Police in rural Virginia have been forced to respond to rumours that a young woman they said was mauled to death by her pitbull-type dogs while out for a walk in the woods.
The body of Bethany Lynn Stephens was found horribly disfigured and destroyed. Police released information that her dogs had killed Stephens but doubts and rumours swirled that the woman was actually killed by another animal like a bear or had been murdered.
Goochland County Sheriff Jim Agnew said social media has picked up the doubts and he had declined to release a detail about how the body was found due to sensitivity to the woman’s family. But Agnew said he was compelled to release that information now in order to reassure people that police were certain that her death was not caused by a killer who remained at large.
After officers found Stephen’s body, they debated how they were going to capture the animals. When they turned to look at the remains, they saw the dogs had gone back to the body. In a story reported in the Washington Post, Agnew said:
“I observed, as well as four other deputy sheriffs observed,” Agnew said, then paused before continuing, “the dogs eating the rib cage on the body.”
A friend of Stephens’ was later able to capture the dogs, the sheriff said.
Stephens’ father found his daughter in a wooded area almost a kilometre from a main road in Goochland, Va., a community about 50 kilometres outside Richmond. Authorities said the 22-year-old had been gone for about a day since leaving to walk her dogs, so her father went out to look for her in the area she frequented. There, he found the canines, guarding what he first thought was an animal carcass.
“Ms. Stephens was terribly, terribly injured, but it was very apparent to us that she had been dead for quite some time,” Agnew told reporters, adding later that the damage to her body “was so extensive that there was nothing left to compare bite marks to.”
Agnew said many have inundated his office and social media with calls, emails, attacks and false narratives about how Stephens died. He told The Washington Post earlier that investigators don’t suspect foul play and that evidence recovered from the scene, including defensive wounds on her hands and arms, showed that the dogs were responsible for her death.
Investigators also have looked into statements from other witnesses, including the possibility that Stephens was killed by someone or something else and that the dogs were trying to protect her. But investigators don’t believe that is what happened. Agnew said at least one of the dogs had a significant amount of blood on its collar and neck.
“Now, having said that, we are still following up on those. We’re still doing some forensic tests. We’re still doing interviews,” Agnew said. “But … from the evidence that we observed, from the evidence that we collected, that narrative doesn’t fit.”
Authorities said the bite marks on Stephens, including the ones on her skull, were consistent with canine marks. Had she been attacked by a bigger animal, such as a bear, Agnew said, the bites would’ve punctured her skull.
Shawn Whitlock, an investigator with the sheriff’s office, said there was no sign that she was killed any other way.
“Nothing that said domestic violence. Nothing that said she was stabbed. Nothing that said she was shot. No bones, no injuries to the throat area … There was no particular bleeding inside the esophagus, which would’ve been conducive with choking her out. None of that,” Whitlock told reporters.
There is also no evidence that she had been sexually assaulted, authorities said.
Still, at least one question remains. Why did these dogs, who friends said had a strong bond with Stephens, turn on her?
“I don’t think there’s any way we can definitively say what caused the attack,” Agnew told reporters.
Sgt. Mike Blackwood, of the sheriff’s office, has a theory.
Stephens had been living elsewhere and had left the dogs with her father. The dogs, which were previously indoor animals, were left in a kennel outside with little human contact, aside from a visit from Stephens about five times a week, Blackwood told reporters.
“Just trying to create a little background with what might have occurred with that when they became a little distant from their owner towards the end,” he said.
Stephens’ friend Barbara Norris was among those who weren’t convinced by authorities’ account of her death, saying the dogs, which Stephens had been raising since they were puppies, would never turn on her, ABC affiliate WRIC reported.
“They’d kill you with kisses,” Norris told NBC affiliate WWBT.
Norris said the dogs’ kennels looked as though they had been forced open and suggested that something may have happened to Stephens after she walked the dogs, so the animals forced themselves out to help her.
Agnew did correct some misinformation that had come out of his office. Authorities said earlier that the dogs were bred for fighting — a piece of information apparently provided by one of Stephens’ friends.
“We have been able to follow that up today, and we have determined that that is false,” Agnew said.
Earlier estimates that the dogs each weighed up to 125 pounds also were overstated, he said, adding that he does not have the exact weight of the animals. Agnew told The Post earlier that the dogs’ combined weight was about twice that of Stephens’, which was a little more than 100 pounds.
“They were very large dogs … They were not quite that large, no,” Agnew said.
During an earlier news conference, he had described the dogs as “very large brindle-colored pit bulls.”
The dogs were euthanized Saturday, with the family’s permission.
“I think it was in the best interest of our community and for public safety to do that,” Agnew said. “Once a dog tastes human flesh, it’s no longer safe to have that dog around humans.”
Their bodies are being preserved until authorities find a lab that can perform a necropsy, Blackwood said. Toxicology results on Stephens will not be available for three months.