The man in the orange vest appeared in Mike Willcox’s back yard without warning.
By the time family members inside his Kingwood, Tex., home noticed the random figure striding past the backyard pool, it was too late. A large metal pipe wrench was already raised above the man’s head and he was swinging it wildly at the Willcox family’s two dogs.
Willcox’s terrified 4-year-old son watched the March 23 incident unfold a few feet away in the living room, Wilcox told CBS affiliate KHOU.
“Flash” — an 8-year-old Weimaraner bird dog — managed to dodge the first few swings, but eventually took a brutal blow to the side of his head. The hit left the dog with a bloody laceration under its left eye, a swollen, infected jaw and a concussion, KHOU reported. A second dog, who received blows to its body, is suffering breathing problems.
Willcox told the station that he’s been left with an estimated $2,000 in vet bills and a lot of frustration.
“Right in here where he got hit with the wrench, almost got his eye,” said Willcox, describing Flash’s injuries. “Never bitten anybody, very friendly. It was like the guy was swinging to kill.”
In an interview with Fox affiliate KRIV, Willcox added that the incident upset the family’s sense of safety.
“Here’s our dogs in their own back yard where they’re supposed to be safe and sleep or whatever but to be woken up by a stranger five or six feet away from them … I mean, it’s pretty upsetting,” Willcox said.
The assailant— whose name has not been released — was a worker with CenterPoint Energy, a natural gas and utility company serving the region. He was there to disconnect the home’s meter, a CenterPoint spokesperson told The Washington Post.
The entire incident was captured on surveillance footage that Willcox posted on Facebook, where it has been shared more than 18,200 times.
By the time Willcox made his way outside to confront the worker, he saw the man take another swing at the other family dog, “Shutter.”
Willcox told ABC affiliate KTRK that he confronted the man and asked him why he didn’t initially knock on the door before strolling into the back yard. He said the man told him, “I don’t have to do that.”
“I told him to stop swinging his wrench at my dog, and he said, ‘If they come at me, I can swing if I want,” Willcox told the Houston Chronicle. “I’m going to swing it again if they come at me.”
He told KHOU the incident finally ended when Willcox told the man to leave.
“I said, ‘I need to know your name,’ and he’s like, ‘CenterPoint,’ ” Willcox told KHOU. “And I was like, ‘Okay, you need to get off our property before things get really ugly here.’”
This is not the first time a CenterPoint Energy worker has been accused of attacking a family pet. In 2007, a Houston family filed a police report claiming that a utility worker entered their back yard without warning — ignoring “no trespassing” and “beware of dog” signs — before striking the family dog with a two-by-four, according to KTRK.
“He saw the gentleman jump over the fence with a two-by-four in his hand,” Elaine Cerda, referring to her husband, told the station. “And the next thing he heard was my dog crying. He heard my poor baby crying.”
A CenterPoint Energy spokesperson told KTRK at the time that the company advises its employees not to enter back yards where dogs are present. The spokesman added that the utility worker was employed by a subcontractor.
Leticia Lowe, a CenterPoint Energy spokesperson, told The Washington Post that the latest incident is “horrifying to watch.”
She said CenterPoint has launched an investigation into the incident, which involved a contractor hired by CenterPoint to disconnect service during non-payment.
She said local media reports saying that CenterPoint has agreed to pay the family’s vet bills are untrue, at least until the investigation is complete.
“We advise our own employees to not put themselves in that situation,” she said. “They’re trained to be aware of their surroundings. If there’s an aggressive dog, retreat. If the customer is home, see if the customer can get the dogs inside or make an appointment ahead of time.”
And yet, she continued, utility workers have a tough job. The region’s meters are automated, meaning workers no longer have to make monthly visits to customer’s back yards. But in cases where a homeowner’s service is being shut off or turned on, workers still have to physically visit a property.
“Unfortunately, it can be dangerous even though they are trained to deal with threatening situations,” Lowe added. “We have field employees who have been physically assaulted, held up at gunpoint and shot. The safety of our employees and the public we serve is our number one core value. We work to insure we have processes in place to protect employees, customers and their property.”
The owner of Star Corp., which employs the contractor, told KRIV that the family knew the worker was at the house, and when they found out he was there to turn off service, they intentionally let the dogs out. But surveillance footage shown by the station reveals that the contractor never made contact with the family or identified himself and walked straight into the back yard, past a “Beware of dogs” sign.
The owner told the station that the man has been suspended and an investigation has been launched.
The Willcox family told the station that they thought they had automatic bill payment set up and paid their balance the same day the incident occurred.
Willcox told KHOU that he’s provided a copy of his surveillance footage to the Houston Police Department. Victor Senties, a spokesman with the Houston Police Department, told The Post that the department’s animal cruelty division is “actively investigating” the incident and plans to review Willcox’s footage.
Senties said he couldn’t comment on the investigation, but noted that state law addresses utility workers who find themselves threatened.
“In the state of Texas, if someone is employed by a utilities company and they go into a back yard to attempt to disconnect or repair a meter, they’re basically there to conduct work,” he said. “Per state law, they’re in their right to defend themselves.”
Willcox family members are still recovering from the incident, they said. Flash underwent surgery on his jaw over the weekend. Willcox told KTRK that CenterPoint offered to pay for the dog’s vet bills, but the attack has left an imprint on his son.
“Now my son thinks there are monsters in the back yard,” Willcox wrote on Facebook. “Thanks CenterPoint!”
“I don’t think my dogs ever had a chance,” Willcox told the Chronicle. “How many times has this happened to other people when they come home and see their dog injured and wonder what happened?”