Two suspects have been arrested on second-degree murder charges connected to human remains found in the trunk of a burned vehicle in Randle in April.
“The investigation is ongoing and additional arrests are possible,” the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office stated Thursday.
The victim had not been identified as of Thursday afternoon but is believed to be a 25- to 30-year-old Hispanic male who was a suspect in a narcotics distribution investigation.
Documents filed in Thurston County Superior Court on Monday, July 17 state the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office received a call from the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on April 10.
During that call, the DEA, which was working on a case with the Tahoma Narcotics Enforcement Team (TNET), asked the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office to have a deputy search for a blue 2007 Honda Civic related to a suspected narcotics distributor detectives were tracking, according to court documents.
TNET’s last signal from the tracker on the vehicle, showing the vehicle on North Forest Road 25 south of Randle, came through at 8:10 a.m. on April 9, according to court documents.
Deputies searched for the vehicle on April 10 but “they were unable to locate it,” according to court documents.
A couple days later, on April 12, the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office received “a call from a citizen who had been out collecting firewood” near Forest Road 25 and found “what appeared to be a burned-up vehicle,” according to court documents.
A deputy responded and noted the vehicle was on Forest Road 2504, a dirt road south of Forest Road 25, about half a mile away from the intersection between the two roads.
The deputy noted the vehicle was “heavily damaged by fire” but the license plate was legible enough to confirm it was the same Honda Civic TNET was tracking.
Deputies did not locate the human remains on April 12. A driver sent to impound the vehicle on April 13 located the human remains inside the trunk of the vehicle and called law enforcement back to investigate, as was previously reported by The Chronicle.
The Lewis County Coroner’s Office assumed custody of the body, and cross-referenced the remains with nearby missing men, documents state. Detectives indicated the body was “significantly burned.” The chief medical examiner for Snohomish County performed an autopsy and “at least two gunshot wounds were discovered in the victim,” according to court documents.
Meanwhile, the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office began its investigation.
A search of the vehicle yielded a .380 caliber bullet casing on the front passenger seat and what appeared to be a bullet hole in the lower portion of the driver’s side door.
Detectives noted the hole was below the door handle and the metal of the door was bent outwards around the hole, indicating “the projectile, which caused the hole, likely was fired inside the vehicle and exited the vehicle through the driver’s door,” according to court documents.
The location of the casing and the “extreme downward trajectory of the projectile hole” indicate “the projectile, which caused it, had been fired from the passenger side of the vehicle and the firearm was more likely than not fired from inside the vehicle,” according to court documents.
Working with TNET, the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office tracked the vehicle’s location between April 8 and April 10. Surveillance footage showed the vehicle at Lacey gas station at approximately 12:23 a.m. on April 8, at which time it had two occupants: an unidentified white male and a 25 to 30-year-old Hispanic man, who TNET identified as the target of the investigation and later as the deceased man inside the car.
The vehicle was next seen at an address at Ivan Way Southwest in Rochester at approximately 12:58 a.m. and stayed at the address for about 40 minutes, which TNET detectives noted “was an outlier” compared to the majority of addresses the car stopped at for narcotics deals, according to court documents.
The vehicle’s next stop “for more than any short period of time” was at an address on Old Highway 99 in Rochester. The vehicle remained at that address for approximately 26 hours before leaving the property at 4:43 a.m. on April 9.
Surveillance footage from the vehicle’s next stop, in Roy at approximately 5:51 a.m. on April 9, showed “the vehicle being towed on top of a flatbed truck,” according to court documents.
Unlike surveillance footage from April 8, the April 9 footage showed the victim’s vehicle “now had a noticeable defect in the lower driver’s side door” that a detective noted “was in the exact location” Lewis County detectives had located the suspected bullet hole in the victim’s vehicle, according to court documents.
Tracking data and surveillance footage indicate the tow truck took the vehicle from Roy to Randle through Elbe.
Surveillance footage reportedly shows the tow truck with the vehicle turned onto Cispus Road, which connects to Forest Road 25, at approximately 8:05 a.m. on April 9.
The tow truck was next seen without the vehicle at a Randle gas station at approximately 9:40 a.m. on April 9.
At this point in the investigation, Lewis County Sheriff’s Office deputies reportedly “believed the homicide occurred in the Grand Mound area of Thurston County” and turned the case over to the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office to investigate on April 20, according to a news release the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office published Thursday afternoon.
“Over the next several months, detectives with the sheriff’s office and the Thurston County Narcotics Task Force executed search warrants, gathered evidence and interviewed numerous people,” according to the news release.
As a result of that investigation, detectives determined two males, identified as Melville Darche Tangen, 44, and Jason Butterton, 38, of Chehalis, and a female had allegedly planned to rob the victim, who was Tangen’s narcotics distributor, when he stopped by the subjects’ Rochester residence on April 8, according to court documents. Butterton allegedly had a 9mm pistol on him at the time, while Tangen allegedly had a .380 caliber firearm.
The female told law enforcement she was in her room during the robbery and heard “several gunshots.” Soon after, she said Butterton arrived in her room and told her “they needed to leave,” court documents state. Five rounds were missing out of the 9mm pistol when the female checked it after the incident, she reported.
The three then reportedly took the vehicle to a friend, who has been identified as the tow truck driver, and paid him in narcotics to “tow the vehicle and burn it,” according to court documents. The tow truck driver told law enforcement Tangen “made it clear no one was to look in the trunk of the vehicle.”
Tangen was booked into the Thurston County Jail on an unrelated case in May and was still in custody when he was arrested for second-degree murder on July 14, according to jail records.
When interviewed by law enforcement, Tangen allegedly admitted to buying drugs from “the cartel;” living at the Rochester address around the time of the murder; and to being armed “at times” while buying narcotics.
He “denied being involved in a homicide or seeing Jason (Butterton) commit a homicide,” documents state.
Tangen was formally charged with one count of second-degree murder on Monday, July 17. He was in custody at the Thurston County Jail on a no-bail hold as of Thursday afternoon and is scheduled to have an arraignment hearing in Thurston County Superior Court on Aug. 1.
Butterton was arrested following a high speed pursuit in downtown Centralia on Wednesday.
Detectives with the Joint Narcotics Enforcement Team (JNET) and the Thurston County Narcotics Task Force reportedly “spotted” Butterton near the intersection of Gold and Floral streets just before 1:45 p.m. on July 19, according to the Centralia Police Department’s call log. “After observing the wanted fugitive drive past their location, detectives followed the white Honda and alerted patrol,” Centralia police stated.
Patrol officers located the suspect and attempted to stop him but he fled, leading officers on a high speed chase eastbound on Salzer Valley Road with speeds reaching over 80 mph, according to Centralia police. An officer ultimately utilized a PIT maneuver, which stopped the vehicle, and the suspect was taken into custody “without further incident,” according to the Centralia Police Department.
Butterton was turned over to Thurston County law enforcement and was booked into the Thurston County Jail on July 19.
A preliminary hearing for first-degree robbery and second-degree murder charges was scheduled for 3 p.m. on Thursday in Thurston County Superior Court, but Butterton declined to appear, citing illness.
A judge set the hearing over to Friday, July 21. Butterton will be held without bail in the meantime, a judge ruled.
Separate charges against Butterton for attempting to elude law enforcement will be referred to the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office for review, according to the Centralia Police Department.