The Lewis County Sheriff’s Office has been the subject of ire over the last seven months as information about its investigation into the death of Aron Christensen, a Portland man who died from a gunshot wound along with his dog near Walupt Lake in August 2022, came to light in bits and pieces.
Since they began speaking publicly about Christenen’s death in September, Christensen’s friends and family have expressed ongoing frustration with Lewis County authorities’ lack of communication and the failure to arrest a suspect in the case — despite a Tenino man admitting to shooting Christensen and his dog the day after the two bodies were found.
Protesters gathered in front of the Lewis County Law and Justice Center in Chehalis several times over the last seven months to call for “Justice For Aron.” Another protest is planned for the state Capitol at 1 p.m. Sunday, April 23.
Rumors of a possible coverup or associations between the suspect and the office gained traction as the investigation dragged on, and through it all, the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office has, for the most part, maintained silence, citing a need to preserve the integrity of the investigation.
When the sheriff’s office’s case file for the investigation became public record, however, the documents showed the investigation was flawed from the beginning, with the first responding deputy erroneously determining the wound in Christensen’s side was not a gunshot wound, calling off detectives who were already en route and having both bodies and Christensen’s belongings removed from the scene.
Issues with the investigation continued into the Lewis County Coroner’s Office, as documents show the forensic pathologist who conducted Christensen’s autopsy examined Buzzo with the same tools, leading to possible cross contamination of evidence.
Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer announced Monday he would not file felony charges against the primary suspect in Christensen’s death, prompting Christensen’s family to release a statement Wednesday calling out what they called “poor performances” and “a lack of integrity” from the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office, the Lewis County Coroner’s Office and the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office.
“We have been muted and failed at every turn. The shooter and various Lewis County offices have carried on without any consequence,” reads the statement, which can be read in full at https://bit.ly/3MMWIiD.
Later that same day, Lewis County Sheriff Rob Snaza and three members of his command staff — Undersheriff Wes Rethwill, Field Operations Chief Dusty Breen and Special Services Chief Kevin Engelbertson — agreed to sit down with two Chronicle reporters to discuss the case.
That interview took place in a conference room at the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday.
Summarizing the investigation from his point of view, Snaza said the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office personnel who responded to the report that a body was found on the 101 trail near Randle “handle(d) the investigation to the best of what they (had) at the time.”
He commended his staff for “interviewing individuals that are involved in the case, locking them into statements” within the first 24 hours of the investigation and for tracking down the long list of witnesses at the campground.
When asked specifically about the first responding deputy’s inaccurate claim that Christensen had not suffered a gunshot wound and the deputy’s decision to call off detectives who were on the way, Snaza said, “That is something that, if we could change, that would be it. Do I wish it was different? Absolutely. Would it change the outcome of the case? Absolutely not.”
A reporter then asked Snaza, “Can you say that for certain?”
Snaza replied, “I can say that for certain. I can say that with almost 100% (certainty) because … photographs and measurements were taken initially, while the deputy was up there.”
Everybody at the sheriff’s office who was involved in the investigation agreed that “no matter how that (investigation) was handled initially, the outcome would have been the same,” Snaza said.
Meyer, the county prosecutor, previously told The Chronicle and Christensen’s family he could not say for certain whether his charging decision would have been different if the initial investigation into Christensen’s death had been done correctly, saying, “I don’t know what that initial investigation would have turned up.”
Snaza did acknowledge the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office’s error in that initial investigation, saying, “The answer is, absolutely we could have done better, and I have to take full responsibility for that. That is on me.”
The sheriff’s office has since “taken direct responsibility and made some changes on that,” Snaza claimed, adding, “some internal issues have been dealt with with those individuals.”
When asked to clarify what those specific issues were and what changes had been made, Snaza said, “That was just dealing with the individuals involved in this case and moving forward with that. So those are things that we’re doing with the particular individuals involved.”
The “issues” had been brought to the attention of Breen or a captain “to address,” Snaza said.
“This is not going unnoticed,” he said, adding, “We’re always looking for ways that we can provide better service as an agency. This case is no different.”
He did not say whether anyone involved in the investigation had been disciplined.
The lengthy timeframe of the investigation — approximately two months between when Christensen’s body was found and when the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office first referred the case to the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office, and about three months between when the prosecutor’s office referred the case back to sheriff’s office and when the sheriff’s office referred the case a second time — is fairly typical for a case with multiple agencies involved, Undersheriff Wes Rethwill claimed.
“The timeline was really not abnormal to most of the cases that we work,” Rethwill said, explaining that investigations often slow down when detectives are waiting for crime lab results or forensic pathologist reports to get turned in.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for our agency to comment on those processes because those processes are out of our control, but those are all things that do affect our investigation and can make it challenging at times because we’re … kind of at the will of others, if you will, waiting for those things to come back,” Rethwill said.
The results of the first necropsy on Christensen’s dog Buzzo, which were submitted to the sheriff’s office on Sept. 27, also slowed down the investigation because the findings contradicted Asbach’s statement, command staff said.
Having a second necropsy done after the prosecutor’s office referred the case back to the sheriff’s office was “definitely something that we weren’t expecting” and added to the extended timeframe of the case, Rethwill said.
The Lewis County Coroner’s Office had not responded to The Chronicle’s request for an interview as of The Chronicle’s deadline.
Communication and Speculation
Responding to a claim by Christensen’s family and friends that representatives of the sheriff’s office instructed them not to speak to the media about the case, Special Services Chief Kevin Engelbertson said, “I don’t think anybody’s going to say ‘we’re not allowing you to talk.’ We can’t control that. If they’re going to talk to the media, they’re going to talk to the media.”
“But in a lot of cases,” Field Operations Chief Dusty Breen added, “those are conversations we have on a frequent basis, with ‘Hey, some of this information, we don’t want out right now, or we want to keep it guarded.’ Because if we’re hoping for the best possible outcome, we don’t need this out there yet.”
Typically, a detective or detective sergeant who is working the investigation acts as the primary liaison with the victim or, in this case, the victim’s family.
Sheriff’s office personnel go through training on recognizing and responding to victims, but when it comes to communicating with a family through the course of an investigation, Breen said, “Some of it is, I hate to say, just common sense. And just like individuals in all professions, some people are better at that interaction than others as far as the common sense piece of it.”
Christensen’s family has claimed Lewis County Coroner’s Office personnel who spoke to them near the beginning of the investigation told them the suspects are “good kids” and told the family “don’t be quick to judge,” according to the family’s most recent statement.
The sheriff’s office does expect deputies and detectives to follow up with victims, Breen said.
“The problem is … I can’t answer their questions,” he said.
Snaza added, “I think the frustration is, if you’re a family liaison, they have a ton of questions and when you can’t answer, they’re going to get upset — and they’re absolutely right.”
The reason for holding information back, Breen said, is so detectives can conduct followup investigation without the risk of information released about the case influencing suspects or witnesses.
“We get one chance, one chance to do a major case,” Engelbertson said, “If we put out too much … and we screw up by putting (it out) and jeopardize the case? That’s on us. We can control that. That’s one of the things we control.”
“We want to make sure that, as best we can, we control the integrity of the investigation, and that is trying to hold some of that information back,” Undersheriff Wes Rethwill said.
Concern about maintaining the integrity of the investigation was Snaza’s reason for not speaking directly with the family, he said.
“There have been many times during this incident where I wish that I could have come out and said something, or I wish I could have clarified something but would that have been? I don’t think that would have been right, in the middle of an investigation. We haven’t done that in the past, and I don’t think it would be right to do that now.”
When information is withheld, however, “speculation will take its place,” Breen said.
Speculation in this case included rumors of a coverup or a personal connection between a Lewis County Sheriff’s Office employee and the suspects — both allegations Snaza called “totally untrue.”
The only connection between the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office and the primary suspect, Ethan Asbach, is that a captain’s nephew works at the same business where Asbach is employed, Snaza said, claiming that “there was nothing more to it.”
He said that the captain’s nephew and Asbach are not close and said the captain “didn’t even know about any of this” before rumors about the connection began circulating online.
“There’s nothing where this case is covered up in any way, shape or form. There’s no way that this would ever happen like that,” Snaza said.
He added, “If you don’t have the answers, then it becomes, ‘Yeah, let’s put this in the middle.’”
The sheriff’s office has seen a growing expectation of transparency from the community in recent years, as well as a growing tendency toward widespread speculation in the absence of official information.
Breen attributed those changes to the growth of social media, saying “when COVID hit (and) on, it’s taken a different role in society.”
He added, “Sometimes in law enforcement, (we) want to keep those cards close and we’re living in an age where that’s becoming less … accepted by society.”
The sheriff’s office “needs to find a way to maybe be more transparent while still holding onto the information we need, and then striking that balance, which can be difficult,” Breen said.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the sheriff’s office was still waiting for the formal letter from the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office declining the referred charges.
That letter could include requests for additional investigation or areas to review, Snaza said.
“We review all of those (decline to file letters) as well to see if there’s … any concerns or anything we need to address,” he said.
Meyer, the prosecutor, said Monday he was frustrated with the sheriff’s office’s investigation into Christensen’s death, adding, “I’ve made my feelings known about that to the sheriff’s office. That’s really all I can do.”
Detectives are currently looking back over the investigative material at Meyer’s request to see if there are any other potential law violations associated with the case, Snaza said.
“How long will that take? I don’t know, but I don’t anticipate a long time. They’re pretty simple things to answer,” Breen said.
Snaza said Wednesday he had read the statement Christesnen’s family released about the case earlier that day and told The Chronicle he understood why Christensen’s family was frustrated with Lewis County.
“This is just a sad set of events. And I can’t take that back. I wish I could,” he said, adding that if he were in their position, “I would do everything I could to figure out why and what happened, and my frustrations would be as great as theirs.”
One thing Snaza said he wished he had done at the beginning of the investigation was have the family liaison tell Christensen’s family to reach out to him personally with their concerns.
He said he had personally received some letters from people expressing their frustrations with the case, “but it was letters from people that weren’t really associated with this,” he said.
Had he met with the family directly, Snaza said, “we would be sitting in this room right here having a meeting, I mean, of what we could talk about, and listening to their frustrations, listening to their hearts just sobbing because they lost a loved one. And, you know, telling me how they really feel. I mean, they’re probably gonna say some really choice words, but at the same time, they’re frustrated. They lost a loved one. I would totally understand that. So I think going forward, that’s what we need to do differently.”
Snaza and his command staff encouraged anyone interested in the investigation to submit a public records request for the case file and go through the documents themselves.
“You can skim stuff and miss some very critical stuff that has happened throughout the investigation. … There’s a lot of information that’s in there. Read and digest all that information, and then come to your own conclusions,” Rethwill said.
Christensen’s family encouraged Lewis County residents to do the same, saying, “You will be shocked. It will change how you see Lewis County and your faith in them should you ever lose a loved one.”
Read More About the Case
For additional background on the investigation into the death of Aron Christensen, visit https://bit.ly/3Ku7IPf to read a comprehensive overview by Chronicle reporter Emily Fitzgerald.
To read a statement from Christensen’s family following the decision not tfile charges, visit https://bit.ly/43xVHkw.
The case number for Lewis County Sheriff’s Office’s investigation into Christensen’s death is 22C10739. The public records request form for the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office, which includes instructions on how to submit it, is available online at https://bit.ly/3UvuFpK.