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Ruling on trooper’s death: more suspense in unprecedented case

Ronda Reynolds Credit: Courtesy of Lewis County Sirens

Barb Thompson has been here before: so close to closure on her daughter’s death, only to find another door closed, another process to confront.

Thompson, mother of former state trooper Ronda Reynolds, has maintained a crusade since 1998, seeking to get a death certificate of “suicide” overturned and ultimately to find out responsibility for the death of her daughter. A five-person coroner’s inquest jury on Wednesday not only ruled the death to be homicide but pointed to Reynolds’ husband and stepson as suspects in the killing.

Satisfaction was short-lived: Friday morning (Oct. 21), Lewis County Coroner Warren McLeod said he was reopening the inquest and suspending the process of issuing warrants for the arrest of the husband and stepson, Ron and Jonathan Reynolds. “This temporary suspension is to allow for the investigation and resolution of a legal issue that has come to light,” McLeod said, without elaborating. The inquest is scheduled to reconvene next week. It was not stated whether a new jury would be impaneled or the existing jury continued.

Later Friday, Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan L. Meyer gave himself until Thursday (Oct. 27) to decide on how to proceed in the complex case. “Although I have spent numerous hours reviewing the case file and inquest materials I have not made a final charging decision into the death of Ronda Reynolds at this time,” Meyer said in a news release. “I understand there is significant interest in this case from all involved. However, I will continue to use the methodical and diligent process that our office strives to use in making proper charging decision in every case we handle.”

The decisions by the coroner and prosecutor leave Ron and Jonathan Reynolds free; local newspaper attempts to contact them on Thursday were not successful. For Barb Thompson, it was one more hill to climb.

Thompson, a quiet but gritty Spokane woman whom I met in October 2010 as we taped a radio interview, simply refused to believe that her daughter, 33 at the time of her death, would commit suicide, which had been the finding by the Lewis County sheriff and then-Coroner Terry Wilson. The coroner had originally ruled “undetermined” as cause of death, then changed it to “suicide” after pressure from a lawyer for Ron Reynolds.

Thompson convinced true-crime writer Ann Rule to get involved, and together they formed a formidable team combining Thompson’s passion and grit with Rule’s investigative experience and law-enforcement contacts. Rule’s 2010 book, In the Still of the Night, built a case for homicide. That’s where I came in.

One of my favorite retirement gigs is to interview authors on The Chuckanut Radio Hour, sponsored by friends at Village Books in Bellingham; the show airs monthly on a local low-power station, KMRE. We do a pretty good version of Prairie Home Companion; at least all our women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the productions are above average.

True-crime writers have never been my taste —or the Radio Hour’s — but last year we had Rule and Thompson as guests, and I must say that if I am ever in really hot water, I would want that duo at my side. Rule is, as one might expect, media-savvy from years on the circuit, but Thompson is getting accustomed to being in the spotlight. She even wrote a short book of her own.

She comes across very low-key but there is a determination in her eyes that has allowed her to fight off the horror of having a child end up dead just at the moment she was about to break free from an untenable relationship. More than a decade after the death of her daughter, Thompson still bears the anguish, but she found the strength to pursue it until her daughter’s name was cleared of the stigma of suicide. For Thompson the real point is the kind of person her daughter was, and the need for justice.

When we talked earlier last year, Thompson and Rule predicted there would be a big break in the case right after the first of this year. That began with a new coroner, Warren McLeod, who declared the death to be “undetermined” and ordered the inquest. The inquest proceeding is unusual, without some of the rules of evidence and procedure found in a criminal case and, unlike a grand jury proceeding, the sessions are open to the public. It is even more unusual —perhaps unprecedented — for an inquest jury to identify suspects for a crime.

When the five-person inquest jury came in with a unanimous verdict of murder as the cause of death and Ron and Jonathan Reynolds as suspects, Barb Thompson had at least a temporary closure from her long battle. But the jury finding — indeed, the process itself — left many legal questions unresolved, providing unprecedented challenges and decisions for a new coroner and a new prosecutor in a county of only 75,000 people.

Although the reasons for McLeod’s decision to order to reopen the inquest were not revealed, the unprecedented nature of the inquest-jury process is fraught with legal difficulties, not the least of which is rules that are much looser than a criminal prosecution, especially for murder. If the coroner had proceeded to arrest the two Reynolds men, the Lewis County prosecutor could have faced the necessity to decide whether to charge them or release them. In most cases, suspects cannot be held indefinitely without charges, but the prosecutor has only limited time to conduct his own investigation in a case where a great deal of evidence has been compromised or even destroyed over time.

Lewis County deputies botched much of the investigation, Rule charges in her book, and officers in the sheriff’s office pushed hard for a “suicide” finding despite the belief by Detective Jerry Berry that murder had been committed. Berry was forced out, and then joined Rule and Thompson in trying to reopen the case.

An obscure state law, never before used, paved the way for a 2009 review by a judge, a subsequent finding by a jury that the death was not a suicide, and the new coroner’s call for an inquest. Then the complexities of that obscure law apparently forced a new prosecutor to put charging decisions on hold, continuing a 13-year saga for all involved.

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