One week after Aron Christensen was found dead on a remote trail in Washington’s Cascade Mountains – next to his dead 4-month-old puppy – his grieving family said they were told the death was most likely from a heart attack.
On one call with the family, a detective theorized that the 49-year-old Portland man – who was hiking the Walupt Lake Trail alone with his dog during a late August camping trip with friends – could have died from marijuana they found among his belongings. “What if it was laced?” the detective said. Another detective said Christensen had a “widow-maker’s heart.”
“It was the most absurd story I ever heard come out of a sheriff’s mouth,” Corey Christensen, Aron’s younger brother, told The Oregonian/OregonLive.
In fact, there was a bullet inside Aron Christensen.
The longtime musician and local bartender died from a single gunshot wound to the chest. It was a homicide, the Lewis County Coroner finally confirmed last week.
Two months after the bodies of Christensen and his Australian cattle dog Buzzo, also shot, were carried down to Walupt Lake campground — 150 miles from Portland — no charges have been brought in the case.
This despite the county’s sheriff’s office identifying a shooter shortly after the deaths.
The Christensen family says they’ve been informed of only a few details, some of them conflicting, about the sheriff’s office’s suspicious-death investigation.
“You go from an ordinary amount of grief that a family member would have when a loved one suddenly passes, to feeling anger and angst and despair over why people would give you this wrong information,” said Corey Christensen, 42, who operates Soundstream, a small music-equipment store in Silverton, where he and a few other instructors give music lessons.
There were red flags about the investigation from the beginning, he added.
For more than a month, the sheriff’s office didn’t say anything publicly about the case. There was nothing more than a death notice in The Daily Chronicle, the local newspaper: “Aron Christensen, 49, of Portland, was found Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022, on the Walupt Lake Hiking Trail in Randle, Washington.”
Then on Oct. 21, that local newspaper, based in Centralia, published an article asking: “What happened to Aron Christensen?”
The Lewis County Sheriff’s Office and the coroner refused to confirm to the newspaper the cause of the deaths or anything about the camping trip described by Christensen’s friends who were there.
But just days after publication of the article, the sheriff’s office put out a statement.
There had been a break in the case.
The sheriff’s office announced the cause of death – a gunshot – and that it was referring to the prosecuting attorney’s office first-degree manslaughter and first-degree animal-abuse charges against Ethan Michael Asbach, a 20-year-old from Tenino, Washington, and his 17-year-old girlfriend, who has not been publicly named.
Two days after Aron Christensen’s death, Asbach allegedly told detectives he and the girl were hiking on the Walupt Lake trail on the evening of Aug. 19, headed to Sheep Lake campground to meet up for a hunting trip with his father.
Asbach said that at around 9 p.m. he heard growling noises and saw the eyes of what he believed to be a wild animal, according to the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office. Asbach said he fired a single shot “out of fear,” the sheriff’s office said in the statement. The young couple said they checked the area and saw a dead man and dog. They hiked on, taking the wrong path and exiting the woods the next day, they said. Someone from the Aspach family apparently called the sheriff’s office on Aug. 21.
Lewis County is a relatively small community, with a total population of about 84,000. A detective told Aron Christensen’s family that Asbach was a “good kid with a good family.”
Officers did not realize at first that Christensen had been shot, because there was “minimal hemorrhaging” and very little blood around what the sheriff’s office initially called a “puncture wound,” Corey Christensen said detectives told him.
The sheriff’s office has not made clear if detectives or the coroner had discovered the gunshot wound before Aspach’s family contacted authorities. Nor have they said if, after realizing Christensen had been shot, they returned to the scene to search for additional evidence. The necropsy report for Christensen’s dog has yet to be released, so it’s still unknown what exactly happened to him.
On Aug. 29, the coroner called the family to say that a bullet had been found inside Aron Christensen, Corey Christensen wrote in notes he rigorously scrawled during phone calls with officials.
Yet, the next day, a deputy still speculated that Aron Christensen might have died from a heart attack, possibly before he was shot, according to Christensen’s brother.
This week, the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office sent the investigation back to the sheriff’s office, citing missing documentation and lab results.
Jonathan Meyer, the county’s prosecuting attorney, told The Oregonian/OregonLive that “some further investigation needs to be done” but declined to elaborate. “We don’t want to jeopardize what they’re doing,” he said of the sheriff’s office investigation.
Meyer said he was told that Asbach had obtained a lawyer but that his office has not received an official notice about an attorney representing the 20-year-old, who is not in custody because he has not been charged with any crime. The Oregonian/OregonLive could not locate an attorney for Asbach, and attempts to reach Asbach and his family were unsuccessful. A Facebook account matching Asbach’s biographical information suggests he may work at a motorcycle dealership in Olympia.
The Lewis County Sheriff’s Office said Asbach and the girl are not considered flight risks.
“I know there are a lot of friends and family of Mr. Christensen who are eager for answers involving his death,” said Lewis County Sheriff Rob Snaza. “There still continues to be unanswered questions in this case that our investigators are diligently trying to address, but (the Oct. 27) notice of cause and manner of death has brought us forward to this point of initially referring the charges.”
Christensen’s family and friends have little patience left.
“There has been this disgusting weight, like a blanket that is over us,” Corey Christensen said. He added: “You have a suspect … Why are there no charges?”
‘Nothing Makes Sense’
Aron Christensen’s tight-knit group of friends go on a camping trip every August.
This year, 16 people – including Aron – gathered at Walupt Lake campground in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, where there are views of Mount Baker, Mount Rainier and Mount Saint Helens.
It was typical for Christensen to embark on a solo hike, separate from the group. He loved being out in the woods on his own. An avid fisherman who grew up in Klamath Falls, he had been hiking and camping around the Pacific Northwest for decades.
He left their campsite about 8:30 a.m. Aug. 19, a Friday, with his new hiking buddy, Buzzo. Aron told his friends his plan was to hike the trail over two days: 6.5 miles up, 6.5 miles down.
With no cell reception, he’d downloaded the trail map to his phone and expected to return by lunchtime that Saturday.
Christensen, an expert barbecuer, was slated to help make Saturday-night dinner with Kate Meredith, the wife of one of his best friends.
When Aron didn’t show up, his friends weren’t worried at first.
By 5 p.m., they’d started cooking and playing their annual cornhole tournament.
“We knew he was capable and could take care of himself,” Meredith said. “But the hours kept rolling by.”
Then a sheriff’s deputy showed up.. The officer said he was investigating the deaths of a man and his dog, who had been found that afternoon by a hiker who’d rushed down the trail to call police.
When the deputy showed them a photo of Aron, dead, they assumed he’d fallen off a cliff or ridge while hiking.
In shock, the group of friends cried around a campfire. They waited hours for Christensen’s body to be brought down the trail. A deputy and coroner asked Ezra Meredith, Kate’s husband, to identify Aron’s remains. He’d been brought by boat across the lake.
“It was surreal,” Ezra Meredith said.
The friends made it through the night with little sleep. The next morning they silently packed up the campsite and left, cutting their annual trip short.
It’s still unclear when Christensen died. His camping group said he wouldn’t have been out hiking at night, which is when Asbach told detectives he fired a shot. He’d have set up camp for the night, and, if he had been away from his camp after dark, perhaps for the dog, he would’ve been wearing a headlamp.
The assumptions detectives were making early on in the investigation immediately worried Christensen’s family and friends.
Long before the official autopsy report was complete, a Lewis County Sheriff’s Office chief deputy suggested to the family that Aron, an active, healthy 49-year-old man, had “a widow maker’s heart.”
A coroner also insisted, in the days after Christensen’s death, there was no foul play suspected, Corey Christensen wrote in his notes.
“It just feels like we’re not being told the truth,” Kate Meredith said. “If he had a heart attack, what the hell happened to Buzzo? This doesn’t make any sense.”
An Investigation in Limbo
In a phone conversation on Aug. 30, a deputy described the case as a “real brain puzzler,” Corey Christensen said.
The deputy theorized that one bullet could have killed both Buzzo and Aron.
The Lewis County Sheriff’s Office has declined to confirm any of the details of the investigation the Christensen family has provided to The Oregonian/OregonLive. Citing “integrity concerns regarding the active investigation,” Field Operations Bureau Chief Dusty Breen wouldn’t corroborate or contradict statements Corey Christensen said deputies made to him.
Corey Christensen said detectives told the family in the days after Aron’s death that a young man called the sheriff’s office Aug. 21, but they didn’t name him. They said he’d cooperated with the investigation at first but then “clammed up.” His teenage girlfriend hired a lawyer and never spoke to detectives, according to Corey Christensen.
The distraught younger brother, a father of two, called the sheriff and coroner every day for a month. He said he was told several times the investigation was delayed because employees were on vacation.
The last call he had with the sheriff’s office was Sept. 13, when an officer chastised him because a journalist had started asking questions, he said.
Lorenzo Leoni, a family lawyer based in Olympia, Washington, is now acting as liaison between Christensen’s parents in Southern Oregon and law enforcement in Lewis County. He said he’s trying to push the investigation along.
“Whether there was intent or not, we do not know,” Leoni said of the shooting. “But we have serious questions, and answers are not enough. Action is needed.”
Leoni, a former prosecutor, told The Oregonian/OregonLive it’s likely the Lewis County prosecuting attorney sent the investigation back to the sheriff’s office because he wants it to be air-tight before bringing any charges.
“When the only witnesses who were there are not speaking because of their constitutional right not to speak, it’s tough to build a case against them,” he said. “But a man’s dead, we have someone admitting that at least one shot was fired, and we have a coroner’s report indicating that there was a gunshot wound to the chest and it was the cause of death. You would think that’d be enough.”
At the very least, Asbach is liable for discharging a firearm on a frequented wilderness trail, Leoni said. Washington state law states it is illegal to shoot on state-managed lands “carelessly, recklessly or without regard for the safety of any person, or in a manner that endangers, or is likely to endanger, any person, pet, livestock, wildlife or property.”
“Not to mention neglecting the basic tenets of firearm safety: positive target identification,” he added.
‘Aron Was Always Listening, Always Present’
Corey and Aron Christensen were close while growing up, bonding especially over music.
“His knowledge and experience and love of music is still within me,” Corey Christensen said. “I’m incredibly fortunate to still have my brother’s voice singing in my head.”
A skateboarding, punk-rocking teen, Aron left Klamath Falls and finished his GED while living and working in Eugene. He joined the punk movement based at a popular venue in the city, and even toured with Sublime before they rose to fame, according to his brother. After a brief stint in Portland, Aron moved to New York City, where he lived for about half a dozen years until 2006.
Aron Christensen traveled up and down the West Coast, playing in bands, and settled back in Portland more than a decade ago.
It wasn’t necessarily his dream to be in a famous band – he just loved playing music, Corey Christensen said. Aron Christensen’s bass playing was heavily influenced by Mike Watt, who was in post-punk rock bands Firehouse and MinuteMen. It was a melodic bass, like it was “singing its own part,” Corey Christensen said.
Corey found a letter his brother wrote to Mike Watt but never sent, thanking him for the inspiration. On Aug. 14, a week before he died, an episode of Watt’s podcast aired featuring Christensen and his bandmates from Supplemental Pills as guests.
Christensen was also the frontman for a honky-tonk country band, The Fallmen.
But he was also a homebody who wanted to be near his close friends. Aron loved to cook; he’d become an “amazing chef” after years working in restaurants. Aron was a beloved uncle to his brother and sister’s children; he never married or had kids of his own.
The Christensen brothers and their father went on many backpacking trips together. Aron and Corey loved to go fishing together. They’d sit in silence – Aron felt most at peace in the solitude of nature, his brother said.
Six months before he was killed, Aron Christensen began working at Cascade Press, making vinyls.
Ezra Meredith said his friend was a stoic kind of guy who often got caught up in deep, philosophical conversations.
“Aron was always listening, always present,” Ezra Meredith said. He was a reliable bandmate and friend who always showed up when he said he would, he added.
Christensen was scheduled to play bass in one of their bands, Hearts of Oak, at their first live show in three years. The crew had a rehearsal a week before his death.
A couple hundred people showed up for Aron Christensen’s memorial Sept. 24 at the Slingshot Lounge, a bar in Southeast Portland he helped found in 2007 and where he worked as a bartender off and on over the years. The two bands he played bass in – Supplemental Pills and Heart of Oak – performed a few songs in his honor.
“We wanted to celebrate him, but it was hard,” Kate Meredith said. “At the time, only a handful of us had any idea what happened to him. When we learned he had a bullet inside him, it was like he died all over again.”