The scenario sounded far-fetched to those who knew 22-year-old Bethany Lynn Stephens: While on a walk in the woods with her two pet pit bull dogs, the animals attacked and mauled the Virginia woman, killing her.
Goochland County, Virginia, sheriff’s deputies who encountered her body Thursday night were responding to a call around 8:20 p.m. from her father, who had grown concerned when Stephens did not return home, Sheriff James Agnew said at a news conference on Friday.
Initial findings from the medical examiner appeared to confirm injuries to the victim “consistent with being mauled by these dogs,” the sheriff said.
“This was not a homicide,” he said.
A member of the Stephens family declined comment when called by PEOPLE.
Here are eight things to know about the tragedy:
1. The Victim Was Visiting Her Father
Stephens did not live in Goochland, Virginia, where the attack on her occurred, but had grown up in the area and was visiting from her current residence in Glen Allen, about 25 miles away. Goochland is about 30 miles northwest of Richmond.
Reports did not specify the time that Stephens took off on her walk, although her father told the sheriff’s office that he had not seen his daughter for “over a day” when he went looking for her in the woods near an old family farm where she frequently walked the dogs, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
2. She Had Raised the Two Dogs Herself
Stephens had raised the two animals from the time they were puppies, according to Stephens’ friend, Barbara Norris, the local ABC affiliate WRIC reported.
Norris said she simply doesn’t believe the animals hurt Stephens.
“I wasn’t able to see the body, so I can’t tell you what happened,” Norris said. “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.”
“They’d kill you with kisses,” Norris told TV station WWBT.
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3. The Dogs Were Found ‘Guarding’ Her Dead Body
During his news conference, the sheriff said the victim’s body at the time that deputies approached was “being guarded by two very large, brindle-colored pit bull dogs,”
He described a lengthy process of retrieving the animals, saying that authorities spent “an hour, hour and a half” working to catch the dogs.
He said they found “various articles of clothing…torn into small pieces” around her body. “It was very clear that the woman in the woods had suffered some very severe injuries consistent with being mauled by these dogs,” he added.
4. The Dogs in the ‘Grisly’ Attack Each Weighed About as Much as the Victim
“It was an absolutely grisly mauling,” Sheriff Agnew said at his news conference, reports WTVR. “In my 40 years of law enforcement I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I hope I never see anything like it again.”
He described the victim as “a very petite, 5-foot-1, 125 pounds,” and said the dogs themselves each weighed about as much as Stephens.
Citing the medical examiner’s preliminary review, he said, “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.”
“The first traumatic injury to her was to her throat and face,” he said. “It appears she was taken to the ground, lost consciousness, and the dogs then mauled her to death.”
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5. Pit Bull Supporters Dismiss the Animals’ Reputation for Aggression
While some municipalities restrict ownership of pit bull dogs, the animals’ reputation for aggression is overstated, Bronwen Dickey, author of the book Pit Bull, said last year in a radio interview with Terry Gross on the NPR show Fresh Air.
“There is absolutely no credible scientific evidence of that,” Dickey said. “You have specific sub-populations that have been used over time in the illegal pursuit of dogfighting, but they really can’t be held up as the standard for all pit bulls in America.”
Stephens’ dogs were taken by animal control to be euthanized, the sheriff said.
6. Authorities Said the Dogs Were ‘a Little Bit Neglected’
At a Monday news conference, authorities released disturbing new details of the attack, and alleged the dogs had recently become “more isolated” with “less and less human contact.”
The dogs recently allegedly “were a little bit neglected,” said Sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Blackwood. “She left the dogs with her father, her father was not taking care of the dogs, it wasn’t his responsibility, and she would come home maybe five times to the father’s house a week on average and take the dogs out, and so they became more isolated where the only contact they had was with each other, and it was less and less human contact.”
“I’m not saying that the family was neglectful,” Blackwood said. “They were kept outside, and they previously had been inside dogs” who “became a little distant from their owner towards the end.”
7. Authorities Debunked Idea that Stephens Was Victim of Human Violence
At Monday’s news conference, Goochland County, Virginia, Sheriff James Askew said he wanted to address skeptics who floated other theories about Stephens’ death.
In response to reports that Stephens had received unspecified threats, or possibly been a victim of human violence or sexual assault, and that her dogs were protecting her when they were found with her body, the sheriff said: “It does not seem, from what we found on the scene, from the evidence that we observed, from the evidence that we collected, that narrative doesn’t fit.”
He said, however, “we are still following up on those” reports.
Agnew said that when authorities arrived in the woods, they encountered “an absolutely gruesome scene” as the dogs ate at Stephens’ ribcage.
“Miss Stephens was terribly, terribly injured, but it was very apparent to us that she had been dead for quite some time,” Askew said.
8. Dog Behavior Expert: Owners Often Ignore Signs of Potential Danger
“Most owners, they love their dogs, so they ignore signs of a dog’s potential anger, thinking they’ll outgrow it,” he says.
Polsky was skeptical of the idea, advanced by authorities, that the dogs alleged neglect contributed to their behavior.
“If kept isolated more and more over time, I would imagine these dogs would have been happy to see their owner,” he said, adding, “There had to have been something out there in the environment that triggered this and we don’t know what it was.”