Lewis County officials declined to comment this week on a pending $20 million legal claim submitted by the estate of Aron Christensen that is the likely precursor to a lawsuit.
Christensen’s family claims the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office “maliciously damaged the estate’s property, one deceased puppy, in order to sabotage a criminal investigation,” according to the tort claim form prepared by the Christensen estate’s attorney, Lorenzo R. Leoni, of Morgan Hill Law Office in Olympia.
The allegations in the claim stem from the fact that the two necropsies on Christensen’s deceased puppy, Buzzo — one performed by local veterinarian Dr. Brandy Fay in September and one performed by forensic veterinary specialist Dr. Kris Otteman in November — resulted in vastly different determinations on Buzzo’s cause of death.
Key differences in their findings included a broken rib in Buzzo’s torso and an exit wound on Buzzo’s right side, both of which were found during Otteman’s autopsy but not during Fay’s.
Fay had determined Buzzo died of a single stab wound to the torso, while Otteman determined Buzzo died of a pass-through bullet wound.
Otteman’s findings more strongly supported the primary suspect’s narrative of the incident than Fay’s findings did.
Fay regained custody of Buzzo’s body in April, after Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer declined to file charges in the case, and had tissue sent to an independent lab for testing.
The results of that testing “strongly suggest” the exit wound occurred post-mortem, after Buzzo was dead, according to previous Chronicle reporting.
The lawsuit accuses the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office, which had custody of Buzzo’s body between the two necropsies, of creating that exit wound and, in doing so, sabotaging the investigation into Christensen’s and Buzzo’s deaths.
Leoni signed the tort claim on May 8 and it was subsequently mailed to Lewis County Risk Management.
Should Christensen’s estate and Lewis County be unable to resolve the conflict amongst themselves within 60 days of that mailing, the tort claim will likely be filed in U.S. District Court, according to Leoni.
The Chronicle reached out to multiple Lewis County officials, including Sheriff Rob Snaza, Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer, Coroner Warren McLeod and Chair of County Commissioners Sean Swope, for comment this week after the lawsuit was first reported on by Oregon Public Broadcasting on Friday, May 19.
McLeod and Swope responded to The Chronicle’s inquiry to say they could not comment on pending litigation.
The Chronicle did not receive a response from the other officials a reporter contacted.
It’s not uncommon for government officials to decline to comment on matters regarding pending litigation.
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.