DNA data may decide which dog did the killing, but maybe not who was at fault
SOISSONS, France––Pack hunters and pit bull enthusiasts are pitted against each other in a melodrama gripping French media since November 16, 2019, when someone’s dog or dogs killed Elisa Pilarski, 29, six months pregnant.
Anxiously awaited DNA test results may establish which dog, and whose, inflicted the fatal injuries to Pilarski and her unborn son, who had already been named Enzo.
DNA samples were taken from all 67 dogs with possible involvement: five pit bulls from the victim’s own home, plus 62 hunting hounds.
But even the DNA data is unlikely to quell the furor over how the attack occurred and which humans are culpable for actions contributing to the deaths.
Among the few undisputed facts are that Pilarski’s boyfriend, Christophe Lucien Joseph Ellul, found his own pit bull Curtis alongside Pilarski’s badly mauled body on November 16, 2019, in a ravine below a trail in the Retz Forest.
Hunting preserve for 805 years
The Retz Forest surrounds the village of Villers-Cotterêts.
The slightly bigger village of Saint-Pierre-Aigle, where Ellul and Pilarski lived, lies just north of the forest, south of the ancient city of Soissons and the Aisne river.
A hunting preserve since 1214, the 50-square-mile Retz Forest is reputedly the largest intact patch of old growth in northern France, despite having been close to invasion routes used in the Hundred Years War, the Franco-Prussian War, World War I, and World War II.
The Belgian border is less than an hour straight north; the borders of Luxembourg and Germany are just a bit farther to the northeast.
Hunting hounds are not sweet lap dogs
These days the Retz Forest is chiefly disturbed by hunting packs set on red deer, roe deer, boar, and foxes. Among those packs are the 62 Poitevin hounds, similar to English foxhounds, kept by the Paris-based Le Rallye de la Passion hunting club.
Recent video discovered by ANIMALS 24-7 shows a Poitevin pack chasing and killing––but not dismembering––a grey cat. The video makes clear that Poitevin hounds, bred originally to hunt wolves, are scarcely sweet-natured lap dogs. At the same time, their attack mode is not the usual grip-shake-and-dismember style of pit bulls.
Victim & partner trained pit bulls in the forest
Pilarski, having just come to the Aisne region to live with Ellul on November 7, 2019, likely knew the Retz Forest only as the place where they exercised their pit bulls: Curtis, Chivas, Lady, and Drago, who belonged to Ellul, plus Ice, who arrived with Pilarski.
Cell phone video posted to Facebook shows the pit bulls leaping to swing by their jaws while snatching lures or bite toys suspended from ropes hung over tree limbs; jumping and scrambling up the side of a shed almost to the roof to grab a similar target; running; weight pulling; and being worked on leashes, possibly seeking the burrows of wild boar.
“Hunting pig is life”
Farmers and the French government have been anxious for at least two years that the deadly pig disease African swine fever might spread south from Belgium. At least 827 infected wild boar have been found in Belgium near the French border thus far in 2019.
Boar hunters, accordingly, have been urged to escalate their activity, including the growing numbers who hunt boar with pit bulls rather than hounds.
Pilarski had on October 29, 2019 posted a photograph of Curtis wearing a protective vest for boar hunting. The next day, October 30, 2019, Pilarski posted photos of herself working with Ice, beneath a caption that translates, “Hunting pig is life.”
Star pit was Curtis
Facebook postings by Pilarski and friends indicate that she acquired Ice, the French-born American Staffordshire terrier who was her first pit bull and her favorite, in 2013.
The star of the Ellul/Pilarski pack, however, was Curtis, a pedigreed two-year-old American pit bull terrier originally named Dark Midnight, who––like Drago––was apparently bred by Sharon DeWit of Hitam Kennel in the Netherlands.
Handling Curtis and Chivas for Ellul, Pilarski––according to Facebook postings––on August 17, 2019 won two first place medals and a second place in competition with Curtis at an American Dog Breeders Association show in Belgium. Ellul, handling Drago, picked up a second place medal.
Their relationship appears to have begun online in January 2019, announced to friends in April 2019.
Originally from Rebenacq, in the Atlantic Pyranees region, just north of Spain, Pilarski was born on September 8, 1990, the only child of Nathalie Pilarski, 54, reportedly recently widowed, who since 1994 had managed a grocery store near the town hall.
Dogs and horses, acquaintances told media, were Elisa Pilarski’s first loves. A dressage and jumps rider, she later lived in the small city of Pau, just to the north, and taught equestrian skills.
Pits consumed their lives
But pit bulls came to dominate her life, devouring it altogether after she met Christophe Ellul in person at a pit bull show, according to The Parisien.
A longtime resident of Saint-Pierre-Aigle, Ellul, 45, is reportedly employed in an unknown capacity by Air France, at the Charles de Gaul International Airport in Roissy, 18 miles north of Paris. His mother Josette, 69, a lifelong resident of the northern Paris suburbs, also worked for Air France.
Ellul, like Pilarski, had participated in equestrian competition circa 2012-2014, but his focus had shifted from horses to pit bulls. His sister Sandrine Libellule, a police employee, is shown in at least one Facebook photo with a pit bull, as is a cousin, Jose Cebolla. At least one former girlfriend is also a pit bull advocate.
Trapped cat & five kittens
By March 8, 2019 Ellul and Pilarski had visited the pit bull breeder DeWit together.
An apparently digitally altered photo posted to Facebook on May 17, 2019 shows Ellul lying beside Pilarski, who is in a hospital bed with her arm wrapped as if to treat a significant injury, perhaps a bite wound or cat scratches. Pilarski was not wearing a cast, as if for a fracture. Pilarski did not explain why she was hospitalized. At that time she would have already been several weeks pregnant.
Ellul on May 18, 2019 reported on Facebook that he and two friends, possibly including Pilarski, had successfully trapped a mother tabby cat and her five kittens at Terminal Three of the Charles de Gaul International Airport in Roissy, 18 miles north of Paris, where he is reportedly employed in an unknown capacity by Air France.
Ellul assured Facebook viewers that the mother cat and kittens would be taken the next day to a veterinary clinic in another Paris suburb, Survilliers, where the mother would be sterilized and microchipped.
Pit bull puppies & baby clothing
At a later point Pilarski posted an advertisement for pit bull puppies, assuring potential customers that the puppies would have been socialized, including to cats and other dogs; would have lived with siblings; would be familiar with such routine household sounds as television sets and a vacuum cleaner; would have been housebroken; and would have become used to riding in cars.
Pilarski on September 17, 2019 posted a photo of an array of baby clothing.
On Halloween, October 31, 2019, Pilarski posted photos of Curtis and Chivas, then wrote to acquaintance Joey Pyle, who admired the pit bulls, “I live in the southwest of France (Pau) and their owner is in the north, so it’s complicated for now, but soon all together.”
While Pilarski moved north to spend the last part of her pregnancy with Ellul, the daily Ile-de-France newspaper reported that “the couple also planned to ‘go down in a few days to the Pyrenees, where Elisa had planned to give birth.”
“Bastard master with his Malinois”
On November 16, 2019, Elisa’s death day, Christophe Ellul drove to work in Roissy.
Pilarski at about noon took at least two pit bulls, Curtis and Chivas, to the Retz Forest. She apparently walked them separately.
Pilarski at 12:19 p.m. messaged via Facebook to Ellul, in French-to-English translation, “And here is another bastard master with his Malinois not leashed and no halter. The Malinois rushed at me. Luckily I was only with Chivas. So I tell him, sir, what are you doing, what are you thinking he’s fighting? How did he respond? So what? So sir, I point out that you should already train your dog before talking, and it is mandatory to have a dog on a leash in this area. The others fortunately did not walk with us. Otherwise butchery ensues.”
Returned to the woods
After having messaged that it was lucky she only had Chivas and not Curtis with her, Pilarski evidently returned Chivas to her 4×4 vehicle, retrieved Curtis, and walked back into the woods, apparently the same woods where she said she had encountered the man and the Malinois.
Of note may be that there seem to be no witnesses to the presence of the man and the Malinois, who have not been identified.
“Later,” reported the newspaper Sud Ouest and Agence France Presse, “Pilarski made a disturbing call to her companion, Christophe, who was then at his place of work about 70 kilometers away. According to Ellul, she said she was with Curtis and was worried about the presence of several ‘threatening’ dogs. Christophe decided to go looking for her.”
Did Pilarski call a second time?
Shortly after 1:00 p.m., Ellul told Remi Havyarimana of the newspaper L’Union, again as translated from French to English, “She called me at work. She said she was attacked by several dogs, she was bitten on the arm and leg, and she could not hold Curtis. I told her to let go of the dog,” Ellul said. “And my phone fell in the car. When I stopped to pick it up, there was no sound. I called back 35, 36, 37 times … She never answered.”
If Pilarski called only once, the versions of the call that Ellul reported to Sud Ouest and Agence France Presse on the one hand, and to L’Union on the other, significantly differ; “threatening” is markedly less alarming than “bitten on the arm and leg.”
No call to emergency services
But if Pilarski called twice, the second call came after Ellul had already left work and was speeding to the Retz Forest, about 45 minutes away. He reached the forest around 2:00 p.m.
Neither Pilarski nor Ellul called police, emergency medical services, animal control, or game wardens, any of whom would have been much closer to the scene, with jurisdiction to assist.
“Before his terrible discovery,” added Havyarimana of L’Union, “Christophe Ellul indicates that he crossed paths with several people in forest. First was a hunting club member. Ellul asked the man if he had seen his wife and dog.”
Next, Ellul saw a group of four or five people, leaning on a car, whom he believed were hunt club followers.
“Five or six riders”
“Finally,” Havyarimana said, “Ellul met five or six riders.”
Ellul told Havyarimana that, “I asked them the same question,” if they had seen his wife and dog. In addition, Ellul said, “I asked one of them to be careful because they had their pack of dogs and I did not know if my dog was leashed or loose. He said ‘I would worry more about your dog than mine,’ with a smirk.”
“I looked for Elisa,” Ellul continued to the BFM–TV news channel. “I saw her 4×4. I walked toward a ravine, but about 30 dogs arrived, so I moved away.”
Elaborated Ellul to France-3, again as translated from French to English, “I found some of her stuff first, a vest, a scarf. I called my wife and Curtis. Then Curtis barked. He was in a ditch. I heard him and I could follow his barking. That’s when I saw a pack. They were maybe thirty. They came to me, but they did not look mean. I moved away. They passed me. Two approached, but did not do anything to me. They went to join the pack.
“They had eaten her head, arms, hands, legs”
“I called again to Curtis, but he did not come. He bypassed what I thought was a tree trunk and he remained stoic. I rushed and I realized that it was the belly of my wife that I saw. I went down the precipice, approached and realized that the tree trunk was my wife’s belly. My wife had been devoured everywhere. They had eaten her head, arms, hands, legs,” Ellul said.
“For me, sure and certain, those thirty dogs came from my wife’s body. For me it’s the hunt,” Ellul repeated. “The dogs came out of this precipice. Curtis received a lot of bites to the head.”
Ellul said he tried to revive Elisa, but her body was already cold. He tried to telephone for help, but –– although Elisa had been able to Facebook message him once, and called him either once or twice, according to his statements, the last time while purportedly under attack by multiple dogs and holding back Curtis –– his attempts to call from essentially the same location failed due to lack of network.
Ellul then drove home and asked a neighbor for help. She called the police for him.
Frédéric Trinh, chief prosecutor for Soissons, told media in a written statement that, in translation, “An autopsy performed at the Saint Quentin Forensic Institute determined that the death occurred between 1 p.m. and 1:30 p.m., and was due to multiple hemorrhages following dog bites to the upper and lower limbs and the head, some bites being ante mortem and others post mortem.”
Pending the DNA data, the autopsy did not identify whether one dog or several inflicted the injuries.
Possible scenarios include:
- That a pack of hunting hounds attacked Pilarski, as Ellul surmised, while Curtis the pit bull was injured in her defense;
- That Curtis killed Pilarski, possibly as she tried to hold Curtis back from an altercation with either the unidentified Malinois or the hounds;
- That Curtis killed Pilarski, after which the hounds found and investigated her remains, possibly dragging her corpse just as the Poitevin hounds on video dragged the corpse of the cat.
Hounds were reportedly uninjured
Disbelieving that Curtis could have killed Pilarski, despite considerable testimony from others who know him that he has a dangerous disposition, Ellul has vowed in the names of Pilarski and the unborn Enzo to save Curtis from euthanasia.
There is no doubt that the Le Rallye de la Passion hunting club was present with 62 hounds, but the hound hunt did not start until 1:30 p.m., said Antoine Gallon, spokesperson for the French national hunting club Société de Vénerie.
By that time, according to the autopsy report, Pilarski was already dead.
Added Gallon, “One cannot imagine that Curtis, a fighting dog, let his mistress be devoured without defending her! However, veterinarians inspected the 62 dogs of the pack – 21 participating in the hunt while 41 remained kenneled –– and none showed signs of bite.”
Curtis “was a little aggressive” with horse?
In a written statement issued three days after Pilarski’s death, the Société de Vénerie claimed that “during the 18,000 days of hunting organized each year, never has any human bodily injury involving hunting hounds been raised. At the current state of investigation, nothing demonstrates the involvement of hunting dogs in the death of this woman.”
Claiming to have been interrogated for six hours by police, Le Rallye de la Passion hunt chair Sébastien Van den Berghe confirmed to media that he “met Christophe, totally in panic, a little after two p.m.,” after another rider “crossed a dog [not from the hunt] who was a little aggressive with his horse.”
That rider, hunt leader for the day Jean-Michel Camus, told BFM-TV that Ellul warned him “to pay attention to your dogs, because his [Curtis] was very dangerous.”
Added Camus, “If he had told me ‘I’m looking for my wife,’ we would have stopped hunting.”
Regional police commander also in hunt
Finding Pilarski’s remains, with 21 hounds and perhaps as many riders, would have been relatively easy. And, indeed, the hounds might have already found her, but one would expect not to the knowledge of the human participants, also including Aisne regional police commander Lieutenant Colonel Jean-Charles Metras.
Because of Metras’ presence, Soissons prosecutor Frédéric Trinh immediately transferred responsibility for directing the investigation to the gendarmerie research section of Amiens, under a “service that is not under his authority,” Trinh said.
Trinh also opened a judicial inquiry into whether Pilarski died as result of “manslaughter by clumsiness, recklessness, inattention, negligence or breach of a duty of prudence or security imposed by law or regulation resulting from the aggression committed by dogs.”
Brigitte Bardot hires lawyer for Ellul
Former actress Brigitte Bardot, who retired from acting in 1973 to focus on animal advocacy, reportedly offered Ellul the services of a lawyer and asked the French government to immediately suspend “all hunt authorizations for this season.”
Bardot in August 2011 argued that a pit bull should not be euthanized after severely facially disfiguring a a four-year-old girl in Boulogne-sur-Mer, a small city also close to Belgium but about 150 miles west of the Retz Forest.
The pit bull owner and the parents of the victim meanwhile sued the local Society for the Protection of Animals for allegedly having concealed that the pit bull was rehomed after partially eating the remains of his owner, said to have died of natural causes.
The pit bull, originally named Ulk, was renamed Prince.
“On the SPA website, Prince was described as ‘a good sort, easy to get on with,’ although he was not advised for people with families. The SPA said it told the new owner about the previous incident, but the owner denies this,” reported Molly Guinness of The Independent.
Other recent French cases
Media attention to Pilarski’s death upstaged a two-month prison sentence, suspended, and a 500 euro fine meted out in Bergerac, Dordogne region, to a woman whose Malinois and Rottweiler in early 2018 attacked a young mother while she walked with a stroller. The Rottweiler was confiscated.
The most recent previous dog attack fatality in France, ANIMALS 24-7 files indicate, was an 18-month-old boy, killed by the family pit bull while walking with his grandmother on May 6, 2016 in Epfig, 240 miles straight east from the Retz Forest.
Agence France Presse reported that the pit bull, an American Staffordshire terrier, was leashed at the time, had never bitten and had never been aggressive, and had passed a veterinary behavioral assessment.
Mayor Jean-Claude Mandry ordered that the killer dog in that case be euthanized.