As was her habit, 22-year-old Bethany Stephens took her dogs for a walk in the woods near her childhood home in Goochland, Va., about 30 miles outside Richmond. But when she did not return home by Thursday night, her father grew concerned and called police, who made a terrible discovery. Stephens had been attacked and killed by her own dogs, police say.
Stephens "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," said Goochland County Sheriff Jim Agnew at a press conference on Friday.
Stephens was being "for lack of a better term — guarded by two very large brindle-colored pit bull dogs, who were very reluctant to be caught," Agnew said.
The sheriff himself seemed shaken recalling the scene, saying it was "absolutely grisly."
"In my 40 years of law enforcement I've never seen anything quite like it. I hope I never see anything like it again," Agnew said.
Stephens' friend, Barbara Norris told the local ABC-affiliate WRIC that the Glen Allen-resident had raised the dogs from the time they were puppies. And while Norris said she did not know the details of Stephens' death, "I know those dogs didn't do it."
Agnew said that while the medical examiner's findings are preliminary as they await toxicology results, "it was fairly obvious to us that she had suffered defensive wounds from the animal bites."
"This was not a homicide."
News stories about pit bulls attacking people abound. And owning a pit bull or a mix is banned or restricted in multiple municipalities across the country.
But pit bull supporters say the dogs' reputation of being inherently dangerous or aggressive is a myth.
"The biggest misconception is that the term pit bull refers to one distinct breed, when really it refers to at least four pedigreed breeds of dogs and then all these other dogs that get lumped into the category," Bronwen Dickey, who has written extensively about pit bulls, told Fresh Air's Terry Gross last year.
As for the dogs reputation of being natural fighters, "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."
Agnew said that while he did not know the dogs' background, "they would be dogs that you would suspect would be bred for fighting. Just in looking at them. They were big strong powerful dogs."
Stephens was "a very petite 5 foot 1, 125 lbs," Agnew said, estimating that the dogs each weighed somewhere around their owners' size.
The dogs were being held by animal control and were set to be euthanized, Agnew said on Friday.