The coroner and his deputies take a look at a casket stuck in a creek off the Newaukum River just east of Onalaska.
By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
ONALASKA – The caravan left the coroner’s office at 8:30 a.m., sharp, today.
Lewis County Coroner Warren McLeod and nine members of his team set out on a mission to retrieve a casket discovered partially submerged in a creek last weekend, get it opened up and deal with whatever they found inside.
If it contained somebody’s loved one, the work would begin to figure out who it was and how to get them and their coffin back into their original burial plot.
If it was empty but suspected of once containing a body, McLeod would still have to find out who the previous occupant was, where they had previously been laid to rest and then tell their family that the remains had likely slipped out and been carried downstream.
When he visited the site earlier this week, he could see the lid was damaged, and knew it was possible any remains had been swept away.
The area, a little more than three miles east on state Route 508, beyond Onalaska’s center, has seen flooding several times in recent years.
The hope was, McLeod would find clues that the steel container was the one that once belonged to a pirate.
A SeaFair pirate, who until a few years ago lived near the South Fork of the Newaukum River, with the help of his wife, transformed a never-yet-used casket into fancy outdoor storage for bottles of liquor, ice and whatever bounty such men would need when they sat around a campfire and smoked cigars.
Susan and Pat Patterson lost their casket-turned-bar after a flood several years ago.
The property where they once lived is, as it turns out, one or two addresses upstream from the caravan’s destination.
Robert and Robin Bryan relocated last summer to a home on seven acres on the south side of state Route 508.
He said today, a neighbor notified him the other day he’d found a casket in the creek behind their home. His wife said they needed to report it to authorities.
“I told him, if there was somebody still in it, they needed respect, needed dignity,” Robin Bryan said.
The caravan arrived just before 9 a.m. to the Bryan’s property, and with shovels in hand, the coroner’s team set out.
Robert Bryan and his 8-year-old granddaughter Crystina Rollins, accompanied them down a brushy, muddy path to the creek.
“You can see it just beyond that sink,” he said.
Previous flood events have left a variety of odd objects in the shallow creek.
The bottom side of the river-colored steel casket shows an orange-ish tint. Deputy Coroner Sarah Hockett says she can’t see inside, even though it appears one half of a “split-top” may be missing.
Lewis County Coroner Warren McLeod sees the arriving half dozen members of Lewis County Search and Rescue just before 9 a.m. and points to their target.
Deputy Gabe Frase, red plaid, brings a cable out to attach to the coffin. Chains are wrapped around it. A couple of neighbors have joined those on the creek’s bank to watch.
Deputy Sgt. Alan Stull pilots the Polaris four-wheeler, a piece of equipment obtained from the military, which has been outfitted with “tracks” to replace its wheels. He revs up the motor as he begins to pull, and the casket starts to rise from its resting place.
The news media is there.
Stull pauses, as deputy coroners decide they must dig around the casket first to loosen it further from the grip of the creek bottom. Stull then resumes pulling it toward him.
The casket has been flipped right side up. “I’ve always wondered what’s in that,” Onalaska Elementary School third-grader Crystina Rollins says. “I’m hoping nothing.” Deputy Curt Spahn pries up the top of the casket.
They see a mound of mud and gravel inside.
The see what they think is an ice bucket inside. / Courtesy photo by Lewis County Coroner’s Office
Bingo. They pull out pieces of particle board, with holes bored out, just the size a bottle of rum could sit in. Mystery solved. “This is good,” McLeod says. “We didn’t want it to be somebody.” The time is 10 a.m.
Deputy coroners examine the interior further. I don’t know why. Maybe hoping to find some pirate loot.
They decide to leave the casket where it lay.
“It’s not occupied, so I don’t have a problem with it,” Robert Bryan said.
The members of the search and rescue team return to their day of winter training elsewhere in the county.
Long time coordinator of the group, Sheriff’s Deputy Gene Seiber said, before departing, he does not recall the Patterson’s pirate casket turning up after the big 2007 flood.
If several years from now, the container is swept away again and found again, it won’t be a closed casket that causes another mystery, since it doesn’t have a lid, Seiber suggested.
Robin Bryan brings out cinnamon rolls for the coroner’s group.
Postscript: Robin Bryan calls a news reporter to say she informed her landlord of what transpired. The landlord handles the estate of the man who previously resided there, and has died, she said.
“She got quite a laugh out of it,” Robin Bryan said. “She said, ‘It’s still there? He knew all about it.’ ”
The former owner had discovered the casket on his property at one time in the past, and reported it, Robin Bryan said. And then it was just left there, she said.
“She got a big laugh out of it, and said I’m so glad you handled that,” she said.
For background, read:
• “Coffin discovered in Lewis County creek” from Tuesday February 17, 2015, here
• “Search and rescue to attempt recovery of partially submerged coffin” from Friday February 20, 2015, here