The right and the duty to seek justice is outlined in nearly all texts informing government and spirituality. It is a core of human nature.
While records related to the investigation into the 2022 deaths of a Portland hiker and his dog in East Lewis County continue coming to light, frustration grows among the public, friends and family of the victim, and agencies as no one has yet been officially held responsible.
Aron Christensen, 49, of Portland, and his 4-month-old blue heeler puppy, Buzzo, were along a trail near Walupt Lake south of Packwood when they were found on Aug. 20, 2022 by witnesses.
One day later, a bullet was found in Christensen during X-rays. In the following months, the dog was found to have a passthrough wound consistent with a 9 mm bullet, according to an expert in animal cruelty investigations, Dr. Kris Otteman.
The bullet inside Christensen matched the gun reportedly used by Ethan M. Asbach, 20, of Tenino, who told the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office in a statement, “I did that sh-t, like I was the one that had the gun. I pulled the trigger, I did that, I’m responsible for that.”
According to Asbach and his girlfriend (as she is identified in several documents about the case), who was reportedly 16 at the time of the incident, they were hiking late at night when they heard growling they thought was coming from an animal, made one shot in the dark and later found both Buzzo and Christensen. Both, they claimed, were dead upon discovery. Because she’s a minor, the girl’s name is redacted in case documents.
But, despite the bullet wounds in both bodies, a weapon and a statement from Asbach, charges of manslaughter and animal cruelty referred by the sheriff’s office were declined by the Lewis County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for the second time earlier this month. This week, Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer penned a letter to the sheriff’s office explaining the decision.
Meyer cites the initial sheriff’s office response as “problematic” and an “obvious error.”
In short, according to case records, when Lewis County Sheriff’s Office deputy Andrew Scrivner arrived at the scene on Aug. 20, 2022, he made the call to move both bodies after believing Christensen was not shot.
“The old adage of ‘investigate it like it’s a homicide until it isn’t’ was not followed here,” Meyer wrote.
After his arrival at the scene, Scrivner also called off back-up, including a detective who had already arrived at the campground where the trail began, more than a two-hour drive from the sheriff’s office in Chehalis.
Meyer states that Scrivner’s “error” was “compounded” by his immediate supervisor “endorsing” the idea to move the bodies.
“It is impossible to tell what, if any, additional evidence would have been obtained had detectives responded and been allowed to investigate this matter, properly, from the beginning,” Meyer wrote. “Unfortunately, the friends/family of Mr. Christensen will never know either.”
In a recent interview with The Chronicle, Lewis County Sheriff Rob Snaza claimed he was “nearly 100%” certain the outcome of the case would not have changed if the scene had been treated as a homicide case from the start.
Snaza said in a followup interview this week, “(With) the decline letter, I have a little frustration because I felt that our staff — I mean, other than the initial response — the deputy at the scene scanned the area for any and all evidence that may be visible around Mr. Christensen … we were up there multiple times. I just feel strongly that we would be where we’re at today.”
Meyer’s letter, however, lists the initial response as just one in a long list of complaints about the investigation and how it was handled, both in and outside of the sheriff’s office. In a recorded interview provided by Meyer where he spoke with Dr. Megan Quinn, the forensic pathologist who examined Christensen, Quinn implies the sheriff’s office was hoping her evaluation would align with the suspect’s statement.
“She described being given a narrative by the sheriff’s office and a belief there was a wish for her findings to fit that narrative,” Meyer wrote.
According to Quinn’s evaluation, Christensen had been experiencing an acute myocardial infarction, a heart attack, for approximately 6 to 12 hours prior to his death. She said this was clear to her both on visual and microscopic evaluation. Quinn also said it’s possible the growling sound was coming from Christensen suffering from a heart attack. However, she determined the bullet found inside him caused his death.
Asked by Meyer if someone could reasonably function while experiencing this kind of heart attack, Quinn said it varies greatly between patients.
“We had a gentleman just the other day having an ongoing myocardial infarction and he’s driving down I-5 with his wife,” Quinn said. “Certainly, (on occasion) people can function in the context of having a large ischemic event involving the heart.”
With these factors and the pathologist’s determination that the bullet did kill Christensen, Meyer said the heart attack was not a factor in the decision not to pursue the manslaughter charge.
“To us, it doesn’t matter that he was having a heart attack. Obviously, we would look at the case differently if he had died of a heart attack before he was shot,” Meyer told The Chronicle this week. “It does not matter — he was alive when he was shot. We know that.”
Taking the heart attack “out of it” Meyer asked if the bullet wound alone was survivable.
Quinn said, “Yes.”
Absent the bullet wound, Meyer asked Quinn if Christensen could have survived the heart attack. She said she couldn’t answer definitively, but outside a “hostile environment,” in this case, a bullet, the “disease would otherwise potentially have been survivable.”
In her interview with Meyer, Quinn said it was her opinion that Christensen was alive for a range of “minutes to hours” after being shot and called it “unlikely that it was just a few minutes. Because, for there to be enough time for the body, for there to be an inflammatory response to that injury, is just much more consistent with minutes to hours.”
In Asbach’s sworn statement, he said he waited “maybe like two, two minutes” between firing the shot and approaching the bodies. When he got there, according to his sworn statement, “I tried (to) listen like look for a breath or, or a, he was somewhat close, like close to being alive or something and this guy looked so dead. … like he had no life in him.”
More than once, Asbach and his 16-year-old girlfriend refer to Christensen as being “blue” when they saw his body.
Quinn said Christensen was neither blue in the photos from the scene nor when she was examining his body.
Because the statements of Quinn and Asbach seem to contradict one another on the length of time Christensen was alive after being shot, The Chronicle asked Snaza to address the issue, and he responded, “There was no indication throughout investigation or statements obtained by anybody including the female that Mr. Christensen was alive (when Asbach approached him).”
Minutes later, though, Snaza said if Asbach did make the choice to leave a dying man on the side of the trail and not seek medical attention, that, to him, would be all the more reason the prosecutor’s office should pursue the manslaughter charge.
If not reckless manslaughter, Snaza said he felt Asbach should at least be charged with “negligent” manslaughter.
“I’m not a prosecutor, but wouldn’t it be negligent? When you know you possibly killed somebody, by accident — maybe by accident — but you fail to try to get help? To me, that’s wrong.”
In his letter, Meyer wrote there wasn’t enough evidence to show Asbach was aware of “substantial” risk at the time the shot was fired. He stated the substantial known risk was necessary for both negligent or reckless manslaughter charges.
“There is risk any time a firearm is used. However, in the setting where this occurred, it cannot be proven known or should have been known that the risk was substantial,” Meyer wrote.
Outside the control of the sheriff’s office’s duties in the investigation, Meyer also called the first of two necropsies performed on Buzzo “problematic.” Between the two, there were “stark” differences, he said.
Further, Meyer cites possible cross-contamination between instruments used on Buzzo and Christensen’s evaluations. With this being even a possibility, he states any conclusions drawn from DNA on the bullet “are at best, of questionable reality.”
“Did any of this impact the ultimate decision of this office? Frankly, it is hard to say. Certainly, had the suspect, or his girlfriend, contacted law enforcement in a timely fashion the scene would have been much more ‘fresh’ for investigation by detectives. However, that did not occur,” Meyer wrote. “Had detectives originally responded to the scene, additional evidence may have been discovered. Had the coroner’s office gone to the scene to conduct their investigation, additional evidence may have been discovered. However, none of these things happened. As a result, we can only speculate about what might have been. This office must base its decision on the evidence we have and the law.”
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.
For a recent interview with the Lewis County coroner focused on the cases, visit https://bit.ly/3H5lmaq.
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.