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Mother of boy mauled at Pittsburgh zoo will not face criminal charges

| Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, 3:14 p.m.
Elizabeth Derkosh, 33, of Whitehall, was holding her 2-year old son, Maddox, when he fell from the viewing platform into the African painted dog exhibit and was mauled to death at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium on Nov. 4, 2012.
Maddox Derkosh, 2, of Whitehall was killed Nov. 4, 2012, when he fell into the African painted dogs exhibit at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.

Authorities will not charge the mother of a Whitehall boy who was fatally mauled when he fell into an African painted dogs exhibit at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said on Wednesday.

The prosecutor is working with federal authorities to investigate zoo policies and how it responded to the first visitor death in its 114-year history.

“I've heard explanations of how the child fell,” Zappala said. “It's probable that this child thought there was Plexiglas where there was not Plexiglas. Witnesses described (the fall) as lunging.”

Zappala said Elizabeth Derkosh, 33, of Whitehall was holding her son Maddox, 2, on a railing atop the observation deck of the outdoor exhibit shortly before noon on Nov. 4 when the child leaned forward to get a better look and fell about 14 feet into the yard below.

Maddox bled to death when several of the 11 dogs inside attacked. He was visiting the zoo with his mother and other relatives.

Zappala said Elizabeth Derkosh had to be physically restrained to keep her from attempting to rescue her son. Pittsburgh police said there is no surveillance video of the incident. Four people were on the exhibit's observation deck at the time: Elizabeth and Maddox Derkosh, Elizabeth's cousin and the cousin's child, police said.

“It's a tragic accident,” Zappala said. The mauling drew national attention.

He would not say whom detectives interviewed. Police said they spoke with Elizabeth Derkosh, zoo employees and witnesses who were nearby and ran to the exhibit when they heard screams.

Members of the Derkosh family and an attorney representing Elizabeth Derkosh did not return calls.

Zappala said his office is looking into whether he should file criminal charges against the zoo, but first must review national guidelines, safety protocols and 911 recordings of calls from panicked visitors and zoo workers after the child's tumble into the exhibit. He said his determination will rely, in part, on findings by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Zappala plans to look at problems police encountered while responding to the exhibit, including access to the facility, the officers' inability to see inside the exhibit before they entered, and why a tranquilizer dart that a zoo worker used on one of the dogs did not contain drugs that might have slowed the animal.

Police said a group of zoo employees reached the scene first and lured seven of the dogs into a secure area while other workers threw objects to distract three others. A Pittsburgh police officer eventually arrived and shot one dog that was acting aggressively. Investigators initially said the incident lasted 10 minutes.

Zappala said the first police officer to arrive on the scene is a mother and “reacted in part like you would expect a mom to react.”

“There were some things done well, and there were some things done not so well,” he said. He did not elaborate.

Barbara Baker, president and CEO of the zoo, commended the employee response and said two were within feet of the exhibit.

“Unfortunately, there just wasn't time,” she said. “We're not talking about an animal. We're talking about 11 animals.”

Baker said the painted dog exhibit has been inspected 35 times since the city built it as a cheetah enclosure in 1992. The zoo most recently passed accreditation in September, she said.

The zoo placed the dogs in quarantine for 30 days and closed the exhibit.

Baker said the zoo has no plans to reopen the exhibit.

Zappala on Wednesday met with investigators from the USDA. A department spokesman said investigators will look for violations of the Animal Welfare Act, which governs the treatment of animals in public exhibits. There is no timeline for the investigation, although any violations found will be made public.

The review will be to determine whether the zoo was to blame, but also so changes can be made for the future, Zappala said.

“We're going to try to ensure that this never occurs again,” he said.

Legal experts in the days after the incident said they did not expect Derkosh to be charged in her son's death.

“This is one of the cases where you ask, ‘Does it feel like mom is guilty of some form of homicide?' It just doesn't feel that way,” said Wes Oliver, a Duquesne University associate professor of law and director of the school's criminal justice program. “From a legal perspective, motive doesn't matter. From human perspective, motive matters a lot.”

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or Staff writer Margaret Harding contributed to this report.

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