Underwood sentenced in dog attack case

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John Terry Underwood II will serve seven years of a 25-year sentence, for three separate convictions resulting from an Alford plea in March

By Larry Chambers

INDEPENDENCE – The atmosphere inside the Grayson County Circuit court was emotional last Thursday during the sentencing of John Terry Underwood II, 52, of Independence, who was charged in connection with the dog mauling death of a 15-month-old girl on the night of Jan. 6, 2016.
After the 2-hour hearing, Judge H. Lee Harrell found Underwood guilty on three charges – failure to contain a vicious dog resulting in serious human injury; child abuse or neglect; and involuntary manslaughter. Harrell sentenced Underwood to 25 years in prison but suspended 18 years of the sentence. Underwood has to serve seven years and after his release from prison, be placed on active probation for five years.
A second suspect, Terra Lynn Connell, 30, who lived with Underwood, has also been charged in the case. She was indicted on four charges by a Grayson County Circuit Court grand jury last October. She is charged with possession of ammunition for a firearm after having been convicted of a felony; failure to contain a vicious dog resulting in serious human injury; child abuse or neglect; and felony homicide. Her charges currently have a May 11 “to be set” date for a separate trial.
 In a hearing held March 2, Underwood entered an Alford plea to the first two charges. He submitted a plea for an amended charge of involuntary manslaughter, which replaced the prior homicide charge.
An Alford plea means that Underwood did not claim guilt, but acknowledged that there was enough evidence present for a possible conviction.
The incident occurred at Connell and Underwood’s home at 443 Penn Ford Road in Independence, where they were babysitting Sawyers.
According to earlier reports, Underwood was awakened by the child’s screams. Their dog, a mixed pit bull named E.J., reportedly had the baby’s head in its mouth.
Payton Lyrik Sawyers was flown by a medical transport helicopter to Brenner Children’s Hospital in Winston-Salem, N.C., where she later died.
Several members of Sawyers’ family testified and were in attendance during the hearing.
Mikala Brown, Payton’s mother, fought back the tears as she told the court how much she missed her daughter.
“I miss her more every day,” she said. “I wish she was back home with me. She was a beautiful, out of this world child who made everyone happy who came in contact with her. She was always happy and full of life.”
Brown said that she had known Underwood for about six months. She had known Connell longer.
She said her and Payton had visited the Underwood home before and the dog was always placed in a fenced area outside the home. The night her daughter was attacked was the first time she had stayed at the Underwood home all night.
Joe Brown, Payton’s grandfather, said her death had a devastating effect on his life. “It’s terrible not to be able to hold or play with your granddaughter. I can’t imagine the pain Payton went through during the attack. My life will never be the same without Payton.”
He told Underwood, fighting back the emotions, who was sitting at the defense table, that he hoped he saw that baby’s head in that dog’s mouth every day the rest of his life.
Underwood’s attorney, Brandon Boyles, put Underwood on the stand.
He said that he moved to Grayson County from Carroll County and had been married three times and had two children.
Underwood testified that he had used meth three or four days before the attack but had not used any drugs or drank any alcohol the day of the attack, Jan. 16. He also said he although he used meth that he was not addicted to the drug.
He said that he had never seen E.J. act aggressively toward a person. He said he raised hogs and that E.J. sometimes snapped at them.
He said E.J. was part of the family and when anyone came to visit that he wanted to play with them.
Underwood said he picked up Payton on Jan. 6 and remembered strapping her into her car safety seat for the ride home. He said he was “very much fond of Payton.”
Later in the evening, he returned to Independence to pick up some cold medicine for Payton and to pick up a pizza for supper. He said he fed E.J. pizza while everyone was eating.
He said after watching the early news on television, somewhere around 10 p.m., he fell asleep on the couch.
Later that night, he was awakened by Connell screaming and found E.J. with Payton’s head in his mouth.
He said he had never seen E.J. act in such a matter and that he fought the dog to get Payton free from its mouth. The dog bit him on both arms and his face before he could free the child. He took the dog outside and tied it to a fence post.
Underwood said Connell immediately called 911 and the Independence Volunteer Rescue Squad quickly responded to the home. After telling them what had happened, they wanted to know where the dog was and I told them he was tied up.
Deputies from the Grayson County Sheriff’s Department also arrived at the scene to being their investigation. Officers removed certain items from the Underwood home after executing a search warrant on Jan. 7.
Grayson County Animal Control Officer Jeremy Moss also assisted in the investigation of the case.
Underwood said he relived the horror every day. “I can’t get it out of my head.”
He apologized to the family for such a horrible thing and said if there was anything in the world he could do to take it back that he would do it.
Boyles said one of the reasons Underwood had pleaded guilty was to spare the family from having to go through a two-day or more trial.
Marty Parks, who represented the Commonwealth during the hearing, pointed to an incident when E.J. jerked a pot bellied pig out of the hands of a boy. Parks said his stepson reportedly told Underwood then that he should get rid of the dog and commented that what if that was a child.
Parks also pointed out that Payton was placed in the bedroom with a vicious dog in the house. He said that Payton had no way to protect herself and there were no precautions taken by Underwood to protect her.
Parks went on to say that the sentencing guidelines in the case didn’t take into effect such a horrible crime.
Boyles said in his closing remarks that Underwood was remorseful for what had happened and that he will pay a price for the rest of his life.
Connell is being held in the New River Valley Regional Jail in Dublin without bond.