The tragedy of Brenda Hamilton's death | Beaufort County Now | For her family but also for the People of Beaufort County created by our Sheriff

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Nearly two years ago retired school teacher, Brenda Hamilton was killed while apparently out on her morning walk.  It was an obvious violent death.  Two years later we still don’t know how she was killed.  Evidence points to an animal attack.  The area near Belhaven is not too far from the range of Red Wolves released into the Alligator National Wildlife Refuge northeast of Beaufort County.  Currently, it is not known if the wolves have ranged into Beaufort County and if so, whether they present a threat to livestock, dogs and people.  I was one of the Beaufort County Commissioners who pushed for a full investigation of Brenda Hamilton’s death by animal attack in order to determine if we have a problem we need to be aware of.

Unfortunately, the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Department botched the investigation.  Here’s the back story of that:

First, let me say this is not going to be a pleasant or complimentary article about Sheriff Coleman.  Coleman’s supporters claim I criticize him because of a personality clash.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  It’s an obvious case of:  if you can’t defend against against the message, attach the messenger.  The facts support my criticisms.  It is not my responsibility, in my capacity as an elected Commissioner, to cover for inept pubic officials by simply omitting to say anything while the public is suffering from their incompetence.  Those who think of themselves as the core leadership of the Beaufort County Republican party are very offended because they mistakenly believe they are supposed to defend and cover for inept or disloyal public officials (not just the Sheriff) simply because they are registered to run as Republicans.  All elected officials are in unique positions to observe and know about the short comings of other elected officials.  Honest people will expose rather than cover up bad behavior.  As the saying goes:  Honest men are dangerous.

I have spoken with the scientist who did the analytical work on the samples presented to her.  In my line of work I have personally had many occasions to sample and be responsible for the collection of samples from which the results were measured in parts per billion (i.e, very meticulous sampling).  Extreme care and above average knowledge is necessary to produce reliable results.  The sampler has to have the knowledge to know what to sample, when to sample, how to sample, how to avoid contamination of the sample, and how to protect and store the samples.

All of the rules necessary to achieve reliable and accurate results were broken in the handling and investigation of the Brenda Hamilton case.  The first major error was when the Sheriff did not cordon off the area to protect the evidence.  Many people told me the public and dogs had free access to the site, un restricted.

Is it not common sense for any scene of violent attack on a human to be cordoned off?  How did Sheriff Coleman decide so quickly this attack was by animals and not some psychopath?

Another serious flaw was that the DNA investigator was presented with very few things to sample.  By the time the samples were presented to the University of Florida they were handled by Federal Wild Life agents, and the staff at their DNA facility at UNC Cullowhee.  Samples were delivered back to the Sheriff and then sent to a laboratory in the Midwest, and wound up at the University of Florida.  Standard procedure is to have a “chain of custody.”  The chain of custody furnished in the investigation from Florida has only one name.  Therefore we do not know whether these samples were properly handled, that is for one thing, were they kept at proper temperatures?  Were they properly packaged at all times?  Without a chain of custody all evidence is suspect.

We know from photographic evidence that there was abundant sample material.  Another failure of the Sheriff was not to collect samples in duplicate or triplicate.  This is standard practice in all responsible sampling, especially with forensic evidence.  One of the Sheriff’s excuses on sampling is that he could not get into the hospital operating room to collect samples.  He did not have to, there was plenty of sample material remaining at the scene.  There are abundant photographs to prove this.

Why did the sheriff give all his samples to the Federal Wildlife Officials?  They clearly had a conflict of interest.  Their job is to protect their red wolves.  So they took the samples, brought them back and only said they did not think a wolf did this.  To make matters worse, when I asked for an explanation, the Sheriff said “The Feds are always superior to us, we had no choice.”  This is incompetence on a grand scale and flies in the face of his purported promises to protect us from Federal over reach. However, sharing samples would not have been that bad of a decision if the Sheriff had collected duplicate or triplicate samples.  How does anyone know what he Feds did to those samples?  Why did the Sheriff not collect multiple samples and retain a set?

Then there is the lack of action on the part of the Sheriff.  From the information I have, nothing was being done to move the investigation forward until the Commissioners formed a three man committee to investigate.  The samples were then hurriedly sent to a laboratory in the mid west for the identification of hair.  They kept the samples several months before they were released and sent to the University of Florida at Gainesville.

Initially, the Sheriff put a lot of effort into proving local dogs had attacked Mrs. Hamilton.  A great effort to examine dogs and obtain stool samples was put forth by the Sheriff.  All of that effort proved that local dogs did not attack Mrs. Hamilton.  The flawed DNA sampling proved the same thing.  While eliminating that possibility simply raised the question of what did attack the victim even higher.  That should not have ended the investigation but only intensified it.

Considering all of the above, it looks to me like the Sheriff made an early decision about what happened to Mrs. Hamilton  and then directed an investigation to prove he was right.  We are left with the mess he created.

Bottom line, the flawed DNA evidence presented to the experts points to domesticated dogs. But we cannot find the dogs who attached Mrs. Hamilton. With competent sampling we would know the true answer.

And we are left to wonder if a person in Beaufort County is murdered will the Sheriff do any better job of collecting evidence than he did in the case.

Beaufort County does not have law enforcement who are adequately trained to be forensic investigators, nor do we pretend to investigate most crimes other than to fill out reports. 

If we did not have the present feudal system of allowing the Sheriff to provide criminal law enforcement to us as he sees fit, we could easily have professional forensics experts and avoid the embarrassment of failures such as this one.  With the election of every new sheriff the entire department is turned upside down and there has never been an effort by this or any sheriff, to my knowledge, to develop a professional forensics team in Beaufort County.  They will probably say “we rely on the SBI” for forensics.  If so, why was the SBI not called into this case.  A resident was killed.  It does not matter whether she was killed by an animal or a person.  The family and the public deserve to know where the assault came from.

A permanent police department would allow us to have professional life time investigators and forensics people.  At the moment it looks to me like a sophisticated murderer could get away with it in Beaufort County.

Because of the inherent management problems that come from any elected Sheriff, questions are legitimately raised about whether we should consider forming a separate forensics department of professionals whose performance is not tied directly to the political well being of any sheriff.  Truth and the professional unfiltered collection of criminal evidence would give all of us a greater sense of safety and well being.  Politically appointed forensics personnel are simply un-acceptable in this, an un-ethical at best, if not criminal world.  Having a professional cadre will cost no more money than we are now spending with the present bloated sheriff’s department.  We could pay for the forensics employees by controlling overtime and re assigning personnel in the Sheriff’s Department.  We are now paying over $500,000 per year in overtime with zero management control.  We paid one deputy last year $92,000.  About $30,000 of that was overtime.

Please understand that we would still have a Sheriff with at the same time we have a police department.  The Sheriff would perform his Constitutional duties and the police department would take care of criminal and civil law problems.  The Sheriff’s Constitutional duties are to provide bailiffs to the courts, serve papers and run the jail.

I frequently hear that we would pay double if we had a separate police department.  This is not true, and if you hear someone say this it simply means they don’t know what they’re talking about.  The present force would be divided.  Actually we could pay less because we would have better and more consistent management with career police instead of short term political appointments made by elected sheriffs..  The Sheriff system of law enforcement is antiquated because of population growth and the sophistication of modern complex law.  Law enforcement and politics don’t mix very well.  The people deserve professional law enforcement.

Ms. Hamilton’s death was a tragedy.  It was a tragedy for her and her family.  But the way the Sheriff responded was a tragedy for the People of Beaufort County. 

 


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