Commissioner pushes for DNA expert for animal attack fatality

Published 7:33 pm Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Beaufort County Board of Commissioners may bring in a DNA expert to unravel the mystery of what kind of animal killed a Pantego resident in February.

Commissioner Hood Richardson asked fellow commissioners to hire a DNA consultant in Monday’s regular meeting of the board. Richardson said while he believes the lab at Western Carolina University did a fine job on its testing of DNA samples found on Pungo Christian Academy teacher Brenda Hamilton after the attack, he thinks a second opinion is needed.

“The public has a lot of questions,” Richardson said. “It seemed that a canine did it, (but) nobody can find the canine.”

The tests done on the DNA samples from Hamilton were inconclusive — those testing the material were unable to determine whether a domestic dog or another wild canine was responsible for the attack, according WCU scientist Maureen Hickman. The only confirmed animal DNA in the samples pointed to a domestic dog, but the two dogs found near Hamilton on the morning of attack were cleared by a panel after a 10-day quarantine. Those dogs were known to Hamilton, often accompanying her on her daily walks, and each were found to only have trace amounts of Hamilton’s blood on them after the attack, according to Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office investigators.

No DNA from a coyote or red wolf was found in the samples, however, the lack could be attributed to the fact Hamilton was found in a ditch, immersed in water from the shoulders down. DNA evidence could have been washed away in the water, according to investigators.

Another aspect some commissioners say they would like explored is whether the animal responsible for the attack was a hybrid.

“The biggest problem with the DNA is there’s not a panel for a cross of a red wolf and a coyote,” Commissioner Frankie Waters said. “They have the information on the red wolf, but they don’t have it for a hybrid.”

That’s what Richardson said he’s looking for: a DNA expert who can track down the hybrid animals’ DNA for comparison. Richardson estimated the cost of hiring an independent DNA consultant to be $2,500-$3,000.

Since the last commissioners meeting in May, county Manager Brian Alligood has been in contact with the various agencies that could shed more light on Hamilton’s attack. Alligood told commissioners Hickman has agreed to speak to the board and answer any questions they may have; Pete Benjamin, the North Carolina field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — the agency in charge of red wolf program in eastern North Carolina — has also committed to speak to commissioners. Alligood said he’d also reached out to North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, which was originally involved in the case until initial DNA testing ruled out a wild animal.

Commissioners were divided equally about whether to move ahead with hiring a DNA expert or wait to hear what the WCU, USFWS and NCWRC experts had to say.

“I don’t mind voting for what you’re asking for, but I’d also like for us to go through the channels. … We might not hear what we want to hear, but let’s go through the channels,” Commissioner Ed Booth said. “If you’re not satisfied in July, when these people leave, I’ll be happy to vote for it.”

The vote to hire a DNA consultant was 3-3, with Richardson, Waters and Stan Deatherage voting for the hire, and Chairman Jerry Evans, Vice Chairman Jerry Langley and Booth voting against. Commissioner Gary Brinn was not present.