By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
CHEHALIS – The former Toledo elementary school principal who was arrested following a coroner’s inquest but not charged with a crime two years ago in connection with his then-wife’s 1998 death has claimed $5 million in damages for what his attorney calls scandalous proceedings that severely harmed his client’s reputation and employability.
Ron Reynolds and one of his sons, Jonathan Reynolds who was similarly affected, blame the Lewis County coroner.
“It’s difficult to put a value on your life when it’s been ruined,” Olympia-based attorney Rick Cordes said today. “The loss of retirement, earnings, your reputation.”
The senior Reynolds, now 62, hasn’t worked since the inquest took place, according to Cordes. Jonathan Reynolds, now 32 and residing in Montesano, might be working now, Cordes said, but he wasn’t sure.
A tort claim filed with the county on behalf of the men in October got no response, leading to a lawsuit filed earlier this month in Lewis County Superior Court. The lawyer representing Coroner Warren McLeod quickly removed the case to federal court.
At issue is the October 2011 coroner’s inquest convened by McLeod, who made a campaign promise the year before to deal with the long controversial death of former state trooper Ronda Reynolds.
Ronda Reynolds, 33, was found with a bullet in her head and covered by a turned-on electric blanket on the floor of a closet in the Toledo home she shared with her husband of less than a year and his three sons.
The inquest jury was unanimous in its determinations her death was a homicide and named Ron and Jonathan Reynolds as responsible. McLeod had arrest warrants issued and the two brought before a judge who immediately released them as the prosecutor was not filing criminal charges.
The complaint filed in Lewis County Superior Court on December 6 names Lewis County and Coroner McLeod.
Cordes contends in the filing McLeod had no legal basis for calling the inquest, had no intention to conduct it fairly and that the proceedings were handled negligently and recklessly.
“The actions of the defendant, as described herein, were scandalous and libelous and did severe damage to the plaintiffs’ reputations and integrity,” Cordes wrote.
According to Cordes, the coroner had no jurisdiction over the deceased’s body, from a case almost 13 years earlier. He points to McLeod going forward with arrest warrants even knowing the prosecutor would not be filing charges against anyone and with the sheriff’s office’s investigations all finding the death was a suicide.
The complaint claims a major part of McLeod’s election campaign was advising voters he would have Ronda Reynolds’ death be reinvestigated and determined to be homicide, and that the inquest was designed to bring that about and lacked fundamental fairness.
McLeod, elected in November 2010 as the first new county corner in decades, was moving through ambiguously charted territory.
Coroner’s inquests in Washington state are rare, and McLeod, with assistance from Lewis County Deputy Prosecutor David Fine, created and adopted a set of rules to guide the proceedings.
After the Oct. 19, 2011 finding, McLeod issued then quashed his own warrants saying they served no purpose since no charges would be filed, but then he reversed himself, pointing to the state statute that the coroner “shall” issue warrants if the inquest jury ascertains it is a homicide and identifies who is responsible.
On the day the Reynolds’s were brought in front of Judge James Lawler, Cordes shared outside the Chehalis courtroom that his understanding of the law was different, that the statute was originally adopted around 1850 and was designed for the coroner to act when the sheriff was unavailable.
The inquest and the days that followed it were heavily covered by the local and regional news media, as well as providing the framework for a one-hour documentary produced by CBS television’s 48 Hours Mystery.
The lawsuit, and the claim that preceded it, speak of a great deal of mental and emotional distress as well as public humiliation and crippling financial consequences for the Reynolds’s.
McLeod’s action have made it extremely difficult for the two men to continue to live in their respective communities, according to Cordes.
“Ron was a well-respected member of the community,” Cordes said. “And that’s not true anymore.”
While the claim to the county listed $5 million in damages, the lawsuit asks for an amount to be proven at trial, costs and attorney fees as well as other relief the court may deem just and equitable.
McLeod said today he can’t, on the advice of his attorney, comment on pending litigation.
Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer said he and his staff don’t have a role in the case, because of the possibility of being called as witnesses.
The coroner and the county will be represented by John Justice, whose Tumwater law firm specializes in working with government agencies in civil cases.
Justice is the same lawyer who was hired to represent former Coroner Terry Wilson when Ronda Reynolds’ death was the subject of a civil trial in 2009, after which a panel of citizens concluded Wilson’s determination she died of suicide was arbitrary, capricious and incorrect.
CORRECTION: This item has been updated to correctly reflect the town in which Jonathan Reynolds resides.
For background, read “Breaking news: Inquest jurors: Ronda Reynolds was murdered” from Wednesday October 19, 2011, here