Top 10: Animal attack investigation continues into 2020

Published 6:37 pm Monday, December 30, 2019

The top story of 2019 is the fatal animal attack in Pantego that killed 77-year-old teacher Brenda Hamilton and the subsequent investigation to determine what type of animal was responsible.

In the early morning hours of Feb. 15, an unknown animal attacked 77-year-old Brenda Hamilton during her daily walk near her home in the Pantego community.

It was the same route she walked along Indian Run Road every day for decades. Three days later, Hamilton succumbed to her injuries and died at Vidant Medical Center in Greenville.

What has followed is a 10-month-long death investigation by the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office that has ultimately left local officials with few answers.

Several pieces of evidence collected from the scene and Hamilton’s person were subjected to extensive DNA testing at Western Carolina University’s Biology and Forensic Science Program. The only definitive matches from that testing were from two mixed-breed dogs that often accompanied Hamilton on her walks.

The Beaufort County Dangerous Dog Committee, however, deemed those dogs not dangerous after a 10-day quarantine. Because Hamilton was found partially submerged in water on the side of the road, investigators speculate that some DNA evidence may have been lost.

In May, the BCSO released its final update on the investigation, saying, “After the completion of all testing and a review of the scientific and circumstantial evidence in this case, we are unable to make a definitive determination as to what type of canine attacked Brenda Hamilton.”

That was not the end of the story, however. During the May 10 meeting of the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners, BCSO Chief Deputy Charlie Rose answered questions from commissioners about the investigation. In July, representatives from Western Carolina, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife answered more questions from commissioners on the attack. The following month, commissioners formed a committee dedicated to giving the investigation a second look.

In the time since, evidence from the attack has been sent to Microtrace, LLC, a nationally renowned microanalysis firm that has provided consultation for law enforcement on a number of high-profile cases, including the Unabomber case, the Oklahoma City Bombing and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Should the testing at Microtrace fail to yield anything definitive, the evidence will then be sent to the University of Florida’s Maples Center for Forensic Medicine, a facility with a long record of investigating animal attacks.

Running parallel to the investigation, public speculation has placed responsibility for the death on a variety of creatures. Red wolves, red wolf-coyote hybrids, coyotes, domestic dogs, bear, cougars (although state and federal wildlife officials say they are extinct); every possibility imaginable has been discussed in public forums, from social media and the dining rooms of local restaurants to the boardroom of the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners.

The BCSO, meanwhile, has refrained from speculating as to what type of animal was responsible, instead focusing on trying to find definitive answers from the evidence available. While those answers remain elusive, the investigation will continue into 2020, and BCSO investigators have said that no possibilities have been ruled out moving forward.