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Days after two dogs fatally mauled their owner while out in a walk in a wooded area of Virginia, a local sheriff on Monday released new information as he sought to quell speculation about the 22-year-old woman's gruesome death.
The body of Bethany Lynn Stephens was discovered last Thursday evening in Goochland -- about 18 miles outside of Richmond -- by her father, who called 911 and then went looking for his daughter after she failed to return home from a walk with her two dogs.
After news spread of the Virginia woman's horrific death last week, an avalanche of phone calls and social media questions poured in, prompting Goochland County Sheriff James Agnew to release new and disturbing information Monday in hopes of ending the speculation; he said he did so after a long discussion with Stephens’ family, according to KTLA sister station WTVR in Richmond.
“Let me cut right to the chase, the most important detail that we did not release because we were worried about the well-being of the family is that in the course of trying to capture the dogs early Friday morning...we turned and looked…I observed, as well as four other deputy sheriffs, the dogs eating the ribcage on the body,” Agnew said at an afternoon news conference. "The injuries were very severe."
When deputies arrived at the scene, the sheriff previously said, they came upon a bloody and "grisly" scene. There were numerous articles of torn clothing scattered about the area, and it took investigators about eight hours to process the scene.
The two pit bulls appeared to be "guarding" Stephens' body when her remains were found, and authorities decided to capture the dogs instead of shoot them, according to Agnew. They were able to with the help of one of the victim's friends.
The dogs were later euthanized, he confirmed.
Once investigators got a closer look at Stephens' remains, it became apparent to them that she had been dead "for some time," according to the sheriff.
No foul play expected
Agnew said that while there was someone in Stephens' life who could be considered a threat, he did not think her death was the result of foul play. Previously, he said there were no strangulation marks on her face and throat -- where she had sustained the first traumatic injuries on her body.
“We had a number of witnesses come forward and we were able to put a time frame together and people’s movements together and they don’t fit with that particular narrative,” Agnew said of the numerous suggestions from the public that foul play was involved. “Having said that, we are still following up on those; we are still doing forensic tests.”
He again referenced the grisly and bloody scene that law enforcement discovered, and deferred to the expertise of the medical examiner.
“There was no evidence of any larger animal there,” Agnew said in response to the widespread belief that perhaps Stephens was attacked by a wild animal, such as a bear. “The medical examiner … made it pretty clear that it was not a large animal because the bite wounds didn’t puncture her skull,” Agnew said. “There were also scratch marks consistent with a smaller animal than something like a bear.”
In apparent reference to other suggestions about the case, Agnew said the medical examiner also concluded with “complete certainty that there was no sexual assault involved.”
A man who used to work with Stephens at a dog training facility said she was very experienced working with animals, and loved her dogs.
Although Dr. Amy Learn, a veterinarian at Cary Street Veterinary Hospital, did not know Stephens or her dogs, she told WTVR that "dogs don't typically just out of the blue attack their owners, so there is typically some kind of provocation."
Everyone the station spoke with said the dogs were socialized, passive and had a significant bond with Stephens.
Sgt. Mike Blackwood of the Goochland County Sheriff's Office said that multiple police departments contacted their office over the weekend to share information on similar attacks.
Blackwood added that Stephens' dogs were a “little bit neglected toward the end of this.” Stephens left the dogs with her father, and Blackwood said “he wasn’t taking care of them – it wasn’t his responsibility.”
The dogs had previously been indoor dogs and with her coming home maybe five times a week, they became more isolated. They were then kept outside “in the cold” in a kennel and only had contact with each other.
Toxicology report underway
The sheriff recommended that the dogs be put down and the family gave their permission. The dogs were euthanized at 11 a.m. Saturday.
“What I observed personally, it was in the community’s best interest,” Agnew said. “Once a dog tastes human flesh it is not safe to have that dog around humans.”
The animals are being preserved and the attorney general’s office has offered to help them find a lab to run toxicology tests the dogs.
The toxicology report on Stephens will be complete in about 90 days.
“Since this has happened, I spent a significant amount of time researching attacks by dogs of this sort and while it is not an everyday occurrence, it is not rare and it happens with some frequency in this country,” Agnew said. “I don’t want to disparage any particular breed, but if you do the research you will find that many of them are perpetuated by pit bulls.”
Pit bulls are not a specific breed of dog, but rather a term commonly used to describe certain terrier breeds.
Agnew did clarify his initial statement that the animals were “bred for fighting” and said that a friend originally told them the dogs were rescued from an organization that rehabilitated dogs previously used for fighting.
He said their organization opted for more transparency at Monday’s news conference “because the narrative on social media was so far off the mark.”
“The family is devastated, they are worn out,” Agnew said. “They are dealing with trying to piece everything together…they wish to remain private.”