Crime & Public Safety

Alligator pulled Hilton Head woman into water by leash in fatal attack, officials say

A 45-year-old woman died after an alligator pulled her and her dog into a lagoon in Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island, said S.C. Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Regional Coordinator Sam Chappelear during a Monday night news conference.

Cassandra Cline, a resident of Sea Pines, was killed while trying to save her dog Monday morning, state officials said. Cline was identified by Beaufort County Coroner Ed Allen. He said Cline was married and did not have children.

“The alligator grabbed the leash instead of the dog,” Chappelear said. “There was some sort of tug-of-war with her trying to get the dog back via the leash, and in turn, the alligator drug her and the dog into the water.”

Chappelear said it appears Cline and the dog were “very near” the water’s edge.

“They were at the water’s edge, best we can tell,” Chappelear said.

The 9-foot alligator believed to be responsible for the attack was caught and euthanized, Chappelear said.

Upon the arrival of the Hilton Head Fire Rescue, the alligator was in the water circling the body, SCDNR spokesman David Lucas said Monday night. He said first responders were able to lasso the gator with a rope and bring ashore.

Law enforcement responded to Wood Duck Road in Sea Pines Plantation at around 9:30 a.m after witnesses saw an alligator attacking the woman in a lagoon, according to a release. The attack actually happened on Governors Road, Chappelear said.

A Sea Pines grounds official and neighbor witnessed the attack, Allen said during the news conference. He said witnesses heard her call for help.

The dog was unharmed in the attack.

Blake Smith, 34, who lives on Wood Duck Road, was leaving his house Monday morning when he saw police cars and fire trucks in the neighborhood.

“I waited for about 30 minutes, then I started hearing rumors about what happened down the road from here,” Smith said. “It’s odd, because this is the first time we’ve heard about an aggressive alligator around a human in the five years that we’ve been living here.”

Smith said this area of Sea Pines is more residential, so there are a lot of bikers and people walking their dogs in the area. He said the times there have been alligators in a yard or pool, the Sea Pines Community Services Association was quick to remove them.

“They do a good job. This is just a sad incident,” he said. “I have a young son, so it’s kind of concerning to see something like this could happen.”

Sea Pines has permits and tags through DNR to remove gators at their own discretion, Chapplelear said. He said it is unknown if there were any previous reports about the gator that attacked Cline.

Steve Darmody, who’s lived on Governors Lane for a year and a half, said the community is close-knit.

“It’s a real community,” he said, “not a place where people rent out their homes.”

People know each other by their first names, he said, and they know each other’s dogs.

Darmody, 60, a lawyer, was working in his home office Monday morning when a neighbor knocked on his door; the neighbor had Cline’s dog, which was soaked. The neighbor was crying, and told him what she knew. The dog did not appear injured, Darmody said, and it stayed in his house for a while, during which time neighbors tried to reach Cline’s family by phone.

Darmody walked down the road to the scene of the incident. He said he saw Cline’s body being removed from the lagoon, and that he did not see any apparent injuries.

“From the contact I’ve had with (Cline), she was always happy and upbeat, the kind of person you’d want as a neighbor, a friend or a sister,” Darmody said

Marci Tressel, who lives nearby on Oak Court, just met Cline on Sunday, she said.

“She just seemed like a young gal who loved life,” Tressel said. “She loved living on Hilton Head.”

Tressel remembers Cline as “athletic” and “very active,” and, like a lot of people in that part of Sea Pines, as a dog lover.

“All of us are dog people,” Tressel said, “and we’d all be inclined to save our best friends.”

The Sea Pines Community Services Association sent an email to homeowners just after 11 a.m. saying a “deceased person” was found in a lagoon in the Club Course area of Sea Pines. It sent another email to property owners Monday afternoon about the attack.

“We ask that the community respect the needs of the investigators and privacy of the victim’s family and neighbors,” the email said. “We are shocked and heartbroken over this loss and are praying for Ms. Cline’s family and loved ones during this difficult time.”

Hilton Head Island Fire Rescue was on the scene assisting law enforcement and the coroner, spokesperson Joheida Fister said.

Alligator attacks are exceedingly rare, and the animals are usually afraid of people, according to SCDNR’s Lucas.

This is only the second alligator-related death in South Carolina since the state began keeping records in 1976, Lucas said. The other death was in 2016, when a 90-year-old woman slipped and fell down an embankment into a pond and was bitten, he said.

Lucas said SCDNR’s major piece of advice to everyone is to not feed the alligators.

“Feeding alligators can quickly make them dangerous to people,” Lucas said. He said once people do this, the alligators will start associating people with food and be more likely to approach them.

Lucas said other than not feeding alligators, people should always be aware of their surroundings if they’re in an alligator-friendly habitat — which he said is just about any body of fresh water in the Lowcountry — and not throw anything at alligators in the water.

If someone does see an alligator approaching them, Lucas said they should walk backwards and back away from it.

In 2013, a woman walking two dogs near a lagoon in Hilton Head Plantation was attacked by an 8-foot alligator that charged out of the water at her. She slipped and fell when she tried to run away, and the alligator bit her ankle. She kicked it, and it ran away.

In 2009, an Ohio man was playing golf on a Fripp Island course when he leaned down at the edge of a lagoon to pick up his ball and a 400-pound alligator grabbed him by the arm and dragged him into the pond. The man survived, but lost his arm.

In July, an 8-foot alligator attacked a dog in Long Cove Club. The dog was running out of the pond in a backyard when it was bit on both of its back legs. The dog survived the attack and was treated with stitches.

Related stories from Hilton Head Island Packet