to the press.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, friends and neighbors of Betty Lou Stidham wondered why Hill’s dogs had not been destroyed months ago. A local TV station turned up an ambulance report showing that Hill’s own mother, Helen, 75, was mauled by the pit bulls in October 1988. Now in a nursing home, she had reportedly fallen from her wheelchair, been bitten by the dogs and pulled from one room to another. She was later hospitalized for multiple dog bites.

“That information was unknown to us,” says Memphis attorney Philip Shanks, who represented Stidham at the January hearing following the attack on Little John. It was apparently also unknown to Robert Lee, manager of the Memphis Animal Shelter, who conducted the hearing. Lee found that the pit bulls had not violated any city or state ordinances because Stidham’s pug had provoked the attack when it stuck its paw through Hill’s fence. “If we had [the information about Hill’s mother],” says Shanks, “Lee would have had the authority to impound the animals and Miss Stidham perhaps would still be alive today.”

The Memphis medical examiner ruled Stidham’s death “accidental,” and so far, pending a police investigation, no charges have been filed against officer Hill. (One of his dogs, severely wounded, was destroyed; the other is being kept at the animal shelter.) The day after more than 700 people packed the Church of the Holy Communion for Stidham’s funeral, the faculty and students of St. Mary’s began drafting proposals to toughen the city’s vicious-dog ordinances, while Stidham’s neighborhood association moved to ban pit bulls altogether. Meantime, Stidham’s students and colleagues attempted to come to terms with her gruesome death. “She was a truly committed teacher,” said St. Mary’s Headmaster Thomas N. Southard. “She was a strict disciplinarian, and the children were in awe of her,” said Mary M. Davis, St. Mary’s dean emeritus. “But she had a wonderful sense of humor—she loved to laugh and have a good time.”

The terrible irony of the teacher’s death, says Southard, is that Stidham was not thinking of her own safety when she filed her complaint. “What angered and saddened me,” says Southard, “was that when she tried to have the pit bulls impounded, she was looking out for young dogs and young children. It was in fact her own life she had been trying to save by working with the system. But she didn’t know it.”

—William Plummer, Jane Sanderson in Memphis

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