Investigation into fatal animal attack to receive second look

Published 9:33 pm Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The following is the first of two stories detailing presentations by various agencies to the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners regarding a fatal animal attack in Pantego in February. The second part of the story will be appear in Friday’s issue of the Daily News.

Five months after a brutal animal attack claimed the life of a 77-year-old woman in Pantego, the question still remains: what type of animal was responsible for the death of Brenda Hamilton?

While the investigation into her death has not yet yielded any definitive answers, the question was brought up again during Monday’s meeting of the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners and is set to receive a second look.

This will happen in two ways — first, commissioners voted unanimously to retain a third-party DNA expert to review the evidence and DNA testing that has been conducted in the case so far. Secondly, the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office is set to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to study hairs and fibers collected from the scene of the attack and compare them to animals including coyotes and red wolves.

During the meeting, representatives from the BCSO, NCWRC, USFWS and Western Carolina University’s Biology and Forensic Science Program spoke on the role each agency has played in the investigation so far.


Speaking on behalf of the BCSO, Lt. Jim Vanlandingham reviewed the actions taken by the sheriff’s office from the morning of the attack on Feb. 15 up through the present.

On the morning of the attack two of Hamilton’s neighbors, Octaviano and Lourdes Chavez, were awakened by their dogs barking and found Hamilton half-submerged in a drainage ditch beside Indian Run Road. A second neighbor, Susan Davis, called 911.

When EMS personnel arrived on scene, they found Hamilton suffering from catastrophic wounds to her arms, legs and scalp. She was transported to Vidant Medical Center in Greenville, where she died from her injuries on Feb. 18.

Next on scene, BCSO deputies and Beaufort County Animal Control Officers discovered a freshly-killed nutria and a considerable amount of blood at the scene. There were no eyewitnesses to the attack, which Vanlandingham says likely occurred between 5:15 and 5:40 a.m.

Both of the Chavez’s dogs were examined by the BCSO and Animal Control and displayed no signs of aggression. They were not wet and neither had any sign of mud or blood on their bodies. Trace amounts of human blood were, however, found in both dogs’ mouths and on their paws. Stool samples from the two animals later examined at WCU contained trace amounts of human DNA, unknown fibers, hair and bone fragments.

That same day, NCWRC officers and biologists transported a number of items from the scene to Western Carolina University to be tested. The next day, based on initial indications that the DNA found on the scene was from domestic canines, the NCRWC withdrew from the investigation.

On Feb. 17, the two dogs at the scene were seized by Beaufort County Animal Control and held in quarantine. The two animals were later determined to not be dangerous. DNA found on Hamilton’s outer jacket and shoes matched the two dogs, but no other samples yielded any definitive matches.

During the course of the next week, deputies collected 14 samples from dogs in the area to be tested against 33 pieces of evidence. Approximately 85 separate tests were conducted during the investigation.

Ultimately, the BCSO was unable to determine with certainty what type of canine attacked Brenda Hamilton.


Wildlife Management Division Chief Brad Howard shared information about his agency’s involvement in the investigation.

On the morning of the attack, the local wildlife enforcement officer was notified at around 9 a.m. and arrived on scene at around 9:30 a.m. The officer in turn contacted two of the agency’s wildlife biologists, who arrived on scene later that morning.

From the outset, the NCWRC approached the attack under the potential that a bear might have been responsible and proceeded under its established bear attack response protocol.

“The actual purpose of the bear attack response protocol is to collect physical evidence from a scene like that so that we can identify the individual animal that may have caused this,” Howard said.

Contact between the NCWRC officer and the USFWS that morning indicated that the closest known red wolf to the attack was approximately four miles away as of two days prior.

After searching the scene and bagging evidence, one of the biologists drove the evidence to Western Carolina University that afternoon. Photos of Hamilton’s injuries were shared with a bear expert at the NCWRC and traps were set for bear in the area, as were multiple trail cameras. Neither the traps nor cameras caught anything.

The following evening, the agency received the preliminary report from the WCU lab that indicated that the only definitive DNA evidence recovered from the scene was from domestic dogs.

“At that time, we made the decision that we needed to transfer all evidence and investigations back over to the sheriff’s office,” Howard said.

All told, the NCWRC’s involvement in the case lasted two days.