A curious and morbid case is coming to a head in rural Washington state.
In 1998, a 33 year-old former state trooper, Ronda Reynolds, was found dead in her bedroom closet with a gunshot wound to the head. The death was ruled a suicide.
Her mother, Barb Thompson, cannot live with that ruling to this very day. For over ten years, Thompson has sought to prove that her daughter was murdered.
She now will get her day in court.
Under a never-before-used state law, Thompson has won the right to have a Thurston County judge evaluate the case and, if Thompson has her way, possibly change Reynolds' death certificate. It's such an unprecedented legal move that the judge has to make up the rules.
The sheriff and coroner in Lewis County are not pleased, claiming that Thompson has been manipulated and victimized by her supporters, who encourage her in pursuit of a political agenda. Sheriff Steve Mansfield's view is clear: "What a bunch of morons."
And that would include the department's former lead detective, who eventually quit his job over the case:
Ronda Reynolds had been married not quite a year when her life ended in the early morning of Dec. 16, 1998. Her husband, Ron Reynolds, the principal of the local elementary school, called 911 and calmly reported that his wife had committed suicide.
Jerry Berry, a veteran detective of the Sheriff's Office, was called to handle it.
He found Ronda Reynolds' body in a large bedroom closet, covered with a plugged-in electric blanket. A pillow had been covering her head.
Berry learned that Ron and Ronda Reynolds were splitting up. Ron Reynolds told police that his wife had made suicidal threats the previous night. So they got in bed together and stayed awake until about 5 a.m., when they both went to sleep, he said.
Ron Reynolds said he woke about an hour later and discovered her body. She was dead, covered in blood. A revolver was lying against her forehead. He said he hadn't heard a gunshot.
Then the red flags started flying, Berry says.
The bullet wound, in front of her right ear, didn't line up with any natural angle for a self-inflicted gunshot, given the way her hands and the gun were found, Berry says. There was a bullet hole through the pillow. But the gun was found between the pillow and her head.
The condition of her body indicated she likely had been dead for hours before 5 a.m., Berry says. And contrary to Ron Reynolds' account, his wife's side of the bed hadn't been slept in.
The rest of the room gave Berry the impression that Ronda Reynolds had been preparing to leave — alive.
The Yellow Pages were open to the airline listings. The day before, she purchased a plane ticket to Spokane, where her mother lives. A longtime friend was coming to pick her up that morning and take her to the airport.
And on the bedroom mirror, in lipstick, there was a note from Ronda Reynolds to "call me" at a phone number in Spokane.
That was only for starters. Berry now says he found dozens of inconsistencies.
Berry said that everything Ron Reynolds told him conflicted with the evidence. "The more I dug into it," he said, "it just didn't fit any suicide I'd ever seen in my life."
Originally, the coroner, Terry Wilson, listed the cause of death as "undetermined", but Ron Reynolds' lawyer wrote the office demanding that the case be closed as a suicide. Eventually, Wilson changed the cause of death. The sheriff ordered the evidence destroyed, and returned the instrument of death, a .32 revolver, to Ron Reynolds.
Berry doesn't see any specific conspiracy on behalf of a suspect, but rather a department's need to make a botched investigation go away.
A former Lewis County police officer and firearms instructor examined what evidence remained, performed certain unspecified tests, and has attempted to refute the suicide ruling. He even ran in the 2002 election to become the coroner, but lost.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Mansfield, who has run the department since 2005, admits the case is unusual, but blames Thompson's supporters for dragging out the process. He said that the suicide ruling would remain unless he receives "new, clear and substantial information". It's a safe stance, politically speaking, since most of the evidence is long-destroyed and there is only one known witness. But he also said that his detectives have recently investigated new information, declining to comment on the details.
A 2006 review of the case by the state Attorney General's Office noted several mistakes about the investigation, but decided Ronda Reynolds' death was a suicide. Thompson claims the Sheriff's Office was not entirely forthcoming for the AG's investigation.
The law that brings this to court was enacted in 1987, and opens coroner's rulings to judicial review, but in over twenty-one years, nobody has brought a case this far.
And if everything else wasn't strange enough about the case, it will be heard by Thurston County Superior Court. Apparently, every Lewis County judge has recused.
With no precedent, Judge Richard Hicks is trying to figure out how to proceed. There may be a jury, and Thompson is arguing for the calling of witnesses. Coroner Wilson's attorney is working to keep his client off the stand.
Perhaps most tragically, even if Ronda Reynolds' death was a murder, and even if Barbara Thompson wins her case, it is extremely unlikely that anyone would be held accountable for the crime. Too much time has passed, evidence has been destroyed, and even if a suspect could be brought to trial, it would be difficult to convince a jury to convict someone of a murder when the sheriff and coroner refuse to acknowledge a homicide.
This should be interesting. Or it could be anticlimactic. For Washington state, this is undiscovered country.
Ith, Ian. "Court to review 10-year-old suicide ruling". Seattle Times. April 20, 2009. SeattleTimes.com. Accessed April 20, 2009. http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/htm...ynolds20m.html