GOOCHLAND, Va. -- Goochland County Sheriff James Agnew answered numerous questions about the gruesome death of 22-year-old Bethany Lynn Stephens, who officials say was mauled to death by her pet dogs.
Warning: This story contains information some may find disturbing.
Stephens’ body was discovered Thursday evening in a wooded area of Goochland, by her father.
After news spread of the Virginia woman's horrific death last week, an avalanche of phone calls and social media questions poured in, prompting the sheriff to release new, disturbing information Monday in hopes of ending the speculation. Agnew said he did so after a long discussion with Stephens’ family.
“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. "The injuries were very severe."
He said they made the decision to capture the dogs instead of shoot them. A friend of the victim helped capture them.
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. He also previously said that there were no strangulation marks 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 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, possibly a coyote or 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 told 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 said that "dogs don't typically just out of the blue attack their owners, so there is typically some kind of provocation."
Everyone WTVR spoke with said the dogs were socialized, passive and had a significant bond with Stephens.
Sergeant Mike Blackwood 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 towards 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 on the animals. 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.”
Agnew also clarified that the dogs weren't used for fighting, clarifying earlier statements citing incorrect information from a friend.
He said their organization opted for more transparency at Monday’s press 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.”