Editor's Note: This story was first published by Oregon Public Broadcasting. It can be read at https://bit.ly/3OrGmg3.
Family members of a hiker slain under suspicious circumstances in Lewis County have filed a legal claim against the county, stating their intent to seek roughly $20 million in damages.
Attorneys representing Aron Christensen’s estate claim the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office “sabotaged” the investigation into his and his 4-month-old puppy’s deaths in August 2022 on a hiking trail south of Packwood, Washington.
The family’s attorney, Lorenzo Leoni, was traveling on Friday and did not provide a statement. His office released a copy of the tort claim, a filing that often proceeds a formal lawsuit, at OPB’s request.
The tort claim centers on Christensen’s puppy, Buzzo, and the attorney’s belief that the sheriff’s office “maliciously damaged” the young Australian cattle dog’s body to tamper with the case.
Potential witnesses, the tort claim said, include a dozen deputies, two Lewis County Coroner’s Office staffers, a contracted forensic pathologist and two veterinarians.
Representatives with Lewis County could not be reached on Friday.
Christensen died of a gunshot wound on Aug. 19 while on a camping trip with his dog and friends at Walupt Lake Campground. The 49-year-old told friends he and his dog would go on a solo hike and return the next morning, according to police records.
That night, Ethan Asbach, 19, and a 17-year-old companion began hiking in roughly the same area and reportedly heard growling. Asbach said he fired one shot from a 9-millimeter pistol. He later told investigators he found Christensen and Buzzo dead.
Forensic experts have not identified whether a single bullet killed both Christensen and his dog. Canine DNA did appear on the bullet recovered from Christensen’s chest, but medical experts have suggested multiple possibilities.
“The chances of Buzzo’s DNA being on the outside of Aron’s shirt is pretty likely,” said Lewis County Coroner Warren McLeod in a recent interview. McLeod also noted that search-and-rescue teams carried Christensen’s and Buzzo’s bodies wrapped in the same tarp.
In the wake of the shooting, Christensen’s family and some Lewis County residents have raised questions about how effectively the case was investigated. A detective also told Christensen’s family that Asbach was a “good kid with a good family,” according to The Oregonian/OregonLive.
In one example, according to reports, they questioned why the responding deputy reported that Christensen died from a puncture wound by a stick and then diverted detectives who had been en route to the scene.
In April, Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer announced he would not charge Asbach with any crimes.
Since then, multiple medical professionals have reported dueling findings while examining Christensen’s puppy. The dispute was first reported by The Chronicle newspaper.
Days after Christensen’s death, local veterinarian Dr. Brandy Fay conducted a necropsy on the puppy. She reported a wound that was more consistent with a stabbing than a gunshot.
Months later in December 2022, the sheriff’s office commissioned a second necropsy that reported an exit wound from a gunshot. The Chronicle reported that Dr. Kris Otteman, a board member of the International Veterinary Forensic Sciences Association, conducted the second necropsy.
Christensen’s family reportedly asked Fay to take one last look at Buzzo. She said she found a broken rib that was not present earlier. In a report, Fay left open the possibility the second wound was made after Buzzo had already died.
This story was reported and published by https://www.opb.org/ and has been republished with permission.
On May 3, The Chronicle published a story where Dr. Brandy Fay, the first veterinarian to examine Buzzo, stated she has regained possession of the dog’s body. She said she found a wound on the dog that was not there previously and subsequent tests suggest the wound was made post-mortem, or, after the dog died. If the wound is proven to have appeared between the two necropsies, it could implicate law enforcement in tampering with evidence, as Buzzo was in the sheriff’s office’s care since Fay released him.
On April 21, The Chronicle shared an article after an interview with the coroner’s office. In it, Coroner Warren McLeod states it’s likely Aron Christensen was alive for several hours after the gunshot wound. This contradicts the statement previously made by Ethan Asbach. Asked about this inconsistency, Snaza said he had no knowledge of Christensen being alive for that long.
On April 21, The Chronicle published a story about a letter and an interview provided by the prosecuting attorney where, in the former, Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer explains his charging decision and, in the latter, forensic pathologist Dr. Megan Quinn explains concerns with the case. She states the sheriff’s office expressed a desire for her findings on Christensen’s autopsy to fit the narrative provided by Ethan Asbach, the suspect.
On April 19, The Chronicle shared an article about frustrations over the case and the sheriff’s office from the members of the public who aired concerns to the Lewis County Commissioners. That week marked eight months since Aron Christensen was found dead.
On April 14, a story was published after an interview with the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office about the case, where Sheriff Rob Snaza claims the investigation would not have gone differently if the first responding deputy treated the crime scene as a homicide from the start.
On April 12, The Chronicle published an unedited statement from Christensen’s family where they detail frustrations over the now months-long investigation into the death of their beloved brother, son and friend.
On April 11, The Lewis County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office again declines to file charges against Asbach, citing mistakes in the investigation.
On March 24, because the case is being weighed by the prosecutor’s office, files are now public record. After reviewing more than 300 pages of case documents, 911 call logs, audio recordings and photographs, Chronicle reporter Emily Fitzgerald details the investigation by the sheriff’s office. In it, mistakes began with the very first deputy’s response. A second necropsy performed on Buzzo is also outlined. With the findings of the second necropsy published, the primary suspect, Ethan Asbach’s story seemed more plausible, Sheriff Rob Snaza would later say.
On Feb. 15, the prosecutor’s office has still made no decision on the case. The Chronicle publishes information on the first necropsy on Buzzo, performed by Dr. Brandy Fay of Chehalis’ Newaukum Valley Veterinary Services, without knowing a second necropsy had been performed.
On Jan. 31, the sheriff’s office referred charges of manslaughter and animal cruelty against the primary suspect, Ethan Asbach, 20, of Tenino, to the Lewis County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for a second time.
On Jan. 25, the sheriff’s office states cellphone mapping information on the suspect has been received and staff are once again preparing to refer charges.
On Jan. 23, 2023, Chronicle reporter Emily Fitzgerald publishes a story and photographs from the weekend prior where family members celebrated what would have been Christensen’s 50th birthday at a Portland music venue.
On Dec. 23, 2022, the sheriff’s office is quoted in The Chronicle saying there are still no new updates in the case.
On Nov. 7, 2022, friends of Christensen held a demonstration in front of the Lewis County Law and Justice Center asking for justice to be served. https://www.chronline.com/stories/friends-of-aron-christensen-protest-in-chehalis-ask-for-justice,303235
On Nov. 2, 2022, the prosecutor’s office sent charges back to the sheriff’s office, asking for more investigation. The family responds that they feel “confused, disheartened and exasperated,” as it had been 74 days since Christensen was killed.
On Oct. 27, 2022, the sheriff’s office referred charges of manslaughter and animal cruelty against the primary suspect, Ethan Asbach, 20, of Tenino, to the Lewis County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. In a news release, the sheriff’s office further details the suspect’s claims, which were that he “shot a dog” and subsequently found Christensen, who he said was dead.
On Oct. 27, 2022, the coroner’s office ruled Christensen was killed by a gunshot wound.
On Oct. 25, 2022 Christensen’s family made a statement in The Chronicle, detailing frustrations with Lewis County agencies over what they see as a lack of communication and clarity. The sheriff’s office, though provided a copy of the statement, declined to comment. The Lewis County Coroner’s Office provided a response detailing where they were in the investigation.
On Oct. 21, 2022, The Chronicle published a story that would run on the front page of the following day’s paper titled “What Happened to Aron Christensen? Friends Frustrated With Lack of Information After Man Found Dead Near Walupt Lake in August.” In the article, reporter Emily Fitzgerald details an interview with Christensen’s friends who positively identified his body after he was found dead.
After asking the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office for more information on Christensen’s death, a news release was sent out and The Chronicle published a brief on the investigation on Sept. 13, 2022.
On Aug. 31, 11 days after Aron Christensen, 49, of Portland and his 4-month-old puppy, Buzzo, were found dead near Walupt Lake, The Chronicle ran a death notice.