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DNA analyst: domestic dogs killed Brenda Hamilton

For more than two years, relatives and friends of Pantego resident Brenda Hamilton have been seeking answers about the 77-year-old’s death in February 2019.

They now have a better idea of which species of animal was responsible for her death. Recent findings submitted by a University of Florida DNA analyst show that domestic dogs attacked Hamilton on Feb. 15, 2019 while she was on a walk near her home, but those specific dogs still haven’t been identified.

Alerted to the scene by their two dogs, Hamilton’s neighbors found her in a ditch submerged up to her shoulders in water. Hamilton was suffering from severe injuries. She died at Vidant Health Center three days later.

Authorities said most of the evidence at the scene was lost in the water. The minimal evidence investigators found included a flashlight Hamilton had been carrying, as well as a dead nutria found near her body.

Western Carolina University biologists and Microtrace LLC analyzed the evidence, but couldn’t determine whether a wild or domesticated animal was responsible for the attack. Ginger Clark, a DNA analyst at the University of Florida’s William R. Maples Center for forensic medicine, started analyzing the evidence after that.

The two dogs that alerted Hamilton’s neighbors were known to accompany Hamilton on her walks. They were quarantined for 10 days following the incident, and investigators ultimately ruled the two dogs “not dangerous.”

Blood flakes were found on the flashlight recovered at the scene. In an email sent to Beaufort County Manager Brian Alligood last November, Clark said the samples from the flashlight “don’t match the known dogs,” adding that she was “still inclined to believe that other dogs were involved.”

Investigators conducted a neighborhood sweep in which they took DNA samples from 14 dogs near the site of the attack.

THE FINAL REPORT

In April, the Florida team submitted a final report of its findings. The Beaufort County Commissioners reviewed and discussed that report on Monday.

“It is my opinion that Mrs. Hamilton was attacked by dogs, this based on the physical blood splatter and DNA evidence,” Clark wrote in the report. “Based on the DNA evidence, none of the dogs submitted was likely involved. Based on the amount of physical damage to Mrs. Hamilton, it was probably multiple dogs, probably at least 50 or more pounds.”

Clark said her analysis narrowed the field of species to domestic dogs. She mentioned polymerase chain reaction tests, a technique used to detect genetic material.

“All the evidence items that generated PCR products associated with species, were determined to be Canis lupus familiaris, domestic dog,” the report reads. “The marker used for this assay detects wolf, fox and coyote DNA as well as dog DNA. No evidence was found of any canid other than domestic dog. All the evidence samples were also PCR amplified using markers specific for felids, large and small, and bears. There was no evidence of felids or bears on any of the evidence. I feel confident that these animals were not involved in this incident. I have found evidence of ONLY domestic dog.”

The final report document is viewable within the agenda packet for the commissioners’ June 7 meeting. View that packet at https://co.beaufort.nc.us/downloads/agendas.

REACTION

Commissioner Hood Richardson said he was hoping for a “much better answer” than what the report detailed.

“Quite frankly, I think we blew it on forensics,” Richardson said. “I called the lady that did this work. If you read the report, you can see that she’s straining and struggling for samples. And I just don’t think we sampled the site properly for DNA. We didn’t cordon off the site. I think we mishandled the samples when we turned them over to the feds, who had zero jurisdiction in the matter.

“… I’m very disappointed in the results of the report,” Richardson added. “I feel for the family. I get all over the county. I get in the woods all over the county. People that work for me get in the woods all over the county. We’ve never had a report of a domestic pack of dogs that would try to attack somebody. That’s not to say that they’re maybe not here, but the results from the DNA work are very, very, very inconclusive.

Board Chairman Frankie Waters expressed concern about the existence of wild dogs in the county.

“I have heard hunters talk about seeing wild dogs in the woods when they’re hunting,” Waters said.

“I think it’s the best that we can do,” Waters added. “I think that we’ve exhausted and we’ve done what I think the public and the citizens in that area, and hopefully over the county, has asked us to do. It’s not the answer that some people want, and I don’t think, like Hood says, that we control the final conclusion.