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Originally published April 20, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 20, 2009 at 8:29 AM

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Court to review 10-year-old suicide ruling

Barb Thompson has been on a 10-year crusade to get authorities to withdraw a finding that her daughter, Ronda Reynolds, committed suicide in her bedroom closet in Toledo, Lewis County, in 1998. The local police and county coroner disagree with Thompson's contention that her daughter was slain, so she's taking her case to court in an unprecedented legal move.

Seattle Times staff reporter

TOLEDO, Lewis County —

All these years have gone by, and Barb Thompson still clenches with teary-eyed anger when she lingers outside this little house at 114 Twin Peaks Drive.

She stood here 10 years ago, too. In December 1998. The day after her daughter, Ronda Reynolds, a 33-year-old former state trooper, was found dead inside. Curled up in the bedroom closet with a bullet in her brain.

Reynolds' husband said she had killed herself. So did the sheriff's department and the county coroner.

Thompson didn't buy it. Not then. Not now.

So Thompson has been on a single-minded mission to prove her daughter was slain. She has publicly battled the Lewis County Sheriff's Office and the local coroner for 10 years, demanding they investigate the case as a murder. She believes they are covering up their ineptitude by refusing to face facts.

She has surrounded herself with allies and experts, including the former lead sheriff's detective who quit over the case. She has shown anyone who will take the time reams of documents and piles of grisly photos.

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.

For Thompson, it's her last opportunity to make her case.

For the sheriff and coroner, who stand firmly by their decisions, it's one more indication that Thompson is the one being victimized, manipulated by her supporters, who have an agenda to embarrass them.

In fact, Lewis County Sheriff Steve Mansfield minces no words:

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"What a bunch of morons."

Questions of evidence

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.

"Everything [Ron Reynolds] told me didn't fit with what I was seeing," said Berry, now a private investigator. "The more I dug into it, the more I started to look at the scene, it just didn't fit any suicide I'd ever seen in my life."

Neither Ron Reynolds, who is still principal at Toledo Elementary, nor his attorney responded to phone messages for this story. In court filings, Ron Reynolds has maintained his version of events and has denied involvement in his wife's death.

Detective presses case

Berry says his suspicions quickly fell on deaf ears at the Sheriff's Office.

The coroner, Terry Wilson, initially listed the cause of death as "undetermined," but Ron Reynolds' lawyer then wrote a letter demanding the case be closed as a suicide, Berry said. Wilson a few months later changed the cause of death: suicide.

The sheriff ordered evidence Berry had collected from the house destroyed, Berry said. And the Sheriff's Office even returned the .32-caliber revolver to Ron Reynolds.

By May 1999, Berry says, he had been ordered to leave the case alone. But he wouldn't. So he was demoted in the years that followed, he said. He quit in 2002.

A decade later, Berry stresses that he doesn't think that sheriff's brass were covering for any particular suspect. Instead, he believes the investigation had been so botched that they just wanted it to go away.

"But they never in their wildest dreams imagined that Barb would be so persistent, so tenacious, in trying to find the truth," Berry said.

"I just want the truth"

Barb Thompson says all she ever wanted were believable answers, but they never came.

"That's all I've ever asked: Show me the evidence that shows suicide," she said. "Does anyone think I've enjoyed the torture I've gone through for the last 10 years? I just want the truth."

That quest has driven Thompson to recruit investigators and experts who have looked at the evidence and concluded it points to homicide.

One of her allies in Lewis County, a former policeman and firearms instructor named Marty Hayes, has done gunshot tests and other analysis and has written lengthy reports refuting the suicide conclusion. He ran unsuccessfully to unseat the coroner in 2002, raising the Ronda Reynolds case as his chief political issue.

Sheriff not budging

But the coroner and the Sheriff's Office have remained firm.

Sheriff Mansfield, who took over the department in 2005, agrees the case is unusual and troublesome, and he insists it has not been ignored. "It's important to Barb, so it's important to us," he said.

He won't debate the evidence, but he says he understands Thompson's frustration and doesn't disparage her quest for answers.

Instead, he saves his venom for the people who have been helping her. From his perspective, the so-called experts are "individuals with limited experience who continue to prey upon Barb Thompson for their own political and financial gain." Mansfield is unapologetic that the case remains closed. "My position remains the same, that this was a suicide, and that's going to remain the same until I receive new, clear and substantial information."

Still, he says his detectives recently have looked into "new information," although he wouldn't elaborate.

In 2006, the state Attorney General's Office was asked to look at the case. The resulting report listed nearly a dozen mistakes that the Sheriff's Office had made. Nonetheless, it determined that the evidence pointed to suicide.

Thompson vehemently disputes that conclusion as inconsistent with the physical evidence. She alleges the Sheriff's Office gave the attorney general's investigators limited information designed to steer them toward agreeing with the initial investigation.

So she's pinning her last hope on the Thurston County judge.

Next step: court

In 1987, a state law was changed to make coroner's rulings subject to "judicial review." Thurston County Superior Court Judge Richard Hicks, who received the case because all Lewis County judges recused themselves, now will decide whether to overturn the coroner and classify Ronda Reynolds' death as a homicide.

No one has ever pressed such a case before.

In a court hearing scheduled for Friday, Hicks could announce how he plans to proceed. What he decides probably will make all the difference.

Thompson wants Hicks to call a jury to look at all the evidence she has assembled and call witnesses, including the coroner. "We need him to tell the judge in his own words how he came to this conclusion."

But the coroner's lawyer, John Justice of Olympia, is arguing that Hicks shouldn't go to those lengths. He merely should review evidence that the coroner had at the time he made his decision.

As an elected official, the county coroner is permitted to use his judgment, as long as it is not arbitrary or capricious, Justice argues.

"I have not seen any indication that Coroner Wilson has been trying to sweep anything under the rug," Justice said. "He has felt he's doing the best job he can in carrying out his duties. It's not an easy position to be in."

And, Justice noted, even if Hicks determines the death was homicide, it doesn't obligate the Sheriff's Office to pursue an arrest.

Thompson is the first to acknowledge that.

In fact, all these years later, she admits she has come to her own conclusion, as much as she hates to admit it: No one will be punished. Too much time has gone by; too much has been lost.

What jury would convict someone of murder when even the sheriff and coroner won't say the death was homicide?

Despite her thick binders of evidence, and her years of work, Thompson said she has to be honest with herself: "I can tell you beyond a reasonable doubt my daughter was murdered, but I cannot tell you beyond a reasonable doubt who killed her."

But she said she believes that, if she can succeed in court this time, at least the public will know she was right.

"I think once I get the death certificate changed, I have to say my job is done," she said.

"And God will give me justice."

Ian Ith: 206-464-2109 or iith@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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