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Notes from behind the news: Coroner’s inquest; homicide and Facebook

Wednesday, October 19, 2011 at 6:28 pm

By Sharyn  L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

CHEHALIS – Greetings readers.

If you have gone to Lewis County Sirens Facebook group page this afternoon, you’ve gotten bits and pieces from me, from the courthouse via Brittany Voie, about the outcome of the coroner’s inquest.

There is still conversation going on there, so you might want to check that out while I write some news here.

Photos will be coming as well, here.

(Also, if you have not seen them, there is a whole series of photos from inside the courtroom posted here on Lewis County Sirens yesterday. Scroll down)

Your news reporter, Sharyn L. Decker
•••

More to come

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Coroner’s inquest: Clues still coming in

Wednesday, October 19, 2011 at 3:35 pm
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Current Lewis County Sheriff's Office detective Sgt. Dusty Breen

By Sharyn  L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

CHEHALIS – Even as the coroner’s inquest in Ronda Reynolds’ death has unfolded, the current detective’s supervisor at the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office has been taking notes on “things to follow up on.”

Detective Sgt. Dusty Breen said learning the name of the first arriving emergency medical technician to the Toledo home almost 13 years ago was new to him and just last week he talked with her.

When Breen testified yesterday, he spoke of he and his people looking at possible new leads and the frustration of learning all the physical evidence was gone.

It’s like a puzzle with a lot of pieces missing, he said.

“A lot of it came down to the initial investigation,” Breen said.

Belle Williams, the longtime director of evidence at the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office, said yesterday evidence was destroyed or returned in the year following the death, after the request of the then-detective sergeant. More evidence was cleaned out again in 2002, she said.

She was in the midst of implementing a new procedure requiring written authorization.

“At that point, all we could do was stop it,” Williams said.

The seven-day inquest in Chehalis into the former trooper’s December 1998 death is concluding, with jurors scheduled to return to the courtroom with their decision at 4 p.m. today.

The four women and one man who deliberated yesterday afternoon and again this morning were asked to determine if the death was suicide, homicide or something else.

They are using the standard of a preponderance of evidence or “basically 51 percent, according to Lewis County Coroner Warren McLeod.

McLeod told jurors he’d like it to be unanimous, but a majority agreeing would be sufficient.

If they return with a conclusion of homicide, he has said he would send them back to decide who they believe killed Reynolds. Under state law, if the jury names someone, the coroner is required to issue an arrest warrant.

What Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer would do in the situation, he has said he doesn’t know.

The inquest jurors have heard testimony from those who believe Reynolds’ death was suicide and those who think murder.

The 33-year-old was found dead on the floor of a small walk-in closet, with a bullet in her head and covered up by a turned-on electric blanket.

A new story inquest jurors heard yesterday was from a man Reynolds’ mother, Barb Thompson, had learned might have been at the Reynolds’ house the night before the death.

He lived with Joshua Williams, an individual who claimed one of the teenage friends of the Reynolds boys shot Reynolds, but later recanted his story.

Richard Melton told Breen of a time Williams borrowed his truck and then returned it spotlessly clean, Breen recounted. Melton denied ever being inside the Toledo house, according to Breen.

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Breaking news: Decision reached in coroners inquest

Wednesday, October 19, 2011 at 12:41 pm

By Sharyn  L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

CHEHALIS – Jurors for the coroner’s inquest into the  death of former state trooper Ronda Reynolds have reached a decision.

They will reconvene at 4 p.m. in the courtroom.

•••

FYI: You may learn what the verdict is first on Lewis County Sirens’ Facebook group page, before you read it here.

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News brief: Sketch released in case of Morton skeletal remains

Wednesday, October 19, 2011 at 10:21 am

This was updated at 11:30 a.m.

By Sharyn  L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

CHEHALIS – The Lewis County Sheriff’s Office confirmed today they believe foul play was involved in the case of the woman whose skeletal remains were found near Morton this past spring.

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Artists rendering

A motorist who pulled off U.S. Highway 12 to take a break spotted the remains off the side of a logging road about 5:30 p.m. on April 7.

The sheriff’s office has revealed very little about the case, but today released an artist’s sketch they hope will help them identify the woman.

“Obviously we’re at a standstill in the case until we find out who she is,” Chief Civil Deputy Stacy Brown said.

An image was made by studying the facial bones of the female they say is believed to have been between 20 and 35 years old when she died.

She is described as small in stature and possibly of mixed ethnicity.

An examination by a specialist at the King County Medical Examiner’s Office could not determine the cause of death, according to Brown.

The discovery was made 100 yards up a logging road just outside Morton, according to the sheriff’ office. They still won’t specify where, even if that was east or west of town.

“We’re not giving the exact location because whoever killed her knows those details,” Brown said.

The sheriff’s office is not commenting on whether they believe the woman died there or elsewhere but have previously said it was doubtful the remains had been there very long, because it was a well-used logging road.

The sheriff’s office isn’t yet saying what they were told by the expert for an estimate of how long ago the woman had died, in part because they have not yet received the report, according to Brown.

Dental records and DNA from the deceased have been entered into databases with no matches found.

Anyone with any information about this female or the case is asked to call the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office at 360-748-9286 or Lewis County Crime Stoppers – if the person wishes to remain anonymous -  at 1-800-748-6422.

•••

Read previous story: “New lead in possible identity of Morton skeletal remains” from Thursday Sept. 22, 2011, here

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Coroner’s inquest: Images inside the courtroom

Tuesday, October 18, 2011 at 9:08 pm

Photos by Bradd Reynolds
For Lewis County Sirens

By Sharyn  L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

CHEHALIS – Jurors for the coroner’s inquest into the 1998 death of former trooper Ronda Reynolds adjourned for the night after beginning deliberations about 11 o’clock today.

They are scheduled to return to the courtroom in Chehalis at 9 a.m. tomorrow morning.

The five jurors are tasked with determining if Reynolds death in her Toledo home was due to suicide, homicide or something else.

Some 40 witnesses have testified in the inquest which began last week.

Chehalis-area resident Bradd Reynolds (no relation) has been following the proceedings with his camera.

•••

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Retired Lewis County Sheriff's Office detective Dave Neiser testifies.

•••

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Barb Thompson, mother of Ronda Reynolds, with sheriff's Chief Civil Deputy Stacy Brown to the right.

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Retired sheriff's Chief Criminal Deputy Joe Doench testifies.

•••

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True crime author Ann Rule

•••

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Juanita Vaughn, who worked with Reynolds at Wal-Mart in Aberdeen, testifies.

•••

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Royce Ferguson, Everett attorney working with Thompson.

•••

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Isabelle Williams, director of evidence for the Lewis County Sheriff's Office, testifies.

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Lewis County Coroner's Office Chief Deputy Dawn Harris, with Thurston County Coroner Gary Warnock.

•••

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Nason Weller, Reynolds' supervisor at The Bon in Olympia, testifies.

•••

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Current sheriff's detective Sgt. Dusty Breen, left, speaks with Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer.

•••

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Retired sheriff's Deputy Gary Holt testifies.

•••

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Sheriff's detective Jamey McGinty leaves the courtroom

•••

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Sherri Murphy, who worked as a debt collector and then a state trooper, testifies.

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News brief: Napavine shooter gets 15 years

Tuesday, October 18, 2011 at 2:35 pm

By Sharyn  L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

CHEHALIS – A judge yesterday sentenced a Chehalis man to a little more than 15 years in prison for shooting a woman outside a Napavine apartment in early June.

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Javier Jimenez Villalavazo

Javier Jimenez Villalavazo, 23, reportedly called the 24-year-old and her family a snitch before firing several rounds at her as she got back inside a car. Eloisa Cruz-Garcia was struck twice in her right leg and survived.

Sheriff’s deputies said he went by the nickname “The Joker”.

Villalavazo initially pleaded not guilty to first-degree assault, but following a plea deal, he admitted in Lewis County Superior Court on Monday that he shot her, according to court documents.

Prosecutors dropped the firearms enhancement part of the charge which would have automatically tacked five years onto his prison time.

Villalavazo faced a standard sentencing range between 138 months and 184 months.

Judge Richard Brosey gave him 15 years and four months.

•••

Read related stories:

• “Motive: Alleged shooter thought Centralia woman “snitched”" from Thursday June 9, 2011, here

• “News brief: Four booked as detectives seek suspected Napavine shooter” from Wednesday June 8, 2011 at 7:28 p.m., here

• “News brief: Law enforcement searching for Napavine shooting suspect” from Monday June 6, 2011 at 3:39 p.m., here

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Coroners inquest: What the sheriff’s office believes today

Tuesday, October 18, 2011 at 8:11 am
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Detective Bruce Kimsey talks with Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer and Sheriff Steve Mansfield in the inquest courtroom during a break. / Courtesy photo by Bradd Reynolds

By Sharyn  L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

CHEHALIS – Present day members of the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office testified yesterday they were unable to confirm Joshua Williams’ story of a teenage party at the Reynolds’ Toledo home and his allegation Ronda Reynolds was shot and killed by one of the young people there.

Three sheriff’s detectives told of following up in 2009 and 2010 on new information in the case of the Dec. 16, 1998 death of the former trooper. They spoke of interviewing about a dozen individuals, many of them who were teenagers at the time.

“I have the feeling Mr. Williams may have been making some things up, to put it bluntly,” detective Kevin Engelbertson said yesterday morning.

Their testimony came as the coroner’s inquest in Chehalis into Reynolds’ death is wrapping up.

Reynolds was was found dead on the floor of a small walk-in closet, with a bullet in her head and covered up by a turned-on electric blanket.

Former sheriff’s detective Jerry Berry testified at length last week about a series of jail house meetings he had with Williams in which he was told Williams and others were at the Reynolds’ boys’ house, hanging out, playing video games and partying the night before the death.

Berry continued working with Barb Thompson – mother of Ronda Reynolds – after he left the sheriff’s office and then worked as a private investigator.

Berry was told Reynolds’ husband, Ron Reynolds, was home only briefly that night and left the house.

Engelbertson testified he knew Williams from his previous longtime work as a drug detective, and he had many times before given information in attempts to get out of jail and found to be unreliable.

Engelbertson spoke of contacting Jason Collins, who Williams implicated, and said Collins denied ever being at the Toledo house and said he’d do anything detectives wanted to clear his name.

Detectives yesterday recounted, as Berry previously has, that Williams’ story had grown more elaborate with each interview.

Detective Bruce Kimsey said yesterday Williams seemed to be extracting details from Berry’s questioning, and giving back that same information.

Kimsey and detective Jamey McGinty both testified they think the death was suicide.

Inquest jurors yesterday also heard briefly from former Chief Criminal Deputy Joe Doench, who said he had administrative overview of sheriff’s office field operations in 1998.

Doench, who said he was at the scene briefly but didn’t directly supervise the death investigation, told the courtroom he considers it a case of suicide.

Lewis County Coroner Warren McLeod said yesterday he has two witnesses testifying today, and then five members of the inquest jury will adjourn to deliberate.

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Read about another pleads guilty following gun show investigation …

Monday, October 17, 2011 at 7:27 pm

By Sharyn  L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

An Olympia man has pleaded guilty to illegal gun selling following an investigation that began with an undercover federal agent purchasing a revolver from him at a gun show in Centralia, according to Seattlepi.com

News reporter Levi Pulkkinen writes today that David Devenny – the 69-year-old also accused of selling the gun allegedly used by Christopher Montfort to kill Seattle Police officer Tim Brenton – is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 23 in U.S. District Court.

Devenny was accused of selling guns to a convicted felon and a person with a domestic violence conviction.

A former Bremerton police officer pleaded guilty last week to unlawful dealing in firearms, in a case that also began with the undercover operations at guns shows in Washington.
•••

Read “Illegal gun dealer who sold rifle used to kill Seattle cop plead guilty” from  Seattlepi.com on Monday October 17,  2011 at 5:03 p.m., here

Read further background on Devenny here

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Littlerock man convicted after injury hit and run at scouting event

Monday, October 17, 2011 at 5:44 pm

By Sharyn  L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

A 24-year-old South Thurston County man was found guilty by a jury this afternoon of two counts of vehicular assault and also hit and run.

Kody M. Chipman, whose residence has been described as both in Rochester and Tenino, was on trial in Thurston County Superior Court.

Two men were seriously injured when Chipman knocked them down with the open door of his car when he fled a confrontation about his speeding on a private driveway in Olympia in late March.

Chipman most recently lived with his grandmother in Littlerock whom he has been helping take care of.

Sharon Hallman, 64, said psychiatrists from both sides agreed about her grandson’s ‘fearful response” to the men’s confrontation, but jurors weren’t allowed to hear from them.

Chipman’s attorney spoke to the jury after they reached their verdict and they told him regardless of what the two men did, the car outweighed them, Hallman said.

Dee L. Cooper, 70, of Olympia, and Daniel I. Kitchings, 37, of Rainier, were attending a scout meeting off of South Bay Road and were standing on the driver’s side of the car, when Chipman put the car in reverse and drove off, according to the Washington State Patrol after the March 31 incident.

Hallman said she was told her grandson faces as much as 10 years when he is sentenced on October 26.

•••

Read more, here

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Breaking news: Gifford Pinchot remains positively identified as Tahoe woman

Monday, October 17, 2011 at 4:34 pm

By Sharyn  L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

Skeletal remains found the weekend before last in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest have been positively identified as Marie Hanson of South Lake Tahoe, the Skamania County Sheriff’s Office announced today.

Hanson, 54, had been reported missing from the Skookum Meadows area, southeast of Mount St. Helens during the Rainbow Gathering in early July.

Th identification was made through dental records, according to Undersheriff Dave Cox.

“We are thankful that we can help Marie’s family and friends work towards some closure on her disappearance,” Cox stated in a news release this afternoon.

The investigation is continuing as to the cause and manner of Hanson’s death, Cox said.

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Read about deadly shooting outside Olympia …

Monday, October 17, 2011 at 8:08 am

This news item was updated at 12:36 p.m.

By Sharyn  L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

A man wanted for a fatal overnight shooting in Thurston County was taken into custody by Centralia police this morning.

James Rimmer, 58, called about 8:30 a.m. and wanted to turn himself in, according to Officer John Panco. Officers went to  the residence where he was and then turned him over to arriving Thurston County deputies, Panco said.

The Olympian reports deputies had been looking for Rimmer since the approximately 2 a.m. incident at a mobile home east of Olympia, on Mullen Road near Meridian Road Southwest after which a 47-year-old man died.

Read more here

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Read about Morton man found incompetent for trial in molestation case …

Monday, October 17, 2011 at 8:06 am

By Sharyn  L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

The (Longview) Daily News reports a judge has found Steven Moulton incompetent to stand trial and he will be sent to Western State Hospital while authorities determine if he should be civilly committed.

News reporter Tony Lystra writes the judge found 22-year-old Moulton is developmentally disabled but a danger if he is freed.

Steven Moulton has been being held in the Cowlitz County Jail, charged with attacking an  8-year-old boy in a ballpark restroom in Castle Rock in July.

He also has a pending case in Lewis County from last summer when he was found inside a park bathroom stall in Morton with an 8-year-old boy.

Read news item from The (Longview) Daily News from Sunday Oct. 17, 2011 at 7:30 p.m., here

Read background here

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Coroners inquest: Crime scene reconstruction expert saw “earmarks” of suicide

Sunday, October 16, 2011 at 10:47 am

By Sharyn  L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

CHEHALIS – A Portland consultant visited by members of the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office less than a month after Ronda Reynolds death testified on Friday it had all the earmarks of suicide.

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Ronda Reynolds

Rod Englert gave his opinion to lead detective Jerry Berry and detective Sgt. Glade Austin after viewing limited evidence, he said, that included photographs of the scene, a pillow with its case, a green plaid electric blanket and a gun.

Englert, testifying by telephone in the coroner’s inquest, said he has 48 years in law enforcement and specializes in crime scene reconstruction and blood pattern analysis.

Much of the information he shared Friday was based on pictures of Reynolds’ body laying on its left side on the floor of the closet in her Toledo home on Dec. 16, 1998.

More specifically, his conversation was based on five pages of notes he took on Jan. 13, 1999. On Friday afternoon, Englert said he hadn’t received from the coroner’s office copies of the photos from the film he gave Berry and Austin after the visit.

Englert described various reasons for his conclusion her body was not moved after she was shot, primarily viewing the blood on her neck and face, noting gravity and that he’d been told a pillow was said to have been covering her head.

He didn’t see signs of a struggle, he testified.

The trajectory of the bullet would be consistent with the position she was in, Englert said.

Englert had an explanation for those who wondered with firearms expert Marty Hayes how Reynolds possibly could have held the gun to her own head with the wound path that resulted.

It’s a fallacy to assume a right handed person would always shoot themselves with their right hand, he said.

“Most often what happens in cases like this is the barrel of the weapon is held with the right hand and you just reach up and pull the trigger with the left thumb,” he said.

One key observation is the site of the bullet’s entry is a classic site, Englert said. If Reynolds pulled the trigger, she went to a classic site, her right temple area, he said.

The gun and her hands were positioned the way he would have expected, he said. He would have been suspicious if the weapon was actually in her hand, he said.

Lewis County Coroner Warren McLeod noted to Englert he hadn’t seen a photo of the body and gun together, and that he’s heard varying testimony throughout the inquest on where the gun was positioned before it was removed.

The consultant said he looked at the .32 caliber Rossi handgun, and was told a fiber had been removed from it that was similar to the blanket.

He examined the pillow itself and found it had no defects, but said the pillow case – very near its edge – had a bullet defect and what appeared to be powder burns, he said.

On the top edge of the electric blanket, he observed blood stains and what also might be powder stains, he said.

Englert noted his experience in what he said were hundreds and hundreds of suicides: They go to a secluded place, maybe out in the woods or in a closet, getting under something, he said.

“I’ve seen several of them in closets,” he said.

There’s not evidence, that he saw, someone else could have done it without her being aware, he said.

“Could she have been asleep? It’s possible,” Englert said.

He added before his testimony ended that, according to the literature, 99 percent of all contact gunshot wounds – as was Reynolds – are suicides.

Englert was the final witness in the first week of McLeod’s inquest. His testimony followed the testimony of Barb Thompson, mother of the former trooper, who had just told the inquest jury she was certain her daughter was murdered.

Thompson after the proceedings adjourned, declined two of her friends’ attempts to get her to stay the night in Chehalis with them. She said she wanted to get home to Spokane for the weekend.

“I need some alone time,” Thompson said.

Reflecting just briefly on what she’d just heard in the courtroom, she said: “Rod Englert made some good points. I’ll have to think about it.”

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Photo of Ronda Reynolds on floor of closet, without gun or electric blanket, Dec. 16, 1998

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Coroners inquest: Mother of former trooper says it was murder

Saturday, October 15, 2011 at 2:02 pm
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Barb Thompson, mother of Ronda Reynolds speaks on the witness stand in Chehalis. / Courtesy photo by Bradd Reynolds

By Sharyn  L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

CHEHALIS – When Barb Thompson took the witness stand yesterday during the coroner’s inquest into her grown daughter’s death she told those in the courtroom she was certain it was a homicide.

“There is no doubt in my mind, I am 100 percent convinced without a doubt that my daughter was murdered,” Thompson said.

The Spokane mother answered questions for almost an hour and a half about what she has learned since Dec. 16, 1998 when she was told her daughter, 33-year-old Ronda Reynolds, had committed suicide in her Toledo home.

Ronda Reynolds, a former trooper then working security at the Bon Marche, was found dead on the floor of a small walk-in closet, with a bullet in her head and covered up by a turned-on electric blanket.

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Ronda Reynolds

Her new husband, Toledo Elementary School Principal Ron Reynolds, told sheriff’s deputies the marriage was ending and his wife was talking about suicide the day before and through the night. Ron Reynolds said he woke up around 6 a.m. and realized she was no longer in bed with him, according to previous testimony.

Thompson testified she spoke with her daughter on the telephone twice that night and at first her daughter was going to move out that day, but changed her mind and decided she would leave on her own terms. She was not suicidal, she was upbeat, Thompson said.

Ronda Reynolds purchased an airline ticket to fly to Spokane the following afternoon.

“She was going to come home, spend some time with family and make some decisions and plans,” Thompson said.

Some 30 witnesses have been heard in Lewis County Coroner Warren McLeod’s inquest in Chehalis as its first week came to a close.

Thompson described how she went to Toledo and her conversations with the son-in-law she was meeting in person for the first time.

Ron Reynolds told her she couldn’t have any of her daughter’s personal belongings because he planned to sell them to cover debt he blamed on his wife, Thompson testified.

She asked him about a funeral, and he said he said he didn’t know because he didn’t have any money. She asked if she could bring her daughter’s body back to Spokane, and cremate her, she said.

“He said he didn’t care as long as he didn’t have to pay for it,” Thompson said nearly breaking into sobs on the stand.

He told her she left him bankrupt, and never once did he say he missed her, Thompson said.

Thompson testified Ron Reynolds told her how he discovered a life insurance premium his wife hadn’t payed, that he thought it was $300,000 and was going to put it in the mail that afternoon.

Thompson has spent the years since poring through records, working with private investigators and an attorney to find out for sure what happened to her daughter. It always comes back to homicide, she said on Friday.

Neither Ron Reynolds nor his three sons are taking the opportunity to testify during the proceedings, as they invoked their fifth amendment right against self incrimination.

Thompson spoke of one of Ron Reynolds’ teenage sons she believed had a very deep hatred for her daughter, after a previous incident in which she was told he peeked at Ronda Reynolds in the shower, and she jumped out and tackled him.

He went into a rage and threatened to kill her daughter, Thompson said. The sheriff’s office was called and he had to go live with his mother, Thompson said.

When asked yesterday under oath what Thompson believed could be a motive, if indeed her daughter was killed, Thompson spoke of the Reynolds’ boys and their teenage friends said to have been hanging out and partying at the house that night, one of which told a private investigator Ron Reynolds left the house that evening.

Thompson said she believes there were several individuals at the house that night, including an older Reynolds’ boy who is not named in any of the police reports as having been present. She’s been told by three people Micah Reynolds’ truck was there, she testified.

Thompson spoke of then-17-year-old Jonathan Reynolds.

“I’ve been told he talked about ways he’d like to see her killed,” she said.

•••

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Coroners inquest: Lie detector examiners testify

Friday, October 14, 2011 at 8:11 pm

By Sharyn  L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

CHEHALIS – Ron Reynolds took a polygraph days after his wife’s death which was inconclusive and another months later that indicated he was being truthful when he said he did not shoot his wife, experts said today.

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Ron Reynolds

The elementary school principal called 911 early on the morning of Dec. 16, 1998 and said his wife committed suicide inside their Toledo home

The classification of her death has vacillated between suicide and undetermined ever since.

Today, during the coroner’s inquest into the death of 33-year-old former trooper Ronda Reynolds, a local polygraph examiner testified he reviewed both tests in the autumn of 2001 when the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office reopened the case.

Steve Birley, who opened his business after a 30-year-career with the Chehalis Police Department, said he concurred with the findings on both tests.

The examiner who conducted the second test in July 1999, at the behest of Ron Reynolds’ attorney, described to the inquest jurors the questions he asked the Toledo man.

“Did you pull the trigger on the gun that killed your wife?” and “On or about Dec. 15, did you shoot your wife?”

Terry Ball then read from his report: “Based on my polygraph examination, it’s my opinion he was being truthful.”

Ball was asked if such tests are always accurate.

He said 90 percent to 100 percent of the time they are.

“But they’re probably the most accurate method of determining truthfulness or deception,” Ball added.

Ron Reynolds is not taking part in the inquest in Chehalis, as he and his three sons were excused by Lewis County Coroner Warren McLeod after asserting the privilege against self incrimination

More later

•••

Meanwhile read more about the inquest:

• “Mother: Ronda Reynolds was murdered by her step-son” from KOMOnews.com on Friday October 14,  2011 at 5:51 p.m. p.m., here

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Coroners inquest: Homicide experts disagree about Ronda Reynolds’ death

Friday, October 14, 2011 at 8:09 am
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Laura Reynolds was joined at the courthouse by her longtime companion when she testified in the inquest into her son's wife's death. / Courtesy photo by Bradd Reynolds

By Sharyn  L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

CHEHALIS – Although Toledo Elementary School Principal Ron Reynolds has refused to testify in the coroner’s inquest into his wife’s December 1998 death, his elderly mother took the stand yesterday and spoke of her last contact with her daughter-in-law.

“She called me three times that day,” Laura Reynolds said. “She told me she could not go on living without him.”

Laura Reynolds said she met Ronda Reynolds a short time before  the couple was married, less than a year earlier.

Her daughter in-law- was crying, she said, saying she couldn’t give up her husband to another woman, she loved him so much.

The following morning, the 33-year-old former trooper was found dead on the floor of a closet, with a bullet in her head and covered up by a turned-on electric blanket.

The couple were separating and she had purchased a ticket to fly home to her family in Spokane later that day.

As the inquiry in a Chehalis courtroom nears the end of its first week, a similar question has been posed to most of the witnesses by Lewis County Coroner Warren McLeod.

Did she ever say she was going to hurt herself? What do you think happened?

The Lewis County Sheriff’s Office admits some responsibility in what has come to be known as an error-plagued first investigation.

At the urging of Barb Thompson, the dead woman’s mother, the sheriff’s office requested a well-known New York homicide expert to review the case.

Vernon Geberth was highly critical of their work and their conclusion of suicide.

Geberth concluded it was a staged crime scene, with only one individual interviewed who said they believed she killed herself.

“The only person who stated suicide was the husband, whose gun was used and discovered her body,” Geberth wrote in his report.

Later the same year, then-Sheriff John McCroskey sought another review, from a trio of homicide experts in the state Attorney General’s Office. The case file by then included new interviews conducted by then-detective Sgt. Glade Austin, who supervised the sheriff’s detectives.

George Fox testified yesterday he and his partners at the Attorney General’s office concurred it should be classified as a suicide.

Missing evidence did not and would not alter their findings, Fox said.

Among those who knew Ronda Reynolds and testified was Mark Liburdi.

Their eight year marriage ended a year before her death, Liburdi said.

“Yes I was surprised about the suicide, I remember saying to others, ‘no way’,” Liburdi said.

The woman he called “tough as a pistol” never conveyed such sentiment in words or behavior, he said testifying by telephone.

However, the relationship between the two state troopers was less than close in some ways, according to his testimony. They didn’t mingle their finances and he didn’t learn until after their divorce her medication was for bi-polar disorder, he said.

“Here and now, do you have an opinion, suicide or murder,” Coroner McLeod asked.

“You know, I really don’t know,” Liburdi said. “Sometimes I think no and sometimes I think she could have been killed.

I don’t know. I hope you guys find out”

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Barb Thompson, mother of Ronda Reynolds. / Courtesy photo by Bradd Reynolds

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Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer / Courtesy photo by Bradd Reynolds

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Coroners inquest: What the forensic experts say

Thursday, October 13, 2011 at 9:19 pm

By Sharyn  L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

CHEHALIS – Much of today was spent by inquest jurors listening to experts who conducted tests related to Ronda Reynolds’ death.

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Joe Upton, handwriting analyst

A handwriting examiner who is a commander at the Lacey Police Department concluded it was more likely than not Ronda Reynolds who wrote the message on her bathroom mirror that then-detective Jerry Berry found appeared to be written with lipstick.

“I love you! Please call me 509-206-4688″

Joe Upton said he looked at several pages of samples authored by both Ronda and Ron Reynolds to make his determination.

Laurie Hull didn’t see it when she was at the house helping Ronda that afternoon.  But it was there in the morning when deputies arrived after the 911 call in which Ron Reynolds said his wife had committed suicide.

The fourth day of  Lewis County Coroner Warren McLeod’s inquest in the Dec. 16, 1998 death of the 33-year-old former trooper included testimony from several Washington State Patrol crime lab technicians.

Crime lab technicians described how they found her blood on her finger nails but none when they analyzed water from a drain and a blue wash cloth.

Retired forensic expert Charles H. Vaughn said he found no blood on the sleeves of Ronda Reynolds’ pajamas, but when asked if that was unusual, said that would have depended upon positioning and could possibly have been blocked by the pillow.

A finger print expert checked for prints on the Black Velvet bottle found in the master bedroom and the .32 caliber Smith and Wesson long handgun, plus five live rounds and one spent round.

“No latent impressions were developed for examination,” Jill Arwine told the jurors.

Arwine said it’s not uncommon for people to touch something and leave no print.

Marty Hayes conducted two types of tests for Barb Thompson, mother of Ronda Reynolds, attempting to show some of the findings did not make sense as she was trying to get the sheriff’s office to take another look at the case after it was reviewed by the state Attorney General’s Office in early 2002.

Since the homicide investigators suggested the gun was in her right hand, Hayes conducted recoil tests attempting to replicate where the gun reportedly fell onto her forehead, he told the inquest jury.

With repeated firing of a virtually identical gun, he could not get the firearm to come to rest on the sandbag depicting her head, he said.

“I found their version of what happened was implausible,” Hayes said.

Hayes, who operates Seattle Firearms Academy in Onalaska, also attempted to shed light on how someone 15 feet away, even beyond a closed door might not hear a gun shot.

When he fired six rounds into a sandbag-filled item in the bathroom of his own home, his decibel meter measured between 92 and 101, he said.

To put that in perspective, Hayes measured an alarm clock at 62 decibels, he said.

More later

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Firearms expert Marty Hayes demonstrates possible positions of a gun and Ronda Reynolds on the closet floor. / Courtesy photo by Bradd Reynolds

•••

Read more about the inquest

• “Homicide experts split on Ronda Reynolds’ cause of death” from KOMOnews.com on Thursday October 13,  2011 at 7:15 p.m., here

Read previous stories on the corner’s inquest

• “Coroners inquest: New investigation points to murder” from Thursday October 13,  2011 at 9:11 a.m., here

• “Coroners inquest: Detective reveals staged “suicide” statement from Ronda Reynolds” from Wednesday October 12,  2011 at 8:51 a.m., here

• “Coroners inquest into Ronda Reynolds death: Responders ponder, suicide or homicide” from Tuesday October 11,  2011 at 7:33 a.m., here

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Coroners inquest: New investigation points to murder

Thursday, October 13, 2011 at 9:10 am

By Sharyn  L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

Jerry Berry, homicide. Gordon Spanski, suicide. David Bell, homicide. Laurie Hull, don’t know. Catherine Huttula, suicide.

Five witnesses during yesterday’s session of the coroner’s inquest were asked what their opinion is now about the December 1998 death of former trooper Ronda Reynolds.

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Ronda Reynolds

They ranged from the lead investigator and the then-undersheriff to a longtime gentleman friend, a close girlfriend and the ex-wife of Ron Reynolds.

Yesterday, the inquest jury heard testimony about a Toledo teenager who gave his mother bloody clothing to launder about two weeks after the death.

He said it belonged to his friend, former detective Berry related to the jurors.

Berry, who was testifying by telephone from his home in Texas, recounted interviews he conducted in early 2010, long after he left the employ of the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office, while he worked as a private investigator.

Berry spoke with the man, Joshua Williams, during a series of jail house meetings in which he was told Williams and others were at the Reynolds’ boys’ house, hanging out, playing video games and partying the night before Ronda Reynolds was found dead.

Jonathan Reynolds had asked Williams previously to kill Ronda Reynolds, Williams told Berry.

Williams said his best friend, Jason Collins, was the one who did it and showed up later at Williams travel trailer asking for clothes to wear.

“He stated when Jason came in, he stated quote, it is done, end quote,” Berry recounted.

Williams said he brought the bottle of Black Velvet whiskey to the Twin Peaks Drive home.

Belinda Rodriguez, Williams’ mother, testified yesterday her son was trying to strike a deal because he was going to prison and he couldn’t handle the burden of the secret any longer.

But both Williams and Collins were then interviewed by sheriff’s detectives and passed polygraph tests, Lewis County Coroner Warren McLeod told the detective during yesterday’s proceedings.

McLeod asked Berry how he reconciled some of the inconsistencies, and Berry replied that most were chronological differences, which could be explained because the boys were using drugs.

Do you still believe this was a homicide? McLeod asked Berry.

As far as he’s concerned, beyond a reasonable doubt, it is, Berry replied.

“It is my opinion, it is absolutely murder,” Berry said.

Rodriguez, the mother and nearby neighbor of the Reynolds’, also related something she said she tried to report to the sheriff’s office days after the death, but couldn’t get her phone calls returned.

Early on the morning of Dec. 16, 1998 – about 6:30 a.m. – she was on her way to work when she saw a Ford Taurus and a small pickup peel out of the Reynolds’ driveway.

They stopped on the side of Drews Prairie Road and she heard yelling, she said. She saw Jonathan Reynolds being shaken by the shoulders by his older brother, Micah Reynolds, she said.

Also testifying yesterday was Catherine Huttula, Ron Reynolds’ ex-wife.

She confirmed her ex-husband had phoned her on Dec. 15, asking about possible reconciliation.

Huttula knew Ronda Reynolds previously, as they were in the same religious group, she said. They were friends when she was married to Ron Reynolds and when Ronda was married to Mark Liburdi, she said.

What do you believe happened to Ronda? McLeod asked.

“I believe she committed suicide,” she said.

Two close friends who spent time with Ronda Reynolds the day before her death spoke of her packing up belongings because Ron Reynolds had asked her to move out.

Laurie Hull helped drain the Reynolds’ waterbed, which apparently later was put back together when Ronda Reynolds’ decided not to leave that evening.

She didn’t see a broken fingernail on her friend’s otherwise manicured hands, Hull said.

Hull last spoke to Ronda Reynolds on the phone around 10:30 p.m. She sounded calm, not upset as she had been that afternoon, Hull said.

David Bell, a Des Moines police officer who had known Ronda Reynolds about 10 years, told the inquest jury yesterday of going to the Toledo house around 7 p.m., as she had asked him to help her move.

“She was all packed up when I arrived, she was crating her dogs up to put in my truck,” Bell said.

He was there about a half an hour before they drove to Winlock to drop off some keys and made a stop at Marys Corner, he said.

She had thought she’d come stay at his place, but he told her that wouldn’t work, Bell said. So about 9 p.m., he returned her to the Toledo house.

Ron Reynolds was just walking in, he said. Bell said he spoke to her on the phone twice after midnight. She wanted him to give her a ride to the airport the next day.

Ronda Reynolds had a ticket to fly home to Spokane.

More later
•••

Read more about the inquest:

• “No fingerprints found on gun, ammo in Reynolds’ death” from KOMOnews.com on Wednesday October 12, 2011 at 6:19 p.m., here

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Former police officer pleads guilty to illegal gun show sales

Wednesday, October 12, 2011 at 7:36 pm

By Sharyn  L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

A former Bremerton police officer faces as much as five yeas in prison after pleading guilty today to unlawful dealing in firearms, in a case that included undercover agents purchasing guns from him and others at gun shows in Centralia and Puyallup.

Roy Alloway, 56, was one of four men charged in May  following a lengthy undercover investigation into illegal sales at gun shows, according to the U.S. Attorneys Office for the Western District of Washington.

The Kitsap Sun reports Alloway retired in May 2010 after 32 years as a police officer.