By Mike Baker
CHEHALIS, Wash. — Inquest jurors drew gasps in a Washington state courtroom as they concluded a state trooper died as the result of a homicide — not a suicide as initially believed — and that the woman's husband and stepson were responsible for the killing.
As a result of the groundbreaking decision Wednesday, a county coroner was planning to issue an arrest warrant in the 1998 case. But the unprecedented nature of the verdict left a key question lingering: Will the men even be criminally charged?
The Lewis County prosecuting attorney Jonathan Meyer said later in the day that he wasn't aware of any other inquest in the state that resulted in an arrest warrant, so the process is untested.
Jurors in a small courtroom in Chehalis, about 85 miles south of Seattle, didn't specify why they suspected Ronda Reynolds' husband, Ronald Reynolds, and her stepson, Jonathan Reynolds. The rulings were unanimous. Jury members declined comment as members left the courthouse.
Reynolds' mother, Barb Thompson, always believed the case was a homicide, and she spent a decade demanding that that the Lewis County sheriff and coroner investigate it as such. In 2009, under a state law that had never been used, she won the right to have a judge evaluate the case, and a jury that year ruled the coroner's office was wrong to label the case a suicide.
Among the evidence that cast doubt on the death as a suicide was that the bullet that entered Reynolds' head was at a bizarre angle for a self-inflicted wound. Her body was in a bedroom closet and a pillow had been covering her head; the pillow had a bullet hole, but the gun was found between the pillow and her head.
The lead sheriff's detective on the case, Jerry Berry, told The Seattle Times in 2009 that inconsistencies quickly arose in Ron Reynolds' account of what happened.
Ron Reynolds told police that he and his wife were splitting up, and that she had made suicidal threats the previous night. So they got in bed together and stayed awake until about 5 a.m., he said. An hour later he woke up and found her body; he said he hadn't heard a gunshot.
Berry said she appeared to have been dead for hours before 5 a.m. — and her side of the bed had not been slept in.
Other evidence suggested she had been preparing to leave alive. She bought a plane ticket to Spokane the day before, and scrawled in lipstick on the bedroom mirror was a message to "call me" at a number in Spokane.
Berry didn't believe the death was a suicide. He eventually quit the department after he was demoted for disobeying orders to drop the case.
Then-Coroner Terry Wilson listed Ronda Reynolds' cause of death as "undetermined," but changed it months later to "suicide" at the insistence of Ron Reynolds' lawyer. The inquest that concluded Wednesday was ordered early this year by the newly elected coroner, Warren McLeod.
Meyer said he planned to be up all night reviewing evidence from the inquest to decide whether he will file charges. If he decides not to file criminal charges, he said he expects the two men would have to be released — but he wasn't certain.
"That's part of the difficulty of the situation: What happens next?" Meyer said. "That's kind of a process the court will have to determine."
Ron Reynolds, now the principal of an elementary school about 20 miles south of Chehalis, didn't immediately return a call for comment. It didn't appear that Jonathan Reynolds had a listed phone number.
Ron and Jonathan had built increasing hatred of Ronda in the year prior to her death, Thompson said.
The jury "found the courage to stand up and do the right thing," she said Wednesday.
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Copyright 2011 Associated Press