The family of Ellie Lawrenson, the five-year-old girl mauled to death by her uncle's dog, said yesterday that they were "absolutely devastated" at the loss of their "little angel".
The outpouring of grief following the girl's death on New Year's Day came as police said that a post-mortem examination carried out on the dog proved that it was a pit bull terrier type. The decision means that the dog's owner, Kiel Simpson, could be charged under the Dangerous Dogs Act.
Ellie and her grandmother were attacked by the dog in the early hours of Monday morning at a house in St Helens, near Liverpool. The girl died at the scene from serious head and neck injuries. Her grandmother, Jackie Simpson, 46, is stable in hospital following surgery after suffering injuries to her arms.
The dog, which was destroyed immediately after the incident, was just over a year old and had been owned by Mr Simpson, who lived at the same address, since it was a puppy.
"Ellie was always happy and smiling. She was a little angel, full of life and always running around," the Lawrenson family said in a statement. "She loved her music and was a proper little girl, performing her routines and singing along [to] Beyoncé and The X Factor. She was always sociable, playing with other children and chatting to neighbours.
"We had a great Christmas together, with her little brother, Josh, who Ellie doted on and thought she was a second mother to. She was an active little girl; she loved horse-riding and was looking forward to going ice-skating for the first time in the new year. We are absolutely devastated and can't believe she is gone."
Ellie was born in St Helens and her family moved to Warrington, Cheshire, shortly afterwards. She was in the reception class of Tower College, a private school in Rainhill, where teachers described her as a "happy little girl". Her school report read: "Ellie is a happy little girl, who mixes well with other children. She is a popular member of her class."
Police and officials from St Helens Council confirmed that neighbours had twice reported the animal to the local authority about its behaviour, once because it had attacked another dog and the second time because of its barking. The council confirmed that two warning letters had been sent to the dog's owner following minor incidents last year.
A spokesman said: "We can confirm there has been a reported incident regarding the dog by a neighbour in May 2006 following a dog attack. Neither dog received veterinary treatment as a result of the incident.
"There was a further reported incident from a neighbour in July regarding a complaint about the dog barking. On both occasions letters were sent to the owner."
A Metropolitan Police expert on the Dangerous Dogs Act travelled to Merseyside yesterday to confirm that the dog was a pit bull terrier type. Supt Jon Ward of Merseyside Police said: "This is a tragic incident involving the loss of life of a little girl and our sympathies are extended to her family at this difficult time. Following a post-mortem examination an assessment has been made by a recognised expert on the Dangerous Dogs Act from the Metropolitan Police. A report will be forwarded to the coroner and we will be consulting the Crown Prosecution Service. We will be speaking to family members about the circumstances leading up to this tragedy."
Under the Act, owners of banned dogs face a £5,000 fine and up to six months in prison.