The Lewis County prosecutor concluded there’s not enough evidence to bring felony manslaughter charges against the chief suspect in the fatal shooting of Portland musician Aron Christiansen and his puppy Buzzo on the Walupt Lake Trail last fall, the prosecutor’s office said Monday.
Ethan Asbach, 20, admitted he fired a gun on Aug. 19, 2022, in the area where the bodies of Christensen and his dog were later found, and forensic evidence links the bullet that killed Christensen to Asbach’s gun, according to the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office investigation.
But the evidence doesn’t meet the threshold for proving criminal recklessness or criminal negligence, county prosecutor Jonathan Meyer told The Oregonian/OregonLive on Monday.
Corey Christensen, Aron’s brother, said the prosecutor cited incompetence by the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office as a key reason he won’t pursue the manslaughter and animal-cruelty charges. Corey Christensen said he and other family members met with Meyer on Monday morning because the prosecutor wanted news of the long-awaited decision to come directly from his office.
Meyer told The Oregonian/OregonLive that his office is considering other potential charges related to Asbach’s possession of a firearm and leaving the scene of the shooting without calling authorities. Those charges would be misdemeanors.
“I wanted to give them the opportunity to basically hear straight from me and answer any questions that they may have,” Meyer told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “I feel horrible for what they’ve been through, and I can only imagine their frustration.”
Corey Christensen said the family was not surprised by the decision.
“I wasn’t holding my breath,” he said. “We were half-expecting this, but it would’ve been nice to find out I was wrong. "
Available records – including incident reports, 911 calls, interviews conducted by detectives and autopsy and necropsy results – reveal a police investigation marked by disastrous errors, indecision and delays almost from the moment law enforcement arrived on the Walupt Lake Trail last Aug. 20.
Christensen was on an annual camping trip with a group of friends from Portland and planned a solo hike with his dog on the out-and-back trail. The experienced outdoorsman, who grew up in Klamath Falls, never returned.
The first deputy on the scene determined that Christensen’s death was “not suspicious,” surmising he’d been poked by a tree branch rather than shot. The deputy didn’t call for detectives to investigate the scene, meaning the usual collection of evidence did not occur.
The medical examiner eventually determined Christensen died of a homicidal gunshot wound to the chest.
Meyer said he told the sheriff’s office he was unhappy with how the investigation was initially handled.
“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 said. “It’s hard to say… All I know is, with the evidence we have now, there’s not enough to go forward.”
The Lewis County Sheriff’s Office has not responded to a request for comment about the prosecutor’s decision.
The mistakes by the deputy at the scene were the first of many in the investigation.
Aron Christensen’s initial autopsy further threw the case off-course. The forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsy suggested that Christensen was having a heart attack before he was shot. And the pathologist later couldn’t say whether there had been cross-contamination between Christensen and his dog during the autopsy process.
The prosecuting attorney’s office reviewed the investigation for more than two months, including calling doctors who performed the autopsies to ask follow-up questions.
According to police reports, Asbach and his girlfriend found Christensen’s body after he fired a gun on Aug 19, 2022, but they did not immediately report it. His father, Michael Asbach, called 911 two days later, on Aug. 21, saying there’d been “incident” in which his son fired in the woods and “there was a man dead there.”
When interviewed by detectives, Ethan Asbach admitted he was in the area where Christensen and Buzzo died on Aug. 19, and had fired a gun in the dark. He told detectives he heard what he thought was a wild animal growling. Asbach and his 17-year-old girlfriend were hiking through the area to meet his father on a bear-hunting trip in the Cascade Mountains.
The delays in the investigation and charging decision led Corey Christensen and some of Aron Christensen’s friends to question the small-town connections between the sheriff’s office, local politicians and Ethan Asbach’s family.
Corey Christensen said one Lewis County investigator told him that Asbach “was a good kid from a good family.”
Meyer asserts there were no close relationships that played a part in the case’s outcome.
“We’ve seen no evidence of that,” Meyer said.
A Shot in the Dark
Ethan Asbach and his 17-year-old girlfriend, identified in police and court records only by her initials “KB” since she’s a minor, told detectives in an interview a few days after Christensen’s death that they were walking along a trail at night on Aug. 19 to meet with Ethan’s father, Michael Asbach, at a hunting camp.
They said they only had headlamps as they hiked along the trail in the dark.
When they crossed a dry riverbed, KB said she first heard an animal growling and thought it might be a cougar. She said Asbach heard it, too. Then they saw eyes glowing, but couldn’t make out what kind of animal it was.
Afraid, they started making loud noises to scare the animal. When the growling continued, Asbach told a detective that he removed a pistol from his backpack that his father had told him to bring to camp.
He said he loaded the gun and fired one round at the animal. KB said there was a loud howl and then silence.
After waiting for “some time,” Asbach said he went to check on the animal, and found a man as well as a dog on the ground. He walked back to KB, told her what he found and said he believed he’d just shot the man and his dog.
KB told investigators the pair then stayed back and “didn’t touch anything.”
In a different interview, KB’s account changed somewhat. She said she also walked forward and confirmed there was a dead man on his back with an arm over his head. She said the man appeared to have already been “dead, dead.” Asbach told a deputy the man looked blue.
In one of the reports, the deputy who interviewed Asbach said the 20-year-old was “very upset while providing this statement.” Asbach, who graduated from Tenino High School and worked for his step-grandfather at a Honda dealership in Olympia, said he was responsible because he pulled the trigger, but he didn’t know there was anybody in the dark and believed he’d shot a wild animal.
The pair said they decided to continue to hike to Asbach’s father’s camp, but they got lost and camped for the night. They ended up going back to Tenino.
Michael Asbach later sent a Facebook message to Corey Christensen after news reports about Aron Christensen’s death included Ethan Asbach’s name.
He wrote to Corey Christensen, “I definitely know what happened to him. If you would like to meet up I can fill you in on details. I’m very sorry for your losses.” He included a phone number.
Corey Christensen said he never replied to the Facebook message or called Michael Asbach.
Michael Asbach told investigators he sent the message because Christensen’s family and friends were “posting horrible things about his child.”
A Botched Investigation
The mistakes and miscalculations that complicated Meyer’s decision whether to charge Ethan Asbach started when Lewis County sheriff’s deputy Andrew Scrivner arrived at the homicide scene on Aug. 20, a few hours after a pair of hikers who’d spotted Christensen’s body sent an SOS signal to 911 dispatch.
Scrivner wrote in his report that he found a “primitive campsite” in a small, flat area with several large logs.
Christensen was lying on his back on the ground near a dried-out creek bed, with a hiking backpack under his head “as a pillow” and a blanket underneath him, Scrivner wrote.
The deputy said it looked like Christensen was sleeping on his side with an arm resting above his head. He noticed some vomit in the dead man’s beard and a “small amount of blood” on his shirt and the blanket. Scrivner said he found a “puncture wound” on Christensen’s left side near his rib cage, and he thought it might be a “tree limb or stick that may have protruded into his body.”
He sent a message to dispatch at 7:45 p.m. “NOT GUNSHOT.”
The deputy told dispatch he didn’t need a detective or more units because the death wasn’t suspicious.
Hours later, officers and Aron Christensen’s friends carried his body down the mountain.
A detective wasn’t assigned to the case until the next day, when Ethan Asbach’s father called to report the shooting.
An Oct. 26 autopsy determined he died of a gunshot wound to the chest. Dr. Megan Quinn, the pathologist at Pacific NW Forensic Pathology, determined he was shot by another person. But the autopsy raised as many questions as it answered, confusing detectives and slowing the investigation.
Quinn, noting hemothorax – a collection of blood in the chest cavity typically caused by trauma – suspected that Christensen had a heart attack the day he died, and that was why he was lying down before he was shot.
In her autopsy report, Quinn wrote that she believed Christensen likely had been having a heart attack for “several hours” before he was shot. She wrote that the bullet in Christensen’s chest wouldn’t have been a fatal injury “in and of itself,” that the bullet did not strike “vital structures.”
Quinn later backtracked, explaining that untreated, this type of gunshot injury eventually would cause death.
Traces of THC had been found in Christensen’s system. A detective suggested to Corey Christensen a few days after the shooting that his brother could’ve died from laced marijuana.
Another odd finding: Canine DNA was detected in Christensen’s bullet wound.
In later 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 – who had no veterinary certifications – examined Christensen and Buzzo.
She 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.”
Meanwhile, a forensic scientist determined that the bullet recovered from Christensen’s body matched Asbach’s firearm.
In the initial referral of charges, 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.
After nearly eight months of grief and frustration and waiting, Corey Christensen said he is still processing Meyer’s decision.
“I’m kind of in a moment of shock right now,” he said.
Expecting this decision, he’d recently reached out to the Washington governor’s office, the FBI, state representatives in Washington and Oregon and the U.S. Department of Justice about his brother’s case.
“Everyone says their hands are tied and there’s nothing they can do,” he said. “It shows that there is a great ineffectiveness of the overall justice system in this country. Hopefully, eventually, karma and truth and justice will prevail.”