Ronda Reynolds is now a homicide victim and her husband Ron Reynolds and stepson Jonathan Reynolds are suspects in her death, according to a jury’s ruling Wednesday at the conclusion of Lewis County Coroner Warren McLeod’s groundbreaking inquest into the 33-year-old woman’s 1998 death,
Until now, authorities had always classified the Toledo woman’s death as suicide or undetermined.
However, a five-person jury unanimously ruled that Reynolds was shot and killed the morning she died of a gunshot wound to the head nine days before Christmas, then unanimously ruled that her husband and stepson were responsible.
Jurors gave no explanations for their verdicts, which were read by 4:30 p.m. after nearly 10 hours of deliberation. Bailiffs later escorted them out of the Lewis County Law and Justice Center and away from media.
McLeod is now expected to issue arrest warrants for both Ron Reynolds and Jonathan Reynolds. They could both be taken into custody today.
However, at the end of Wednesday, it was unclear whether the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office or the prosecuting attorney’s office knew exactly how to proceed in the unprecedented case.
Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer said it’s likely both men will be booked into jail and brought before a judge, but he’s unsure if charges will be filed. This is the first coroner’s inquest that he knows of, he said, where warrants were issued at its conclusion.
With plans of staying up all Wednesday night to pore over reams of evidence and search for clues that led jurors to their conclusion, Meyer said it’s possible charges won’t be filed and both Reynolds men are released.
“And that’s part of the difficulty of the situation — what happens then?” Meyer said.
Months ago when the inquest was announced, Sheriff Steve Mansfield said his office had already exhausted its investigation of Reynolds’ death and wouldn’t begin a new one unless new evidence was found.
The sheriff’s office did not comment or return calls about its course of action, pending the coroner’s arrest warrants.
Inside the courtroom, audible gasps quickly followed the reading of the first verdict.
Barb Thompson, mother of Ronda Reynolds, cried and hugged her attorney and Marty Hayes, an Onalaska firearms expert who in 2002 began helping her make the case for homicide, and embraced spectators in the seating area.
Thompson quickly left the courthouse and was later driven away; she returned within 15 minutes for the reading of the second verdict: the Reynolds suspects.
“I think they might both possibly been involved,” she said. “They haven’t arrested them, nothing’s been done, I really need to refrain from commenting on that right now.”
Thompson acknowledged that she’s named both Ron Reynolds, principal of Toledo Elementary School, and his third-oldest son Jonathan Reynolds as suspects in the case.
“What motives, how much time do you have?” Thompson said to a throng of reporters when asked why she thought the men were responsible for her daughter’s death. Extreme hatred, as she had testified during the inquest, “pretty much sums it up.”
Thompson said she was satisfied enough with the homicide verdict to move on with her life.
McLeod said he still has a couple of days to make a final ruling on Ronda Reynolds’ manner of death but he will be granting a great deal of deference to the jury’s ruling.
The jury, which included four women and one man, had also concluded that Reynolds died of a contact-gunshot wound to the right temple of her head.
Besides homicide, the jury had four other manners of death to consider: suicide, undetermined, natural and accidental.
At the time of Reynolds’ death, then-Lewis County Coroner Terry Wilson first ruled Reynolds’ manner of death undetermined before changing it later to suicide.
After Reynolds’ death on Dec. 16, 1998, the manner changed over the years to undetermined and back to suicide as the sheriff’s office and state Attorney General’s office re-opened and investigated the case.
Thompson took the coroner’s office to court for its final ruling, an unprecedented civil hearing in November 2009 in which a jury ruled Wilson had been “arbitrary and capricious” when he ruled Reynolds’ manner of death a suicide. A superior court judge ordered Wilson to review the case again, but he appealed.
McLeod took office in January and ruled Reynolds’ manner of death undetermined to open the door for the inquest.
Authorities say this inquest was the first to take place in Lewis County in the past 50 years.
Ron Reynolds and his three sons, who lived with him and Ronda — David, Joshua and Jonathan — did not testify at the inquest, citing their Fifth Amendment rights to avoid possible self-incrimination as witnesses.
The Reynolds were 47, 10, 14 and 17, respectively, when Ronda died.
While the sheriff’s office defended its ruling of suicide after its investigation, many witnesses laid out reasons for why they thought the case was homicide:
Ron Reynolds claims he had stayed up all night with his wife because she was suicidal but he fell asleep with in bed her at 5 a.m.; an alarm clock woke him up an hour later and she was dead.
Many cast doubt on how Ron Reynolds had not heard a gunshot yet an alarm clock woke him up.
Ronda Reynolds’ body already had lividity — a pooling of the blood due to gravity — and rigor mortis set in when first responders found her — conditions that take hours.
However, other witnesses say her body had experienced cadaveric spasms — not rigor mortis — before the suicidal gunshot and that an electric blanket found on her could have contributed to the speed of lividity setting in.
Other pieces of evidence that were never clear were whether Reynolds had a pillow or a blanket placed on her head when she died and if the revolver used was found in her left hand, right hand or between both hands.
During the inquest sheriff’s office admitted to initially flubbing the investigation when it failed to take photographs before the handgun was removed from the scene.
Later, photographs and the handgun disappeared from the evidence room.
Jonathan Reynolds and Ronda Reynolds, who had been married to Ron for less than a year, had a testy relationship before she died. Thompson testified that her daughter had once been threatened by Jonathan after he had kicked one of her puppies and that he may have always sought revenge after she put him in a submission hold when she caught him peaking in at her while she took a shower.
Reynolds was a trooper with the Washington State Patrol up till 1994.
For much of the inquest’s seven days of testimony, plenty of unflattering glimpses into Reynolds’ life had been brought to light. Reynolds left the State Patrol after she was discovered cashing $12,000 in disability checks while remaining on the payroll; in 1997 she was convicted for theft after cashing fraudulent personal checks; and her first husband Mark Liburdi testified that financial ruin had largely led to the collapse of their marriage.
Other witnesses said Ronda Reynolds had also been responsible for racking up $25,000 in charges to Ron Reynolds’ credit cards. On the night before she died, the two had reportedly planned to amicably separate and Ronda was due to fly to her mother’s in Spokane for a few days.
A friend of Ronda’s, Dave Bell, now a patrol sergeant with the Des Moines police, said he had helped Ronda pack the night before she died and it was apparent she had many boxes of her belongings already packaged up and ready to be moved.
While packing, Ronda handed him a loaded .32-caliber revolver that was Ron Reynolds’ father’s. Bell said he unloaded the handgun, advising there was no need to take it with her, before putting it back in its holster and stowing it away in a drawer next to the bed.
Ronda wanted to stay that night with Bell, but he had advised against it since he had young children at home and offered to take her to a motel.
Earlier that evening, Ron Reynolds told investigators he had spent 84 minutes on his cell phone talking his wife out of suicide after they agreed to separate. He then had dinner at a hamburger joint before catching a Christmas school play in Toledo.
When Bell brought Ronda home Ron was arriving home at about the same time.
Ron later said that he and Ronda had both slept in bed together, but it appeared to investigators as if it had been slept in on only one side.
On Wednesday, the jury also determined that Ronda Reynolds died sometime between 1 and 5 a.m. in December 1998.
In 2010, true crime-author Ann Rule brought Reynolds’ death to national attention with her publication of “In the Still of the Night: The Strange Death of Ronda Reynolds and Her Mother’s Unceasing Quest for the Truth.”
Although Rule did not attend the inquest this week, she said she was relieved by the verdict.
“I think Jonathan was probably the shooter,” Rule said.