County committee formed to move Hamilton investigation forward, more evidence to be tested

Published 7:37 pm Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Beaufort County commissioners are advancing the investigation into the death of Pantego resident Brenda Hamilton.

Monday night, commissioners created a committee to look into the violent death of the 77-year-old Pungo Christian Academy teacher. Hamilton was taking a walk in the early hours of Feb. 15 when she was attacked by an animal or animals. Neighbors were alerted to the attack by their dogs, who found Hamilton. Suffering from catastrophic injuries to her arms, legs and scalp, Hamilton died at Vidant Medical Center three days later. While the neighbors’ dogs were quarantined, they were later returned to their owners as DNA testing showed only trace amounts of Hamilton’s DNA on them and an animal control panel judged them “not dangerous” after 10 days of observation.

What attacked Hamilton remains a mystery six months later. Several possibilities have been raised — domesticated dogs, coyotes, red wolves, hybrids of them and cougar or panther — but the only DNA found by Western Carolina University biologist Maureen Hickman, who tested the samples collected from Hamilton’s clothing, pointed to canines.

Since Hamilton was found mostly immersed in a ditch, most DNA evidence was likely either washed away by the water or by paramedics’ attempts to preserve her life, according to officials. North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service weighed in on the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office investigation, but the case remains unresolved.

Commissioners aim to move the investigation forward with the committee and bring in a consultant to steer them in the right direction.

“There’s not really any federal agency you can go to, or state agency or county agency,” Commissioner Hood Richardson said during the meeting. “The Hamilton family and a lot of citizens of Beaufort County deserve an answer to this, and I’m aware that there might never be an answer to this.”

Commissioner Frankie Waters, who resides in the area the attack occurred, Board of Commissioners Chairman Jerry Evans and Richardson were named to the committee, with Richardson heading it up.

“We’ve been pushing on this thing for like two or three months now. The problem is there is really no one who can say this is under my bailiwick and move forward with it,” Richardson said Tuesday, referring to law enforcement’s lack of established protocol in dealing with such an unusual death. “This isn’t a criminal act — it’s an animal act.”

While the limited DNA collected from Hamilton’s clothing yielded little result, Richardson hopes more exhaustive testing might turn up more information.

“At the end of the day, when you take a string of DNA and say that it was canine, that’s everything from a chihuahua to a gray wolf,” Richardson said. “Let’s do a deep dive into what DNA we’ve got and see what it tells us. … That’s in the forensics that we want to get into — if it was a cat, that’s what we hope to get into.”

Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office investigators will also send hair and also collected either at the scene or from the clothing to forensic scientists with Microtrace LLC, according to BCSO Chief Deputy Charlie Rose. The Elgin, Illinois, company has provided forensic investigation on many high-profile cases, including the Green River Murders, helping to convict Gary Ridgway of the murders of 48 young women, and the Unabomber case. Rose said bone fragments are also in the possession of the sheriff’s office.

“We are still working out who will analyze the bone fragments, but they will be analyzed before the investigation is complete,” Rose said.

Richardson said he’s setting up the first committee meeting this week.

“I want to sit down and have an unemotional discussion, so that we can head in a direction. Because we’re not doing that right now,” Richardson said.