The family of Aron Christensen, a Portland musician who was shot to death along with his puppy Buzzo while hiking on a remote Washington trail last August, is planning to sue the sheriff’s office that investigated the homicide. The family alleges investigators “maliciously damaged” the puppy’s body “in order to sabotage a criminal investigation.”
Christensen, on an annual camping trip with friends, set out on a solo hike Aug. 19 with his four-month-old cattle dog up the Walupt Lake Trail in Washington’s Cascade Mountains. The 49-year-old avid outdoorsman, who grew up in Klamath Falls, was expected to return to the campground the next afternoon.
Instead, the next day, a pair of hikers reported finding a man’s body near the trail, next to the body of a small dog.
The investigation into the deaths turned into a tumultuous, frustrating waiting game for Christensen’s family and friends that lasted more than seven months.
The Lewis County prosecutor in early April ultimately concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to bring felony manslaughter charges against the suspect in the fatal shooting.
A 20-year-old Lewis County man named Ethan Asbach admitted he fired a gun on Aug. 19, 2022, in the area where the bodies of Christensen and Christensen’s dog were later found, and forensic evidence linked the bullet that killed Christensen to Asbach’s gun, according to the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office investigation. Asbach said he was hiking on the trail with his then-16-year-old girlfriend to meet his father on a bear-hunting trip.
But the evidence didn’t meet the threshold for proving criminal recklessness or criminal negligence, county prosecutor Jonathan Meyer said.
“Had the case been fully investigated, and from the beginning been treated like a homicide, I don’t know what evidence would have been found,” Meyer told The Oregonian/OregonLive in April. “It’s hard to say… All I know is, with the evidence we have now, there’s not enough to go forward.”
Corey Christensen, Aron’s brother, said the prosecutor met with the family in April and cited incompetence by the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office as a key reason he decided not to pursue manslaughter and animal-cruelty charges.
Now, the Christensen family is seeking other avenues for justice.
Lorenzo Leoni, the Olympia attorney hired by Aron Christensen’s sister Natalie Parker and brother-in-law Raymond Parker on behalf of Christensen’s estate, filed the tort claim earlier this month, asking for punitive damages and naming every Lewis County employee who handled evidence during the investigation into the deaths of Christensen and Buzzo.
The tort claim, a formality in the civil-suit process, was sent to Lewis County’s risk management department May 11, according to the record provided by Leoni’s office. Tort claims serve as an official notification of a plan to sue and give the government agency a chance to settle outside of court.
The Lewis County Sheriff’s Office and other county officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The tort claim is the first step in the case in which the facts are still developing, Leoni said. Lewis County has not responded to the filing. Leoni expects his office will file a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court sometime this summer.
“Injuries and damages are still being accessed at this time,” the tort claim said. The document doesn’t go into any detail about the accusation that investigators purposely damaged the dog’s body.
It remains a mystery what exactly happened to Buzzo. One theory is that a single bullet killed both the dog and Aron Christensen.
Among several errors and missteps in the investigation, a forensic pathologist may have botched Aron Christensen’s autopsy. When examining the bullet wound in Christensen’s chest, pathologist Dr. Megan Quinn found canine DNA.
In emails, the case’s lead investigator, Det. Jamey McGinty, asked Quinn if it was possible the tools used to inspect the dog were also used during Christensen’s autopsy. The same pathologists examined Christensen and Buzzo, even though they didn’t have veterinary certifications.
Quinn said she was sure the same instruments were used for both Christensen and the dog.
Ultimately, she wrote to McGinty that “I would not say to any degree of certainty there could not have been DNA transfer between items of evidence.”
In the sheriff’s office’s initial referral of charges to the Lewis County prosecutor, McGinty wrote: “While looking at the angle and exit wound in Buzzo, it matches the approximate height as the entry wound on Christensen’s body. With Christensen laying down at the time, it is possible for Asbach to have shot Buzzo, with the bullet exiting Buzzo and entering into Christensen. This could also explain the dog DNA found on the bullet removed from Christensen’s body.”
It’s apparently still not certain whether a single bullet hit both Buzzo and Christensen.
While the tort claim launches one legal case from members of the family, Christensen’s brother, Corey Christensen, a music teacher in Silverton, is receiving pro-bono legal representation from the Pacific Northwest-based law firm Lane Powell.
Attorney Pilar C. French said she offered Corey Christensen help “after reading news reports and personal social-media posts from so many members of the Portland community regarding the unbelievable twists and turns in Aron’s and Buzzo’s case.”
She did not say if Corey Christensen plans to file another lawsuit concerning the case. In an email to The Oregonian/OregonLive, French wrote:
“While (Leoni and Aron Christensen’s estate) focuses on the tort claim, we are counseling Corey on additional avenues he can pursue to ensure that the State of Washington has done everything within its means to ensure justice for Aron and Buzzo.”
Previous reporting by The Chronicle:
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.