Lewis County Coroner Warren McLeod presides over the inquest into the 1998 death of former trooper Ronda Reynolds. / Courtesy photo by Bradd Reynolds
By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
CHEHALIS – Janice Nielsen had been an emergency medical technician about three years when she was summoned to 114 Twin Peaks Drive in Toledo early on the morning of Dec. 16, 1998.
Nielsen, another EMT and a deputy went into the small walk-in closet where the victim lay.
“There was a lot of blood,” Nielsen said.
On Monday, when she spoke from the witness stand, Nielsen said she recalled finding “everything unusual.”
Nielsen was the first to give testimony in the coroner’s inquest in Chehalis into the controversial death of former trooper Ronda Reynolds.
Her account of what she saw has not been heard publicly before; she was not among the many individuals who testified two years ago when the related civil case was heard in Lewis County Superior Court.
Nielsen’s report from the call has never been found, she told Lewis County Coroner Warren McLeod.
The EMT said she looked over the body and attempted to find a pulse. She said she moved the blanket a little to look under Reynolds’ pajama top to “visualize” her back.
“We are allowed to determine death in part based on lividity,” she explained.
A pillow was resting up off her head, and Nielsen could see the entry wound and a gun resting on the side of Reynolds’ face, she said.
Under further questioning, Nielsen said she didn’t recall that she moved the blanket to check the victim’s neck, and was very careful not to touch the gun.
Nielsen described to the inquest jury what she felt was “odd.” Such as the writings on the bathroom mirror and items in the car as though Reynolds were getting ready to go somewhere, she said.
And Reynolds’ husband, Ron Reynolds, was particularly calm, she said.
“I guess I can’t tell you why it struck me the way it did, but it struck me different than I had seen in the past,” Nielsen said.
There were no smudge marks that she recalled, if someone had already checked the pulse, she said.
She estimated she was inside the house about 25 to 30 minutes after being toned out, but didn’t know for sure what time she arrived because of the missing report.
She says she did not move the body.
Nielsen was the first of five individuals who gave testimony on Monday, in a Lewis County District Courtroom. She took the stand after lunch, after a morning of Coroner McLeod whittling down 20 potential jurors to seven.
More than 40 witnesses are expected over the next week or so as the 13-year-old case is aired once again
Reynolds, 33, died with a bullet in her head in the home she shared with her new husband, Toledo Elementary School Principal Ron Reynolds. The couple were separating and she had plans to fly home to her family in Spokane later that morning.
Over the years, her manner of death was changed repeatedly by the coroner back and forth between suicide and undetermined as it was reinvestigated and then more recently underwent a judicial review.
Newly elected Coroner McLeod and his chief deputy swore in the jury of five women and two men after lunch on Monday.
McLeod told them the following are what they would attempt to determine: the name of the deceased, when the death occurred, where the death occurred, by what means and cause did the death occur and finally, the manner of death.
A small number of members of the news media and the public were in the courtroom yesterday, along with persons deemed “especially interested” such as Ronda Reynolds’ mother, her lawyer, the elected Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer and representatives of Sheriff Steve Mansfield. Elected coroners from both Cowlitz and Thurston counties are sitting in.
McLeod announced that not only would the jurors not hear testimony from Ron Reynolds or his three sons, he has also excused former Chief Deputy Coroner Carmen Brunton from testifying, for health reasons.
Brunton was at the scene that morning, and signed the death certificate. She was not called to give her account in the judicial review two years ago.
Also testifying yesterday were the first arriving deputies, their sergeant and then-detective’s Sgt. Glade Austin who oversaw the sheriff’s office investigation. Austin is expected to finish up on the witness stand this morning.
Retired Lewis County Deputy Gary Holt said he got the call at about 6:21 a.m. and arrived at the house about 6:42 a.m.
The victim’s husband said she shot herself, basically there was an argument with her talking of suicide and when he woke up he couldn’t find her at first, Holt told the coroner and the jury.
The three sons were allowed to leave, he said. They weren’t interviewed.
“I think he said (he woke) around 6,” Holt said about Ron Reynolds.
Holt, mostly viewing and re-reading what he wrote in his reports 13 years ago, said he saw the pillow – back a little bit – saw the weapon and the electric blanket was turned on. He said he wasn’t sure if the gun was under the blanket.
As McLeod had him look through photos, he said for some reason pictures he took came up missing; he didn’t know why.
Reading from a report, Holt said Ron Reynolds told him they were separating; she was talking of suicide, and he was trying to keep her with him to keep her safe but he fell asleep around 5 a.m.
After Ron Reynolds found his wife in the closet, he said he did move the pillow a little bit to check the pulse,” Holt said.
Holt described Ron Reynolds’ manner as somber, saying he didn’t show a lot of emotion, until his wife’s friend Laurie Hull showed up; then he cried, Holt testified.
He confirmed the medics didn’t move the body.
Former Reserve Deputy Robert Bishop recounted what he had already told a panel of jurors in November 2009 during the judicial review.
He was skeptical then and remains so.
“I do not believe she committed suicide, I believe this was a homicide,” Bishop said.
Bishop said he arrived at the home at 6:45 a.m. and looked at Ronda Reynolds’ body from outside the closet.
“My recollection was the blanket was pulled up and the right hand was under the blanket and the left hand was visible,” he said.
Under questioning, and reading aloud reports, Bishop said he overheard Deputy Holt ask Ron Reynolds why he didn’t hear the gunshot. His answer was both the closet and bathroom door had been closed, Bishop said.
Bishop returned to the bathroom and observed the position of the body.
“It did not appear the door could have been closed, due to Mrs. Reynolds being in the way,” he said.
Bishop testified he noted Ron Reynolds was not wearing a wedding ring, and that he observed a wedding ring in the soap dish in the bathroom.
The bathroom was humid, as though someone had taken a shower, he said.
Sheriff’s Cmdr. Steve Aust briefly took the stand, noting that back then, it wasn’t common practice for patrol sergeants to write a report; his wasn’t written until 2001 when the case was reopened.
Aust recounted arriving to the house at 7:12 a.m. and then taking then-Chief Criminal Deputy Joe Doench to view the closet.
He directed Deputy Holt to take a taped statement from Ron Reynolds, he said.
Former detective’s sergeant Austin testified last yesterday and addressed a wide variety of topics, including his decision five months after the death to close the case as a suicide.
Austin testified he did not go the scene, but he interviewed numerous individuals and reviewed the reports and evidence.
His May 27, 1999 report cited two outside experts, one he wrote agreed the death was likely a suicide and another – blood spatter expert Rod Englert – he wrote told him the death was a suicide.
Under questioning by Coroner McLeod, Austin acknowledged his report was a poor characterization of Englert’s opinion.
“In my report, I said he said it was suicide,” Austin testified. “Really, what he said, is he agreed with us it could be suicide. So that was probably an error of semantics on my part.”
Austin will resume testifying this morning.
Retired detective Sgt. Glade Austin testifies about the sheriff's office investigation into Ronda Reynolds' death. / Courtesy photo by Bradd Reynolds
Schedule for today:
Today Oct. 11
Morning, 9 a.m. until noon
• Glade Austin, continued
• Dave Neiser – retired Lewis County sheriff’s detective
Today Oct. 11
Afternoon, 1:30 p.m. until 4:45 p.m.
• Jerry Berry – retired Lewis County sheriff’s detective
• Dr. Daniel Selove – forensic pathologist who conducted autopsy
• Joe Doench – retired Lewis County sheriff’s chief criminal deputy
• Gordon Spanski – retired Lewis County undersheriff
See the rules governing the procedures for McLeod’s coroner’s inquest, here
Read about the November 2009 judicial review, here