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Hamilton death continues to elude analysts

A report by the renowned forensic investigation agency Microtrace LLC has yielded no definitive answers as to what animal killed 77-year-old Pungo Christian Academy teacher Brenda Hamilton.

The 139-page report was submitted to the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office last week. It states Microtrace analysts found no physical evidence supporting the theory that a wild animal was responsible for the attack that took place in the early morning of Feb. 15, 2019, near the Hamiltons’ home in Pantego. At the time, neighbors were alerted to the attack by their barking dogs.

A lack of physical evidence at the scene of the attack has prevented investigators from resolving the case. Because Hamilton was found immersed to the shoulders in water in a ditch, most physical evidence was eliminated, according to officials. The little remaining evidence belonged to the two dogs, but the fact the two dogs were friendly with Hamilton, often accompanying her on her daily morning walks, and were observed under quarantine for 10 days and judged to be “not dangerous,” ruled out the dogs as responsible. Based on the severity of the attack, speculation has run to coyote, wolf, hybrids of the two, bear or big cat, and investigators were hoping Microtrace could make a genetic determination.

“This does not prove that a wild animal was not involved in the attack,” the report states.

“There’s no answer to the major question that I see,” said Lt. Jim Vanlandingham, head of investigations for the sheriff’s office.

Vanlandingham said Microtrace did report two new findings: bone fragments in one stool sample from the dogs and possible human hair in another. However, the origins of the bone fragments and the hair are both unknown — and both are items the dogs could have ingested at any time, Vanlandingham said.

“I don’t think that’s a definitive answer about whether those two dogs attacked her,” he said. “It only tells us they ingested human hair. It could belong to one of their owners. We could have that hair tested, but I just don’t think it’s going to give us the definitive answer we’re looking for.”

Though there’s been no genetic identification of the bone fragments, the report did say it was clear the fragments were not from a dead nutria found near the scene of the attack.

“It’s not clear where they came from, but not from the nutria. There appeared to be some fang or teeth marks to the head, but the nutria was not partially consumed,” Vanlandingham said.

For now, the evidence remains at the Illinois-based Microtrace LLC in the event the county wants more DNA testing done.

“I’ve been over it probably four or five times to make sure I didn’t miss anything, and I discussed it with the rest of the investigators who’ve all been involved in the case, and the chief. I didn’t want Microtrace to send it back to us if we want them to do some more testing,” Vanlandingham said. “We’re willing to do all testing. I’ve got zero objection to all types of testing — it’s just, how effective is that testing going to be?”

When the evidence is returned, it will be transferred to the William R. Maples Center for Forensic Medicine at the University of Florida and DNA analyst Ginger Clark. The Maples Center for Forensic Medicine offers forensic genetic analysis to federal, state and local law enforcement and other entities involved with the investigations of wildlife, livestock and companion animal crime, according to its website.

“I think we’re leaning toward (Microtrace) returning it and sending it to Florida,” Vanlandingham said.