Tina Thode’s body was discovered on July 29, at the edge of the Skookumchuck River, east of a pasture off West Reynolds and Tower Avenue in Centralia, two days after an hours long search when she called 911 to say she was lost. / Google maps
By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
CENTRALIA – She was a 40-year-old mother of three boys, none of whom lived with her.
Tina Thode didn’t work, but labored intensely in recent years to overcome drug addiction.
Described by those who knew her as both a girly girl and a tomboy, she was a woman who would entice housemates to gather in the kitchen with her homemade tacos or be content passing time exploring nearby woods.
On the final weekend of her life, Thode called 911 asking for help getting off the banks of the tree-lined Skookumchuck River. It was after dark, about a quarter mile from her north Centralia home. An intense but unsuccessful search was abandoned, and it seems as though that was the last anyone heard from her. Two days later, a pair of 15-year-olds floating down the river on inner tubes discovered her body partially submerged on the river’s edge.
What killed Thode won’t be known for sure until the Lewis County coroner reports his findings; he’s waiting for toxicology test results.
What exactly she was doing at the river that evening, and for the next day and half remains a mystery as well.
Tina A. Thode
Her good friend Matt Mitchell is among those grieving and trying to make sense of Thode’s death. He was with her the morning of the Saturday she got lost. After she died, he helped her parents clear out her studio apartment at the end of Pike Street.
“I was told she was alive until Monday, noonish,” Mitchell said. “She didn’t starve to death or drown.”
Centralia Police Department detective Sgt. Pat Fitzgerald indicated on the Monday night when he helped recover her body, it didn’t appear to him she’d been in the water for two days. There were no obvious signs of injury or foul play, he said.
Mitchell recalls that Sunday was a hot day, and it stayed warm out until late. He can’t come up with a reason why the woman he calls his best friend didn’t just walk home after daylight.
“I don’t know what happened to her to cause her not to be able to get out,” Mitchell said. “Or if she had a stroke, or a seizure. Not that she had that history, I just don’t get it.”
Mitchell, a tow truck driver who came to know Thode through recovery, doesn’t think it odd if she went to the river by herself. Still, he said, he’s checked with a half dozen people she could possibly have been with, and they all said they weren’t.
“I called even my ex using friends,” he said.
Thode didn’t have enough money to get high enough to become delusional, he said. She had just $20, he said. And, he was told about that amount of methamphetamine was found in the car she had borrowed which was discovered parked on the east side of the river off Central Boulevard.
He tried to describe who she was, saying that even though she got high, drugs were not the center of her life.
He saw her often over the previous few months. Mitchell said she hadn’t been awake for days before that weekend, and she wasn’t the type of meth user to crash into a long, deep slumber after a high, according to Mitchell. “I’ve seen her sleep for four hours and be ready to go,” he said.
What is clear about Thode, is an extraordinary number of people turned out for not just one, or two, but three gatherings in her honor the week after her death.
“I’ve been to a lot of funerals, but I’ve never seen that many people at a funeral,” her father Roger Thode said.
He estimated there were 300 at the Napavine Assembly of God Church on Sunday Aug. 4, the same church where his daughter was baptized a year ago.
Two nights earlier, he and his wife Lila Thode were among two dozen individuals who came together beneath a picnic shelter in Fort Borst Park, comforting each other with song, prayer and fond recollections.
A couple years back, Tina Thode spent 10 months at a place called Safe Family Ministries on Jackson Highway south of Chehalis. It’s a year-long discipleship program primarily for women and children getting their lives back on track. Former residents recently began holding the Friday night park meetings so women who still struggle have a place to get encouragement, according to Kandi Delos Santos.
The Chehalis native was flamboyant with a contagious laugh, they said.
“She was always working, or she was directing, or she was just singing,” one young woman shared. “You could hear her singing for 40 yards down the hill,” added a man who said he volunteered at Safe.
Jen Jackson, whose voice and guitar led the evening music recalled Tina Thode as inspiring to many during her stay there.
“There were times I didn’t want to start until Tina was in the room, just because of the joy that radiated off of here,” she said.
Roger and Lila Thode showed again the day after the memorial service when Lewis County Drug Court members assembled in the county commissioner’s chambers at the Historic Courthouse in Chehalis honoring his daughter’s memory.
She was a current and active participant in drug court, according to drug court manager Jennifer Soper-Baker.
“A lot of the folks knew Tina pretty well, and they’re taking it pretty hard,” she said.
Soper-Baker called her a neat lady, who was very emotionally open and willing to do what was expected of her.
“She definitely tried many times to get clean over the course of the last three years,” she said.
Tina Thode had relapsed and spent a few days in jail as a sanction just before the fatal weekend, according to Soper-Baker. They spoke that Thursday afternoon, and Tina Thode was feeling optimistic and hopeful about her recovery, she said.
When she got out of the Lewis County Jail, she was set up to go into an inpatient drug treatment center in Chehalis, Mitchell said.
“I think it was Wednesday or Thursday, she had to be at ABHS by 10 p.m. the same night,” he said. “She made it there like at 11:30, but they still let her in.”
The following morning at around 11 o’clock, she called him and said she’d walked out, he said. He picked her up.
Her chosen drugs were meth and marijuana, he said. And she really wanted help to quit them, he said.
“She said she wanted to go back, but she didn’t want to be somewhere she could call someone and be home in five minutes,” Mitchell said.
On Saturday morning July 27, Mitchell was at Tina Thode’s apartment. He was helping her compose a letter to drug court, apologizing for walking out of treatment after they’d found her a bed, and asking to be able to go to an 90-day program in Spokane.
Mitchell said he had to go to work and their plan was to meet again about 5 p.m. to finish the letter. He spoke to her on the phone about 3 p.m., she said she was jumping in the shower.
“I talked to her about 4, when I called to tell her I had to work late,” he said.
Roger Thode went to the police department the following week to try to get some questions answered.
“She was gonna go put some more minutes on her phone, run some errands that day,” he said. “Instead, she went to the river.”
Born in Chehalis and mostly raised there, by her father and his current wife, Tina Thode alway loved spending time at the water, her father said.
“The Newaukum, that’s where you’d find her in the summer,” he said. “She would spend all day walking up and down the river, picking up agates
“She swam like a fish, even as a baby, water didn’t scare her.”
Roger Thode said his daughter has always had a battle, and her family has always tried to help her.
She didn’t work and was receiving disability benefits for mental issues, he said. Exactly what they were, he didn’t know.
“If she took her meds for her mental issue and left the drugs alone, she was a hard worker and worked hard,” he said.
At one job at a bakery in Yelm, the owner thought so much of her, he’d take off on vacation and leave her in charge,” her father said.
“She did good for quite some time,” he said. “But the meds, she couldn’t feel emotion. Didn’t laugh or cry; she got tired of that, doped up like a zombie.”
She decided having mental illness was better, he said.
Tina Thode tried to take her own life a year and a half ago, but survived, he said. After that, she worked closely with her doctors and got back on her medications and had the ten month stretch while she was at Safe where she did very well, he said.
She has three sons. The oldest lives in Everett with his father, the middle one is in the Army based in Alaska and her 12-year-old lives in Kelso with his father.
“We can’t hide the fact she was an addict,” Roger Thode said. “I was always afraid someday she’d be found dead in a ditch. I was hurt, but I wasn’t surprised.”
It was 10:21 p.m. on Saturday July 27, when the Lewis County emergency dispatch center got a 911 call from Tina Thode.
Centralia Police Department Sgt. Carl Buster on duty. He was told she went to the Skookumchuck River at the B Street Park, was cold, wet and needed help.
Buster knew her. He arrested her in May, an arrest that pushed her into drug court, he said.
On the way to jail they had a really good talk, he said. About life.
“It was like, hey Tina, when are you gonna get cleaned up?” Buster said. “She was like, I’m trying.”
Buster and two other officers responded, and before the night was over, they and four members of the fire department had searched along both sides of the river around the park – also known as Parkins Park, farther downstream along the levy at Sixth and Pearl Street and even father southwest near River Road.
Until her phone went dead, they communicated with her through a call taker and a dispatcher at the 911 center.
“We’re calling, telling her to yell, she’s singing at one point, but we can’t hear here,” Buster said.
The river is lined with thick blackberries and other brush, and in some places, the closest responders could get was like 20 yards, he said. Buster went in at B Street Park, crawling through bushes to get close to the riverbank.
“I’m hollering, ‘hey, it’s Buster’,” he said. “I’m thinking she’s scared. I know she knows me, I was there when she stabbed herself last year.”
We had so much working against us, he said.
Riverside Fire Authority Assistant Chief Mike Kytta now wonders about the various ways sound may have or have not have traveled along the course of the river.
They tried calling out to her, sounding a whistle and other means to make contact, he said.
“The deputy sounded his siren and she said she could hear it, but it sounded far away,” he said. “In fact, he was closer to her than anyone.”
Kytta and his crew walked with thermal imaging cameras, looking on the black and white screen for a heat signature that a person would have.
Her phone was “pinged” off a nearby cell tower.
They inquired about getting the state patrol aircraft with thermal imaging type capabilities, but it was not available.
Her father listened to the 911 tapes, and heard his daughter’s call.
At one point, she she didn’t want to wave her little flashlights or call out to the searchers as the 911 operator requested, saying she heard people on the bank but they hadn’t answered her when she did call out to them. At another point, she suggested she should sing, and let loose with multiple verses of Amazing Grace.
She told 911 she’d gone in the river at the park, and that she’d waded along the river. Roger Thode said he could hear that his daughter was a little spooked, but could tell she was not wasted.
“She could have been a little high, but not out-of-her-mind stupid,” he said. “It was Tina on there, and she wasn’t a mess.”
Police and fire personnel discussed getting a boat out onto the river, but it was dark and that would be too dangerous, according to Buster.
Although, he admitted, he even contemplated ignoring the fire department’s position on that and going out alone. He didn’t.
While later another sergeant from the police department said the reason the search was called off was because authorities came across someone who had seen her and told them she was okay, that wasn’t the case, he was mistaken, according to Buster.
They’d done what they could, it was 2 a.m. and going to be getting light again by about 4:30 a.m., when she would have been able to see her way out, according to Buster.
“It was warm, so we knew she wasn’t in danger from the elements,” Buster said.
It didn’t occur to Buster the search should resume the next day, except in hindsight, he said. “It’s tragic; I am so sorry for her and her family,” he said.
“I know people want to make a story about it, that police let her down,” Buster said. “And I’ll shoulder that. I tried to find her and I didn’t.
“The way I feel about it, is my own personal feelings about it.”
Buster now knows that at one point he was within about 100 to 200 yards of her, he said. The place Tina Thode subsequently was found was north of the park, north of where they looked, according to Kytta.
It was east of a pasture at Reynolds and North Tower avenues.
Buster said when she was discovered, she was on her back in shallow water at the edge of the river. A chair and a couple bottles of water were found near her body.
“Even though she was under water when she was found, we know she didn’t drown,” he said. “The coroner said her lungs didn’t have water in them.”
Mitchell said he was told an educated guess by the coroner was she died around noon on the same day her body was recovered. What was going on between 2 a.m. on Sunday and whenever she died is just something he can’t figure out, he said.
And he wonders why she called police if she were simply lost, instead of calling him, he said. “I know 911 would have been a last resort for her,” Mitchell said. “She knew they would have taken her straight to jail, for her drug court (issue).”
“It’s a very big mystery,” he said. “Me, Roger, Lila, her grandmother, all, would like to know what happened. But as it sits right now, she’s gone.”
Her father says, after talking with police, he feels confident they did everything they could, yet still ponders if she were the mayor’s daughter, they maybe wouldn’t have called off the search.
But there’s no point in wondering, what if, he said.
He doesn’t hold a grudge. He doesn’t know what happened. And yet he still speaks as though regardless of the conclusion from the coroner, his grown daughter’s demise is still a consequence of her drug use.
“If some person could look at their life and see what happened to Tina could happen to me,” he said. “I could get wasted and not come home some day. If they could just think that through, it would help us.
“Make her count for something I guess, if somebody could learn from this.”
Centralia police detectives are conducting an investigation. The Lewis County Coroner’s Office said on July 31 that a determination about the cause and manner of her death won’t be made until the results of toxicology tests come back. The tests can take eight to 10 weeks.