Animal attack evidence to be reexamined at University of Florida lab

Published 7:13 pm Thursday, August 29, 2019

A University of Florida laboratory will likely be the next stop for evidence collected from the scene of a fatal animal attack that claimed the life of Pantego resident Brenda Hamilton in February. Six months later, investigators still don’t know what type of animal was responsible.

The university was the top pick to perform a reanalysis of evidence from the attack scene during the second meeting of a county committee formed to move the investigation forward. East Stroudsburg University and University of Idaho were also considered to perform new genetic testing.

“All three of them indicated that they can do this work,” Beaufort County Manager Brian Alligood said.

Hamilton was attacked during the early morning hours of Feb. 15 while on her regular morning walk down Indian Run Road in Pantego. She died three days later at Vidant Medical Center in Greenville, and investigators have been looking into the attack ever since, with help from forensics experts at Western Carolina University.

Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Jim Vanlandingham told the committee that a doctor with N.C. State’s College of Veterinary Medicine had also recommended UF’s Maples Center for Forensic Medicine as a possible resource.

Ultimately, the voting members of the committee agreed to send the evidence to UF for analysis, leaving it in the hands of the county manager and the BCSO to call and arrange the details. This would include all the evidence from the scene, as well as photographs of Hamilton’s injuries.

Currently, 18 pieces of evidence taken from the scene are in custody of Microtrace LLC, an Illinois-based company that specializes in microscopic analysis. These items include four pieces of Brenda Hamilton’s clothing, a lint roller with unidentified hair, hair samples from a dead nutria, stool samples and mouth swabs from two domestic dogs that were at the scene.

In the first round of testing at Western Carolina University, all the DNA evidence recovered from Hamilton’s clothing was identified as belonging to domestic dogs. Two samples from Hamilton’s shoe and jacket specifically matched with a pair of dogs that walked with Hamilton every day and were present on the morning of the attack. Those two dogs were held in quarantine after the attack and determined to be not dangerous by Beaufort County’s Dangerous Dog Board.

Popular theories on what killed Hamilton include the possibility of red wolf/coyote hybrids, some type of big cat, such as cougar or panther, or domestic dogs. While the committee isn’t ruling anything out at this point, the group has also refrained from jumping to any conclusions.

“We don’t have a favorite, and we don’t have a least favorite,” BCSO Chief Deputy Charlie Rose said. “If it’s a cat, a dog or any other type of animal, we just want to find out what that is.”

“I think objectivity tells us, as the chief deputy said, that we don’t know who or what,” Richardson added. “Our mind needs to be wide open, and whoever we get to look at DNA on this needs to look at everything imaginable so that maybe they can land on something.”