Thursday, April 20 marks eight months to the day since the bodies of Aron Christensen, 49, of Portland, and his puppy, Buzzo, were discovered near the Walupt Lake Trail, a camping and hiking destination south of Packwood.
In the following days, Ethan M. Asbach, 20, of Tenino, told deputies with the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office he “shot a dog” and subsequently found Christensen and, according to public records, stated “I’m responsible, I pulled the trigger” of the gun later confirmed to have fired the bullet that killed Christensen.
Still, charges have not been filed.
The outcry from the public continues to grow over the case in protests and, according to Sheriff Rob Snaza, letters on the case from a variety of people “really not associated with (the case).” A protest on the steps of the state Capitol is slated for this Sunday.
This month, the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office decided not to press felony charges against Asbach. In a meeting with the family and prosecutor Jonathan Meyer, which a reporter with The Chronicle was present for, Meyer cited frustration with the sheriff’s office over the handling of the investigation. Deputies failed to treat the case like it was a homicide from the beginning, he said, which he added should be standard practice.
With that decision, the public frustration, whether directed at the suspect or toward various county offices, seems to have only grown. This week, it reached the Board of Lewis County Commissioners.
In a Monday morning meeting, Commissioner Lindsey Pollock had “citizens’ commission” added to the agenda. Recent conversations online and on The Chronicle’s opinion page have raised this concept, which would establish a citizen’s board for oversight of the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office.
“I know there’s some discussion out there in the public about consideration of a citizens’ commission … there was information about a particular citizens’ commission that is in place over in Spokane,” Pollock told her seatmates Monday. “Thought that was an interesting concept.”
She noted any talk about the board would “obviously” be “extraordinarily early” on in the process, but she wanted to get it on the radar of the other two commissioners. Commissioner Scott Brummer, who was elected at the time of Snaza’s re-election in November with both candidates endorsing one another, said one of his “concerns” with the commission concept is the sheriff is “an elected official and responsible to the people of Lewis County. There is already things in place that allow for complaints to move forward if there’s conduct issues and so forth.”
In Tuesday morning’s business meeting, three people proposed steps toward change in either the Christensen case or in the sheriff’s office overall. Kelsi Hamilton, a Chehalis School Board member and lifetime Lewis County resident, was the first among them.
“I am here today as a concerned citizen,” Hamilton said.
She started by stressing her support for law enforcement, their safety, dignity and respect, and said “I don’t know what I don’t know,” about the case.
Nonetheless, she said mistakes in the investigation have led to lost confidence in the sheriff’s office and added, “I’m sure the financial repercussions are not far behind.”
Hamilton encouraged the county to consider helping the sheriff’s office receive accreditation, which would help bring them in line with state and national standards for investigations.
According to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, while some will have to be re-accredited this year, there are 66 accredited law enforcement agencies in the state. Those include the Centralia and Chehalis police departments, which are both accredited through 2025. Just seven of the 66 — in Grays Harbor, Clallam, Mason, Spokane, Snohomish, Franklin and Kitsap counties — are sheriff’s offices.
“Let's restore the community's faith and confidence in our county law enforcement,” Hamilton said. “Iron sharpens iron. Let's set a standard and move forward as a county to do and be better.”
Beth Rohr, a Toledo resident who frequents county meetings and was a public supporter of both Brummer and Snaza on the campaign trail, instead focused on Meyer’s handling of the case and defended the sheriff’s office.
She said the prosecutor’s office was “biased against” the sheriff’s office. Rohr called for the creation of “a grand jury of 12 persons in the case of Aron Christensen.” The prosecutor’s office, she said, “appears to want” to speak “about the active investigation.”
She then claimed this was “causing the sheriff’s office to be tried in the court of public opinion … (where it has been) found guilty without due process or evidentiary support.”
Among separate comments she brought up, Lisa Striedinger, of Centralia, reprimanded Brummer for not entertaining the citizen’s commission concept more fully, calling for more “integrity and transparency” from the county’s elected officials.
During the press conference held at the end of Tuesday morning business meetings, The Chronicle asked which avenues Brummer was referring to when saying there are already adequate ways for the public to communicate with the sheriff’s office. He listed the state Attorney General’s Office, the U.S. Department of Justice and the already-existing civil service commission at the sheriff’s office.
That commission, according to previous news releases, is responsible for payroll, new candidate applications and conducting investigations and preparing reports. Whether those are on external or internal matters is not specified. According to meeting minutes, in February’s civil service commission meeting, five of the 11 attendees were members of the sheriff’s office command staff.
Commissioner Sean Swope said he greatly appreciated the public comment in front of the board during Tuesday’s meeting. He said the accreditation concept was new to him and he planned to investigate it further.
“Any time that we could get better in our profession, in our jobs, I think that is advantageous,” Swope said. “It’s the first time I heard about the grand jury piece of things. … That’s something I would want to speak with those two (the sheriff’s and the prosecutor’s) offices and get their perspective on. There’s no question this case is just a losing situation for everyone. It’s heartbreaking. I feel for the family. I feel for our community.”
He added the case is a “terrible situation” but said he wants “us to be very careful” not to “attack good people” over it.
He further stressed that he wouldn’t entertain defunding the sheriff’s office and that he supports the staff of the prosecutor and sheriff. He also said he supports the sheriff specifically.
The other two commissioners then chimed in to agree that they would not entertain “defunding the police.”
Asked if they would continue to entertain the citizens’ commission idea, Brummer said yes.
“Yesterday was not a ‘no.’ It was simply a discussion to start the hearing of ideas,” he said. “Commissioner Pollock had brought up the Spokane — and I’m not familiar with the citizens’ group that Spokane has. So, I'm certainly willing to listen.”
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.
To read a recent interview with Lewis County Sheriff's Office command staff, visit https://bit.ly/3oqW0gS