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Responsibility in girl's death elusive

The deadly mauling of Milissa Hunt was a tragedy, but laying blame on anyone other than the dogs raises legal questions.

The water where they found Milissa Hunt is as still and murky now as it was the day she died. The grass on the banks where they laid her body has grown tall during the summer rainy season.

The house where they called 911 is empty, the dirt on the kitchen floor swept into a single pile before a desperate departure.

Only a toy set of kitchen appliances still resting beneath an old oak suggests a 5-year-old girl lived at 6707 Turner Camp Road. Nothing reveals that just a month ago, Milissa was mauled to death by pit bullterriers in the back yard, apparently while her mother was inside making dinner.

In the weeks that the little girl's face and name have been on the front page and on television broadcasts, the mystery surrounding her death has been muddled further by the fact that law enforcement, at least one state agency and several news agencies have misspelled her name. A family member confirmed Friday that, although even some relatives spelled her first name Melissa, the spelling on her birth certificate _ and the spelling on her aluminum grave marker _ is Milissa.

Although detectives continue to investigate the case and the state attorney's office eventually will have to decide whether blame rests anywhere other than on the family pets, all evidence of Milissa's gruesome death has been removed from the home, as if someone hoped evacuating the scene could somehow seal it in the past:

+ The four dogs Milissa had played with July 14 are caged behind "Dangerous Dog" signs at the Citrus County Animal Shelter. Chances are good one or more of them will be euthanized.

+ Milissa's mother, Sandra Yates Hunt, and her boyfriend, Claude Blount, have moved to Floral City, to a quiet house without dogs or young children.

+ And in a little cemetery just across the Citrus-Sumter county line, in a family plot where she was buried on the same day her parents were to have been divorced, a pink and white garland bearing a single word, "Beloved," marks Milissa's grave along with another plastic wreath and ribbon. Her mutilated body and disfigured face exist now only in the memories of those who found her, and in photographs a medical examiner has filed away.

Only two things remain to be done before the Citrus County Sheriff's Office concludes its investigation and delivers it to prosecutors. Technicians in a laboratory of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement must complete their analysis of the stomach contents of the dogs, which were forced to regurgitate shortly after Milissa died. And an expert in Miami must finish studying impressions made of the bite wounds on Milissa's body.

Both examinations could take several more weeks, and the results ultimately may reveal little more than gory details. Medical examiners have determined that the dogs are responsible.

The question for prosecutors: Is blaming the dogs enough?

Hunt and Blount own one of the adult male dogs and a puppy and were temporarily caring for the other two. Is it a crime they allowed a 5-year-old in their care to play unsupervised in her own backyard with four pit bullterriers, dogs that have been banned from some parts of the country because of their potentially vicious behavior?

Willard Pope, the supervisor of the state attorney's office in Citrus County, said he could not comment on this specific case.

Depending on the circumstances, dog owners can be prosecuted if their pets attack people or other animals. But Pope said when such cases go to court, they usually get there as civil matters.

The nature of the relationship between Milissa and the dogs complicates the case.

"There's no law saying she can't play in her own yard with her pet unsupervised, even if it is a pit bull," said sheriff's Detective Dave Fields, who has worked on the case from the beginning. Fields emphasized that not all pit bullterriers are dangerous dogs.

"There's no law that says she can't play with a chihuahua, either," he said.

"If there's enough outcry against pit bulls from residents of the state of Florida, then they need to change the law," Fields said. "But if we don't have that law, then we can't have that crime."

Peripheral factors surrounding Milissa's death that might seem relevant have had little impact on the Sheriff's Office's investigation, including the fact that a case worker for the Department of Children and Families visited Milissa's home the day before her death in response to a complaint that the child was being neglected. The case worker judged Milissa to be at "low risk."

Hunt told the Times that, in 1998, she underwent drug rehabilitation as part of a previous Department of Children and Families investigation that involved her family. On Monday, the department will request permission from a judge to release details of two previous investigations of the Hunt family.

In 1996, Hunt was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia. Her husband of nearly 20 years, Randy Hunt, whom she is in the process of divorcing and who was not present when Milissa died, has been charged in the past with domestic abuse and using crack cocaine. Randy Hunt has declined to comment.

Blount, a 34-year-old commercial painter whom Hunt met in a coin laundry, has an extensive arrest record, mostly in Palm Beach County. It includes charges of driving under the influence of alcohol and cocaine possession. In 1991, he was accused of battering a pregnant woman, but the charges were dropped. In 1994, he was charged with battery.

The day Milissa died, Sandra Hunt said Claude Blount and his visiting father and brother had been outside drinking when they discovered the little girl floating in a shallow cove of the Tsala Apopka lake chain behind their home.

Nonetheless, Fields said, "Previous things don't really amount to a lot when you start considering the circumstances of this investigation. There was nothing the day of the incident that led us to believe those were factors in the death of the child."

A neighbor, Bonnie Hagan, 28, said she had seen Milissa several times since the girl moved to the area late last summer from Bushnell, after her parents separated. "But I didn't even know she lived there," Hagan said, pointing to the vacant gray stucco house, "because it seemed like she was at other people's houses more than her own."

Hagan's mother, Grace Turaniczo, also lives in the neighborhood. "No 5-year-old should be away from home that long," Turaniczo said. "I wouldn't let a 5-year-old out of my sight."

Hunt recently called Fields to ask if she should hire a lawyer. Fields told her only prosecutors could say.

There are scenarios in which criminal charges could be filed, but none seem relevant to Milissa's death, Fields said. Had the dogs ever caused trouble before, and had the county's animal control officials previously labeled the animals dangerous, their owners could face prosecution if they attacked again.

About two weeks before Milissa died, about the time Hunt has said two of the dogs joined the one already living at the home, a man living about half a mile down Turner Camp Road reported that two pit bullterriers killed a pig outside his home one night, Fields said.

The man fired a shot into the ground to scare the dogs, which ran away in the direction of Hunt's home. After Milissa's death, the man was shown photographs of the dogs that killed her. Two of them, he said, looked like the dogs he had seen outside his home.

But the pig did not belong to the man, and it may have been wild, Fields said. Just because the dogs looked similar to the animals that belong to Hunt and Blount and were heading toward their home, Fields said, "We can't prove it was their dogs." Besides, he said, although the attack would have violated the county's leash law, it is not illegal for a dog to kill a pig.

Milissa's family members say they believe alligators, not one or more of their pets, killed Milissa. If she had dog bite wounds, they say, it was because the dogs were trying to rescue her. That perspective, what Fields called "the Lassie scenario," has been dismissed by medical examiners.

"There's a lot of what-ifs that could have probably made a difference in the case," Fields said. "I'm not going to say that there's nothing there, or that there is something. I'm going to leave that up to the state attorney's office."

Fields, a 10-year veteran, said it is hard to find comparisons to the Milissa Hunt case. "This is the first time I've ever investigated something like this," he said. "This is a very gray issue."

The case does bear at least one similarity to other unnatural deaths, he said: "Every time somebody dies, somebody wants to lay blame."