Thurston County man found dead was thought to be a hit-and-run victim, but he wasn't, police say


One night in mid-August 2023, Tumwater police were dispatched to a report of a man found dead on North Seventh Avenue near Desoto Street Southwest.

They quickly determined he did not die of natural causes and began to investigate, taking pictures and investigating witnesses, including other drivers who had stopped at the scene. They later called on the public to help supply information about what initially appeared to be a hit-and-run crime.

The Thurston County Coroner's Office identified the man as Sean O'Leary, 50, a longtime resident and drummer who was well-known in the local music community.

And then the case fell silent as the investigation proceeded.

So what did police determine about this case? The Olympian finally inquired about the outcome and requested the completed investigation, which shows that O'Leary, who was lying in the street at the time, was inadvertently run over by someone who had stopped and called 911 about what they had seen in the street.

The incident

About 9:30 p.m. Aug. 15, a 28-year-old Tumwater man was headed home in his SUV on north Seventh Avenue, while a Ford F-150 Raptor truck and a vehicle behind it, were headed in the opposite direction, according to the Tumwater police report.

The man said the truck had bright headlights and when he saw it slow, he also slowed down. He was hugging the right side of the road because it was hard to see, he told police.

"When the truck passed him, and he could see the road more clearly, he saw a body lying in the road," the report reads. "All three of them stopped and got out of their vehicles."

Police also interviewed the 26-year-old Tumwater man driving the Ford truck.

He said he saw something in the middle of the road and tried to swerve to avoid it, thinking at first that it was a pallet in the road.

"After passing, he looked in his mirror and saw what looked like an arm," the report reads. "He put his vehicle in park and saw that other people were stopped and getting out of their vehicles."

Police still aren't sure how O'Leary wound up lying in the road. However, those who knew him told police at the scene he had been drinking most of the day, a fact confirmed by toxicology results included in the report. O'Leary had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.285.

The investigation

As part of the investigation, police sent O'Leary's white t-shirt, which had tire marks on it, to the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab and to a person who specializes in working with tire impressions and tread marks. Those tires were later identified as Toyo Open Country R/T tires, the same tires on the Ford truck that had stopped that night.

Police also learned that the Ford Raptor truck was designed for "rock crawling, driving on sand dunes and riding smoothly over potholes and bumps with ease," the report reads. Police concluded that "it is highly likely that (the 26-year-old Tumwater man) would not have noticed running over O'Leary while he was lying in the roadway."

Police shared their findings with the Tumwater man and he "appeared shocked," the report reads. "He stated that he did not know that he ran over O'Leary and would have said something then if he had known."

Police later contacted O'Leary's parents on Oct. 6, 2023, and explained five days later in person that "it was determined to be an accident and no criminal charges would be sent to the prosecutor."

The O'Learys

"It is without a doubt the most tragic situation to happen to our family," said Daniel O'Leary to The Olympian about his son's death.

And although he and his wife, Marie, don't want to point their fingers at Tumwater police, they expressed their frustrations about the case, saying they feel there are unanswered questions and that they do not have a sense of closure.

They also think that because of their son's blood alcohol level it has given investigators "an out" not to pursue it any further. The O'Learys have consulted with criminal attorneys who didn't feel they had a very strong case, they said.

Daniel, too, said he has ridden in a truck similar to the Ford Raptor and he felt every nick, every crease in the road.

"You would know the damn difference," he said.

But he did praise the Coroner's Office for regularly staying in touch with them and local family court for helping them establish guardianship of their son's youngest son.

Tumwater Police Lt. Jen Kolb acknowledged it was a tragic situation.

"It was absolutely unfortunate and I feel horrible for everybody involved," she said.

Sean O'Leary was born in Ellensburg on June 1, 1973, and eight days later moved with his parents to Olympia. He attended Olympia High School and later worked for Trader Joe's and was managing an area Safeway store when he died, his parents said. He also was a single parent, a devoted father raising two sons, one of whom had recently entered university.

But perhaps he was best known for playing the drums and being part of the Olympia music scene. After he died, the music community raised $10,000 for his son, they said.

He was well known, outgoing and a caring person, someone who participated in music and benefits for other people, they said. They celebrated his life at South Sound Manor in Tumwater toward the end of October.

"Every day is a journey," said Daniel O'Leary.


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