A young woman who didn’t return home from a walk with her two dogs was found mauled to death in a wooded area of Virginia Thursday night, authorities said.
The father of 22-year-old Bethany Lynn Stephens called 911 shortly before 8:20 p.m., then went looking for his daughter off Manakin Road in Goochland, about 18 miles outside Richmond, where his daughter often walked her dogs, KTLA sister station WTVR in Richmond reported.
By then, she had been missing for two days, according to television station WWBT, also in Richmond.
When he found the two dogs in the remote area, the father told the Goochland County Sheriff’s Office that the canines appeared to be “guarding” Stephens, according to WTVR. At first, he thought she was just injured.
But responding deputies quickly discovered the woman was dead. They came upon what Goochland County Sheriff James Agnew described as a “grisly” scene, littered with bloody scraps of clothing.
Investigators believe the victim’s dogs, described as pit bulls, initiated a “violent” attack on Stephens while she was out walking them.
"The victim had defensive wounds on her hands and arms trying to keep the dogs away from her, which would be consistent with being attacked while she was still alive,” Agnew told reporters during a Friday afternoon news conference.
The first traumatic injuries suffered by the woman were to her face and throat area, he said, adding that she suffered puncture marks to her skull. She lost consciousness after being taken to the ground “and the dogs then mauled her to death,” according to the sheriff.
Agnew described the dogs “big,” "strong” and “powerful.” He said each dog weighed about 125 pounds -- about the same as their owner -- before later correcting the misinformation, saying the figure given was their combined weight, according to the Washington Post.
A preliminary report from the medical examiner’s office indicated Stephen was killed by the pit bulls. The investigation remained ongoing.
However, Agnew said authorities do not believe Stephen was the victim of a homicide, noting specifically that there were "no strangulation marks."
The dogs appeared to have been bred for fighting, he added. It took deputies 60 to 90 minutes to catch the pair after arriving at the scene.
Investigators remained there for eight hours, collecting more than 60 pieces of evidence. According to the sheriff, there were numerous articles of torn clothing and under clothing scattered in the area not far from where Stephens died.
"It was an absolutely grisly mauling," Agnew said. "In my 40 years of law enforcement, I've never seen anything quite like it. I hope I never see anything like it again."
Friends, meanwhile, were in disbelief that Stephens died at the hands of her dogs -- the same ones, they said, that she had raised since the two were puppies. One of her best friends, Barbara Norris, told television station WRIC in Richmond. she didn’t believe the dogs would harm Stephens.
“I wasn’t able to see the body, so I can’t tell you what happened. I can’t tell you if it was a blunt force or if it was a mauling, but I know those dogs didn’t do it,” she said.
Other friends also questioned whether her pets were responsible, telling WRIC that before Stephens died, she had received death threats.
A local veterinarian who did not know Stephens or her dogs told WTVR that canines do not typically attack their owners "out of the blue," and that many questions remain unanswered in the case.
“Was there somebody else there? Were they being attacked by somebody, were they trying to defend themselves and their owner from somebody else, from a wild animal? Was it actually something else that attacked the owner? Were there stray dogs, coyotes [or] something else in the woods,” Dr. Amy Learn said.
The dogs are with Goochland Animal Control and the Sheriff's Office said it is seeking to have them both euthanized.