GOOCHLAND, Va. – New information is emerging about the two dogs who are believed to have killed and partially eaten their Virginia owner while out on a walk.
Warning: This story contains graphic details
Tonka and Pac-Man were brindled pit bull brothers from the same litter, born about two and a half years ago. They were socialized, indoor dogs whose owner, 22-year-old Bethany Lynn Stephens, was said to treat them like her own children.
She worked at a kennel and around trainers for a while, and she brought Tonka and Pac-Man with her to work.
Pictures capture the fondness Stephens had for her animals – her face close to their muzzle or her arms wrapped around them. Tonka was with her since he was 8 weeks old and friends said she later adopted Pac-Man to get him out of an abusive home.
Stephens’ friends said it has been hard not only to wrap their minds around the fact that they’ve lost a friend, but that the culprits are her two pets. Goochland County deputies said that last week Stephens was mauled to death by the dogs, sometime Wednesday afternoon after leaving the house with them.
She wasn’t discovered in the woods until the next evening, the dogs found nearby, “guarding her,” Goochland County Sheriff James Agnew said.
Later officials would release photos and details of the grisly discovery. Deputies witnessed the animals eating Stephens' rib cage; her body was dismembered and she was found completely naked except for one boot.
The evidence led law enforcement to the conclusion that Stephens was in fact, mauled to death by her dogs, but, for many, the idea of two dogs ripping their owner apart is incomprehensible, and the sheriff's office was flooded with questions and speculation about the case.
Certified master dog trainer Valerie Paul did not know Stephens, Pac-Man, or Tonka, but has testified in multiple court cases and has been deemed an expert by the court system. She offered WTVR some potential answers as to how and why the dogs allegedly went from adoring their owner to feeding on her body.
“Most dogs aren’t going to just turn on an owner,” Paul said. “I think there probably was some sort of outside influence – but not necessarily another animal or anything like that – just something that could have enticed the dogs to get overexcited and react the way dogs will.”
"The fact that they are pit bulls doesn’t connect to what they did, it is a dog thing," said Paul, who is also owner of the kennel Impawsible Pups. She said at the end of the day, dogs are animals, and in extreme circumstances, they can potentially view even their owners as threats or food sources.
"That’s actually very normal, dogs view people very differently than how we view people, when we see a body, we think of our loved ones and all of the memories that they bring to us, dogs don’t, in general."
Sergeant Mike Blackwood explained that the dogs were a “little bit neglected towards the end of this.”
They went from being inside dogs doted on by Stephens to living outside in a kennel. Stephens left the dogs with her father, and Blackwood said: “he wasn’t taking care of them – it wasn’t his responsibility.”
Friends explained that Stephens was going through certain personal events and she no longer had the dogs with her.
The weather changed, and the dogs lived out "in the cold."
Blackwood said that with Stephens coming home maybe five times a week, the dogs became more isolated and only had contact with each other.
They were not fed daily.
"This was such a huge lifestyle change,” Paul explained. There are so many factors within that lifestyle change that we may see as small things that the dogs may see as larger.”
Extreme lifestyle changes can have an effect on animals
Paul said extreme lifestyle changes can be large enough to potentially cause drastic temperament changes.
“The breed in and of itself is a high energy breed, they like to have a lot of structure and a lot of exercise, so by keeping them in a pen, alone, under-socialized, away from people – that energy is just building up and building up and building up and that’s when you start to see dogs fighting more regularly, that’s when you start to see more negative scenarios," Paul said.
She pointed out that resource guarding, or getting hyped up could quickly turn into a negative energy – especially from dogs who had been cooped up.
“Someone getting involved, if done improperly, could get bitten,” Paul said.
No one can say for certain what exactly happened that afternoon.
Paul said there is a good chance the tragedy “was an energy gone wrong.”
"There is a lot of speculation … but you can’t blame the breed,” Paul said.
She said that pit bulls are actually very sweet and are good family dogs when given what they need. "I've seen more non-pit bull breeds be aggressive towards people than pit bulls."
“If you have concerns, talk to a trainer,” Paul added. “There were factors to this.”
The investigation is ongoing. The dogs were euthanized days after the attack, with the family’s permission. Now, investigators are looking for someone to perform a necropsy on the dogs.
Sheriff Agnew said once that takes place it will be about two weeks before results are available and there could potentially be more answers as to what may have happened.
Authorities have ruled out foul play and had CAT scans and X-rays done prior to the autopsy to rule out homicide; there were no broken bones or signs of strangulation. There were no signs of sexual assault.
The toxicology reports on Stephens should be back in 90 days.