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When police in South Carolina responded to a report of an unconscious man in a yard, it didn’t take long for authorities to confirm that Joseph Anthony McKinnon was dead. But as police were notifying next of kin on Saturday, they say something else was discovered in the garden of the backyard: “a freshly dug pit” with the body of the man’s girlfriend wrapped in trash bags.

Investigators suspected foul play in the death of Patricia Ruth Dent, and their suspicions were confirmed Monday after an autopsy found McKinnon, 60, died of a heart attack while Dent, 65, died of strangulation. Authorities now believe McKinnon strangled Dent and died while he was burying her at their home in Trenton, S.C.

“Evidence gathered at the scene, along with statements from witnesses aided investigators to build a timeline, leading us to believe that Mr. McKinnon attacked Ms. Dent while inside their home,” Edgefield County Sheriff Jody Rowland and Coroner David Burnett said in a joint statement. “Mr. McKinnon then bound her and wrapped her in trash bags before putting her in the previously dug pit. The pit was then partially filled in by Mr. McKinnon.”

They added, “While covering the pit, Mr. McKinnon had the cardiac event, causing his death.”

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The motivation and circumstances surrounding the strangulation remain unclear. Rowland told The Washington Post that he was not aware of any history of domestic violence between the couple, and there were no previous incident reports at their address.

“There’s no doubt what happened now,” Rowland said. “We have ideas of what their argument might have been about, but this case is closed.”

The couple had been living together at the home in a rural area of Trenton, about 64 miles outside of Columbia, S.C., according to the sheriff’s office. Pamela Briggs, Dent’s twin sister, told WRDW that Dent was dating McKinnon.

Police responded on Saturday morning to a report of a man “laying on the ground face up and unresponsive,” according to the police report of the incident. A neighbor found McKinnon and started chest compressions and called 911, but he was “obviously deceased,” by the time authorities arrived, Rowland said.

While police were initially investigating McKinnon’s death, Edgefield County Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Clark noticed something in the backyard.

“I observed a hole in the garden area,” Clark wrote in a police report.

Neighbors interviewed by the sheriff’s office indicated that they understood that McKinnon had been digging the pit so that he could put a water trough in the garden, Rowland said. After a neighbor told authorities that McKinnon had been digging the hole for about 10 days, a sheriff’s deputy at the scene found Dent’s wallet, according to the police report. When the sheriff’s deputies went to the nearby golf course where Dent worked, they learned she was not at work and that her workplace listed her as a “no call no show,” authorities say. A co-worker also texted her that morning but had not heard back.

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The uncertainty surrounding her whereabouts brought authorities back to the couple’s home. As they were investigating what appeared to be a recently cleaned home, investigators were able to find blood on the den floor that was later confirmed to be from Dent, according to the sheriff’s office.

“The smell of Clorox in the house was choking,” Rowland told The Post. “It was obvious to us that the smell of Clorox signaled a significant effort to clean a crime scene.”

So when authorities turned their attention to the pit in the garden area, they began to dig in hopes of finding any clues. A neighbor had told police that they thought it was odd how McKinnon was trying to cover up the hole as fast as he could on Saturday morning without putting the water trough in it.

“We knew there was a body under that dirt,” the sheriff said.

When they discovered black garbage bags buried in the hole, police opened the bags to find a body bound in duct tape. It was Dent.

After the sheriff’s office interviewed witnesses and neighbors, they concluded that McKinnon was in the process of burying Dent when he died.

“I think he overexerted himself, put the shovel down, took two to three steps toward his truck, and dropped dead of this massive heart attack,” Rowland said.

Briggs, Dent’s twin, told local media that she was “shocked,” adding that she saw no signs of any potential danger. She described her sister to WRDW as someone “full of energy” who was liked by anyone who met her.

Days after her sister’s death, Briggs said the details surrounding Dent and McKinnon have been nothing short of “a nightmare.”

“This is reality and life,” she told the TV station, “and a big part of me is gone, and now I’m going to have to live with that.”

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