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Attraction to exotic dogs was fatal

Shawna Willey's expensive but beloved Presa Canarios grew big and dangerous.

Published August 22, 2006

[Special to the Times]
Shawna Willey, best known by friends as "Ty," 30, shown with her daughter Tyra, 9, was killed when her dog Xeno attacked her as she tried to give him a bath.

NEW PORT RICHEY - Mary Johnson spent Monday trying to gain custody of her two grandchildren and enrolling them in Pasco County schools.

She prepared to decorate her guest bedroom in a horse motif - 9-year-old Tyra loves horses - and to convert her workout room into a bedroom for 14-year-old Trey.

All that, and still she has to bury her daughter.

Shawna Willey, Johnson's 30-year-old daughter and the children's mother, died Friday after a family dog mauled her outside her home in Coral Springs.

"I never liked the idea of her having the dogs," Johnson said.

But Willey, who lived in Tampa until moving to South Florida several years ago, adored her canines.

She had a pit bull named China for about eight years. And last year, she spent thousands of dollars on two Presa Canarios, which she had shipped from a breeder in the Canary Islands.

She named them Clara and Xeno.

Willey's best friend, Dianne Greenhalgh, said Willey showered the dogs with affection and felt more secure with them around.

"They were like an extension of her family," Greenhalgh said.

The dogs had their own bedroom, their own crates, their own toys. Willey cooked them separate meals and bathed them weekly.

But while Willey and her children loved the pets, the dogs terrified others.

"They were just getting too big, too fast," Greenhalgh said. She told her friend, "You need to get them on a plane and send them back to Spain."

Willey just laughed.

But recently, Xeno grew more aggressive. The dog growled at Willey's longtime boyfriend, Lazaro Rivero, and he suggested they find another home for it.

Willey said no. That decision proved fatal.

Authorities said she was giving Xeno a bath Friday in the back yard of the upscale Coral Springs home she shared with Rivero, when the 120-pound dog attacked the 120-pound woman.

It ripped open Willey's jugular, punctured her trachea and tore into her arms, back and side. One law enforcement official called it a "surreal scene."

Willey's 9-year-old daughter, Tyra, witnessed the attack and ran to a nearby home for help. But help came too late.

Officers arrived to find the dog standing over Willey's body. They said the dog became "aggressive" toward officers, and they shot and killed it.

Presa Canarios can cost as much as $4,000. Friends and family said Willey planned to breed the dogs.

The breed gained notoriety in a 2001 incident in which a pair of Presa Canarios mauled a San Francisco woman to death in the hallway of her apartment building. The owner later was sentenced to prison.

Hillsborough County records show Willey's affection for dogs had landed her in trouble in the past.

In 2000, she was charged with having a dog-at-large, court records show. In 2002, she was charged with having a vicious animal without current rabies vaccination and an animal registration, records show. The next year, she was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine.

Greenhalgh said Willey simply had too many dogs at the time, and they often would escape from her home and intimidate neighbors.

Those who knew her well said Willey built her life around her friends and family. In fact, Greenhalgh said, Willey and her children had planned to spend the weekend in Tampa and visit Busch Gardens. Even at 30, she still loved the roller coasters.

Willey had studied to become a crime scene investigator. She rarely missed an episode of CSI and loved anything that dealt with criminology.

She and Greenhalgh met during their years as dancers at Mons Venus strip club in Tampa. Even after those days, people still knew Willey as Ty - a stage name that stuck.

Johnson says the family remains in shock over the vicious way her daughter died. She prefers instead to think about their last conversation on Thursday, when they laughed and joked about one of their favorite TV shows, Big Brother.

"I'm just lucky that we said 'I love you' every single time we hung that phone up," she said.

Now, Johnson just wants to give her grandchildren "some semblance of normalcy in their lives."

"It's all about them now," she said. "I can't be their mother, but I can be the next best thing."

She said her daughter had no medical or life insurance and that the children will need psychological counseling. So instead of flowers, Johnson asked that well-wishers donate to the Shawna Willey Family Trust, c/o Invest Financial Services, 8745 Henderson Road, Suite 300, Tampa, FL 33634.

A funeral for Willey is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Timothy Catholic Church, 17512 Lakeshore Road in Lutz.

Information from the Miami Herald was used in this report.

[Last modified August 22, 2006, 01:00:45]

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