The Lewis County Coroner’s Office is among the county agencies under fire for how the investigation into the August deaths of Aron Christensen, 49, of Portland and his puppy, Buzzo, were handled.
This month, the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office decided not to press felony charges against the primary suspect, Ethan M. Asbach, 20, of Tenino, who told deputies in August he “shot a dog” and subsequently found Christensen’s body with a bullet hole in his side.
In his letter formally declining the charges referred by the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office, Meyer cited mistakes made by the first-responding deputy, possible cross-contamination on the bullet recovered from Christensen’s torso and the differing results of the two necropsies done on Buzzo as possible contributing factors leading to the prosecutor’s office lacking the evidence needed to pursue charges.
With the case at a standstill and justice seemingly out of reach, public outcry has increased, with Lewis County residents bringing their frustrations to the Lewis County Board of Commissioners earlier this week and a protest planned on the steps of the state Capitol Sunday.
After representatives of the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office responded to questions and concerns about the case last week, the Lewis County Coroner’s Office arranged to sit down with Chronicle reporters on Tuesday to speak about their role in the investigation into Christensen’s death.
Role In The Investigation
Every death investigation in Lewis County is a joint investigation between the Lewis County Coroner’s Office and the law enforcement agency assigned to the incident, which in this case was the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office based on the location the bodies were found, according to Coroner Warren McLeod.
“We do basically corresponding investigations … Law enforcement is responsible for the scene. We’re responsible for the decedent,” McLeod said.
The Lewis County Coroner’s Office’s job is to determine the decedent’s cause and manner of death, McLeod said. All other investigative work is in the hands of law enforcement.
“They (law enforcement) are the ones responsible for collecting evidence to determine if there’s criminality … and then it goes to the prosecutor’s office to make that determination,” McLeod said.
In a typical death investigation, law enforcement officials begin their investigation of the scene and then call the Lewis County Coroner’s Office. When coroner’s office personnel arrive, they do a “precursory exam” at the scene and, if the death appears to be suspicious, the decedent is placed in a clean white sheet, their hands are bagged and they are placed into a black body bag before being transported to the Lewis County Coroner’s Office, McLeod said.
“It’s sealed, it’s photographed, so that any evidence that is found at autopsy can be determined it wasn’t added anywhere else,” McLeod said.
The Lewis County Coroner’s Office trains its staff to investigate every case as if it’s a homicide until proven otherwise, McLeod said.
“Every call we respond to is a homicide until we work and we prove it’s a suicide. Then we work and prove it’s an accidental (death). Then, when that’s done, you can treat it as a natural (death) because that way, you eliminate what’s called ‘cognitive bias,’” McLeod said.
An example of cognitive bias, McLeod said, is a dispatcher telling officers the death was reported as a suicide, “so by the time you get there, you can have yourself convinced it’s a suicide and actually easily dismiss red flags,” he said, later adding, “Cognitive bias is easy to happen to people, it really is.”
He said it is even easier for veteran responders to be trapped by cognitive bias, as they recall similarities in previous scenes.
Recovering The Bodies
While McLeod’s office approached the case with the view Christensen’s death was suspicious until proven otherwise, the typical wrapping procedure for suspicious cases wasn’t followed for Christensen because coroner staff weren’t able to make it up the trail to the scene where his body was found, McLeod said.
Lewis County Coroner’s Office personnel are not trained for search and rescue (SAR) operations, so for their safety, McLeod said, they stayed at the campground and waited for the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office team to bring the body.
“If you have anything involving the SAR team, search and rescue, those folks are highly trained and equipped,” McLeod said, referencing previous incidents where law enforcement had near-encounters with bears and other potentially dangerous wildlife.
“I don’t put my people in those situations,” McLeod said.
The first-responding Lewis County Sheriff’s Office deputy, a U.S. Forest Service officer, a Department of Fish and Wildlife officer and five campers ultimately “used sticks, ratchet straps and rope to make a makeshift basket to carry (Christensen) out of the trail,” according to the deputy’s report. Christensen, Buzzo and Christensen’s belongings were then wrapped up together in a tarp, placed in the basket and packed out to Walupt Lake Campground, where they arrived just before 11:50 p.m on Aug. 20 — nearly eight hours after law enforcement was dispatched to the scene.
“Aron came down wrapped in a tarp. My deputy left him wrapped in the tarp because you don’t want to start cutting ropes and, especially in the dark, you’re cutting ropes, you can lose trace evidence,” McLeod said.
The tarp and all of its contents were transported directly to the Lewis County Coroner’s office, according to McLeod.
Once coroner personnel opened the tarp and separated the contents, the items deemed to be evidence were turned over to the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office while Christensen was transported to Providence Centralia Hospital for X-rays.
Full-body X-rays aren’t done for every case the Lewis County Coroner’s Office handles, but in cases like Christensen’s where there’s an open wound with no obvious exit wound, “we take them over for an X-ray because the key is bullets and projectiles can move,” McLeod said.
Once the X-ray revealed a bullet was indeed lodged in Christensen’s torso, the coroner’s office brought in contracted forensic pathologist Dr. Megan Quinn to conduct an autopsy.
Quinn is one of three forensic pathologists the Lewis County Coroner’s Office has standing contracts with to conduct autopsies.
While Buzzo, technically, is classified as evidence and should have been turned over directly to the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office, because he had already been transported to the Lewis County Coroner’s Office in the tarp and hadn’t been picked up yet by the sheriff’s office, Quinn did a brief external exam of the dog before she conducted the autopsy on Christensen on Aug. 26 to determine a necropsy on Buzzo was needed, according to McLeod.
It was during that exam possible cross-contamination between Buzzo and the bullet recovered from Christensen’s body occurred, according to the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office and the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office.
When asked by a detective via email on Nov. 28 about the possibility of cross-contamination during her autopsy of Christensen and physical examination of Buzzo, Quinn said via email, “I would not say to any degree of certainty there could not have been DNA transfer between items of evidence.”
Quinn said she did switch her gloves between examinations, but “was sure the same instruments were used on the animal and Aron.” The techs and assistants there that day likely did not change their gloves and PPE between handling “any/all pieces of evidence,” including the two bodies, Quinn told a detective via email.
McLeod, however, claimed “there were no instruments” used during Buzzo’s exam at the coroner’s office, adding he confirmed that information with Quinn, who reportedly told McLeod “had she made a decision to use any instruments on the dog, it would have been a small metal probe, which has no place or use during an autopsy on a human.”
While Quinn herself changed her gloves between the exams, she said she was unsure whether the two technicians — one Lewis County Coroner’s Office employee who was present as a photographer and one technician from Quinn’s office — did the same.
The photographer, McLeod said, was only there to take photos and was not to touch any of the evidence.
McLeod himself was out of the office on vacation when the autopsy took place and said he could not personally confirm whether all proper procedures were followed.
“Dr. Quinn said she changed her gloves, that’s standard practice. She could not testify that other people did, in fact, change their gloves. I can’t because I wasn’t there, but it is standard practice,” he said.
Aside from Quinn and the two technicians, the only other person present in the room during the autopsy was a Lewis County Sheriff’s Office detective.
Standard practice when a projectile or other piece of evidence is removed from a body during an autopsy, McLeod said, is for the photographer to take photos of the object before the pathologist hands it to someone else in the room, usually a technician, and continues the autopsy.
“Then law enforcement takes custody of it right then and there,” McLeod said.
Buzzo was transported to the Thurston County Coroner's Office for X-rays.
Once the X-ray determined there was no bullet inside Buzzo, he was delivered to veterinarian Dr. Brandy Fay for a necropsy, which was completed at Fay’s practice, Newaukum Valley Veterinary Services, in September.
While the second necropsy was conducted at the Lewis County Coroner’s Office, the Portland-based veterinary specialist who conducted the necropsy was simply using that space and coroner personnel were not directly involved with the necropsy itself, according to McLeod.
Delay Of Autopsy Results
While Quinn conducted Christensen’s autopsy on Aug. 26, it was 60 days before her report detailing the cause was completed and delivered to the Lewis County Coroner’s Office.
The reason for that delay, McLeod said, is because Quinn determined during the autopsy that Christensen was suffering a major heart attack for at least 12 hours before his death, and so Quinn asked for additional forensic testing to determine whether Christensen was alive when the bullet entered his body.
“In retrospect, there are some cases where we're pending toxicology (test results) and it can take two months to get the toxicology back. So that 60 days is not outside the realm of normalcy, but we understand it's like, we released the cause and manner (of death) — gunshot wound to the chest, homicide — and people were like, ‘it took you 60 days to get that out?’” McLeod said.
The heart attack, described by McLeod as an acute myocardial infarction (MI), would likely have led to Christensen’s death, McLeod said, “But once you now have a projectile entered into the body at a high rate, which is a bullet, now that starts all sorts of physiological issues that exacerbates what was going on with the MI.”
The additional forensic testing, which involved looking at microanatomy of the tissue under a microscope, determined Christensen was alive when he was shot, according to McLeod.
Citing Quinn’s autopsy report, McLeod said Christensen was alive for two to four hours between when he was shot and when he died.
That timeframe contradicts the statements made by the primary suspect, 20-year-old Ethan M. Asbach of Tenino, and was not addressed in reports by Lewis County Sheriff’s Office detectives.
The bullet wound itself did not appear to be immediately fatal, McLeod said, “but there was an acute MI going on … and there was a delay in getting medical help, so those are all contributing factors.”
When a projectile such as a bullet is a contributing factor in a death, that death “falls under the heading of homicide,” McLeod said.
Homicide is defined as one person killing another person, but the ruling doesn’t necessarily mean there are criminal charges to be pursued.
“All murders are homicides but not all homicides are murders,” McLeod said, adding, “That falls on the prosecutor to make that decision based on the evidence.”
The Lewis County Coroner’s Office’s role in the investigation concluded as soon as Christensen’s cause and manner of death were determined, according to McLeod.
Communication With Christensen’s Family
When asked about the most-recent statement released by Christensen’s family, in which Christensen’s family said “the Lewis County Coroner’s Office met our very first calls with comments of ‘these are good kids, don’t be quick to judge,’” McLeod said former Deputy Coroner Dana M. Tucker told him she referred to the suspects as “the kids,” but “she did not remember saying ‘good kids.’”
Tucker left the Lewis County Coroner’s Office when she was elected coroner of Cowlitz County in November 2022.
“The family has also stated that they might have gotten those comments from the sheriff's office, too,” McLeod said. “What we have to remember is the family is going through the most difficult time of their lives, and I'm not saying that what they're saying is not true, but I did speak to a person and she said, ‘Yes, while talking to them, I referred to the suspects as the kids.’”
McLeod said he recently spoke to Christensen’s sister on the phone and acknowledged the comments.
“‘I understand your frustration,’ I said, ‘but as far as when you're talking to me,’ I said, ‘I will refer to them as the suspects.’ I said, ‘if and when they were arrested, I will refer to them as the defendants.’ I said, ‘and at the end, if there's a conviction,’ I said, ‘I will refer to them as convicts or inmates,’ and the sister appreciated that,” McLeod said.
When asked to respond to the family’s statement that “The Lewis County Sheriff’s Office, Coroner’s Office and the Prosecutor’s Office have shown our family the lowest level of integrity we have experienced in our lives,” McLeod said, “I don’t feel they’ve received less integrity,” adding he believed his recent conversation with Christensen’s sister was respectful and productive.
He added, “If they feel like they’ve been treated that way, then that’s on me because my name is on the door. I’m the elected coroner. And if anyone in this office made them feel that way, then I sincerely apologize.”
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 to file charges, visit https://bit.ly/43xVHkw.
To read a recent interview with Lewis County Sheriff's Office command staff, visit https://bit.ly/3oqW0gS.
To read about discussion of the case at a recent Lewis County commissioners meeting, visit https://bit.ly/41LseSo.
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.