New committee renews focus on animal attack investigation

Published 7:47 pm Wednesday, August 14, 2019

A new committee is revisiting the investigation into a fatal animal attack that killed Pantego resident Brenda Hamilton in February.

County commissioners, representatives from the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, concerned family friends, a former FBI agent and Ray Hamilton, Brenda Hamilton’s husband, gathered Wednesday morning to discuss the investigation so far and next steps in the search for answers.


In addition to discussing the possibility of domestic dogs, coyotes, red wolves and possible wolf/coyote hybrids, the committee also discussed the possibility that a big cat might have been responsible for the attack.

Ray Hamilton, Brenda Hamilton’s husband, said he had spoken to Dr. Karen Kelly, the medical examiner who performed his wife’s autopsy, about the possibility that the animal that inflicted the injury was feline.

“She had on the report ‘dog attack’ and said she would go back and look at the pictures,” Ray Hamilton said. “She went back and looked at the pictures and said that it could be a cat. A dog has six incisors and a cat has five incisors. The wound on her face had five marks. She said it could very well be a cougar or cat of some kind.”

Hamilton went on to say that an anthropologist was looking at the autopsy report, and that the cause of death may be changed from a “dog attack” to an “animal attack” on the medical examiner’s report.

In addition to that exchange, Commissioner Hood Richardson and Hamilton family friend Tim Mordecai say they went to visit with Octaviano and Lourdes Chavez on Friday. Lourdes Chavez was the first to find Hamilton after the attack, and DNA matching the couples’ dogs was found on Hamilton’s body and clothing.

“On the morning of Feb. 15, he (Octaviano Chavez) was awakened by the sound of a ‘cat scream.’ Those were his words,” Mordecai told the committee.

Another piece that could point to the involvement of a big cat is a photograph taken by Tony Harris, the ambulance driver who transported Hamilton to Vidant Beaufort. BCSO Investigations 1st Sgt. Brad Shackelford said a print captured in the image appeared to resemble a cat, but that the photo lacked a sense of scale.

“If you look at the shape, it has more of the shape of what you would associate with a cat’s foot,” Shackelford said. “One of the things we do when we photograph is put rulers, tapes and measurements so you have a way of determining the size. The closest thing captured in that photograph is a center-line marker. I think when they were examining it, they determined that the size of that mark would be astronomical.”

“It didn’t give us enough of a clear answer to say one way or another,” BCSO Chief Deputy Charlie Rose said. “We couldn’t say it was a house cat, a mountain lion or a tiger when you start blowing up the picture. It wasn’t a very good picture to work with.”

Shackelford later said that there was no evidence that would indicate a cat was involved in the killing.

The position of the N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is that the eastern cougar is extinct, although alleged sightings of the creatures persist in eastern North Carolina.

“Upon investigation, NCWRC biologists have concluded that many reports of cougar sightings or their tracks are misidentification of both domestic and wild animals,” the NCWRC website reads. “Domestic cats and dogs, coyotes, bobcats, and red foxes infected with mange are the most common animals mistaken for cougars. It is possible that some sightings can be attributed to captive cougars that have escaped or been illegally released. During the 1980s, two captive cougars were found feeding at a dumpster in Tyrrell County. No tangible evidence exists that wild cougars currently exist in North Carolina.”


According to Shackelford and Rose, the BCSO sent off hair collected from the scene to a contractor called Microtrace, LLC last Thursday. The Illinois-based laboratory specializes in examining microscopic evidence.

“They are referred by the FBI and have done a lot of high-profile work for the FBI,” Shackelford said of the company.

Shackelford says the hair sample sent to the lab was similar to a dead nutria found at the scene of the attack. The hair samples were described as three-toned, brown, black and grey, approximately two inches long. Because the samples lacked a follicle on the end, they could not be tested for DNA.

Adding to the conversation, former FBI agent Fred Whitehurst, who served in an FBI crime lab for many years, has offered his services to aid in the renewed investigation. With a background in investigations, Whitehurst urged the committee to have a central place for thoroughly-documented information. For that purpose, he recommended the Sheriff’s Office, complimenting the deputies involved on their handling of the case so far.

“There’s a timeline here as to when things happened, and that timeline needs to be where the Sheriff’s Office has it and they can open it up and say ‘When did you know this?’ and see the whole picture,” Whitehurst said.

In addition to the evidence sent to Microtrace, the committee also discussed the possibility of engaging another laboratory to review the testing conducted at Western Carolina University and possibly conduct a second analysis of the evidence. County Manager Brian Alligood said he had reached out to a number of labs throughout the country about doing the work.

“What I’m looking for is for them to be able to point in a direction and say ‘Was a cat?’ or  ‘Was it a hybrid?’” Commissioner Frankie Waters said. “What kind of animal are we dealing with out there that could attack somebody next week or a year from now?”

The next meeting of the committee is scheduled for Aug. 29.