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Animal attack evidence lands at Florida forensics facility

Evidence in the animal attack that killed a Pantego woman is getting fresh look.

According to Beaufort County Manager Brian Alligood, the forensic evidence collected after an unknown animal attacked 77-year-old Brenda Hamilton was sent to the William R. Maples Center for Forensic Medicine at the University of Florida in June.

“They are currently running diagnostics on it,” Alligood said.

The Maples Center investigation is the third attempt to determine what kind of animal was responsible for the attack. Previously, evidence was analyzed by Western Carolina University biologists and by Microtrace LLC, an independent laboratory specializing in forensic investigations. With minimal physical evidence, neither facility was able pinpoint whether a wild or domesticated animal was responsible.

According to Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Jim VanLandingham, the evidence, Western Carolina’s lab report, Microtrace’s 139-page report and a synopsis of the case was sent to Maples Center DNA analyst Ginger Clark.

“(An) email from her on (June 12) states she has started DNA extraction on the nutria, and a forensic pathologist will also take a look at the nutria. I gave her latitude to test whatever she believes would lead to a resolution,” VanLandingham wrote in an update to the county.

A dead nutria was one of few pieces of physical evidence found after the attack that took place near the Hamilton home in Pantego in the early morning of Feb. 15, 2019. Hamilton was found by neighbors immersed to the shoulders in water in a ditch, and most evidence was lost to the water, according to officials. The longtime Pungo Christian Academy teacher died at Vidant Medical Center three days after the attack.

Since, the case has remained a mystery: the two dogs who alerted their owners — the neighbors who found Hamilton — would often accompany Hamilton on her morning walks and were ruled “not dangerous” after quarantine, yet the lack of physical evidence cannot rule them out completely. Speculation of what animal was responsible, based on the severity of the attack, has run to coyote, wolf, hybrids of the two, bear and big cat, such as a panther, though North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission says panthers do not exist in eastern North Carolina. So far, no evidence has been identified to support the theory that a wild animal was responsible, either.