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 five 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.