Experts: Investigation botched; former trooper was murdered

Experts: Investigation botched; former trooper was murdered »Play Video
Who pulled the trigger that took the life of former state trooper Ronda Reynolds? Was it suicide? Or was it murder?

The Problem Solvers learned of a mother's long struggle to prove her daughter didn't kill herself. She believes something more sinister is at work, and we have uncovered evidence and found experts who are convinced that what was ruled a suicide, was actually a heinous crime.

After 10 years, much of the original evidence in Ronda Reynolds' death investigation has been lost or destroyed. So to understand what happened we returned to the scene of her death. We talked to new experts and the original detective on the case. All believe authorities botched the investigation in calling it a suicide.

"It was a murder in 1998," says former detective Jerry Berry, "it's a murder today."

They believe it's murder set to look like suicide.

"That's a rearranged scene," says forensic pathologist Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, "that's a staged scene."

Ronda had been a state trooper and firearms instructor. She left the patrol to work in private security.

In early 1998, she married Ron Reynolds, an elementary school principal in the small Lewis County town of Toledo. In less than a year, the marriage collapsed. Her mother and close friends talked to her hours before she died and say she was discouraged, but far from suicidal.

"She had watched it come to a head," says Ronda's mother Barb Thompson. "She was ready for it and she was ready to move forward and make the best of it."

That night, Ronda booked a flight to her mom's in Spokane. Scene photos show she'd packed her bags, and left a message to her husband on the bathroom mirror: "I love you, call me."

After midnight, she called friend and veteran police officer Dave Bell, asking him to pick her up the next morning to take her to the airport. When asked if there was any hint or indication of suicide, Bell is firm: "Nothing. Nothing, not even an inkling."

Within hours, Ronda was found dead on the floor of her closet, underneath an electric blanket. She was shot through a pillow that covered her head.

"I believe she was murdered," Ronda's mother said.

However, quoting from police reports, Ron Reynolds told investigators the day and night before her death, they "were talking about separating" and she'd been "talking about committing suicide."

Reynolds said he'd tried to talk her out of it but eventually "fell asleep around 5" in the morning. He told police he woke at 6 when his "alarm went off" but that neither he, nor his three sons ever heard the gunshot.

Police reports at the time indicated Reynolds "did not appear upset."

"He was just very calm, very matter of fact," says Detective Berry, "not excited at all."

We tried to talk to Ron Reynolds, but he didn't return phone calls, and his attorney says he will not do an interview.

Questions from the beginning

Again, in police reports, Reynolds speculated he might not have heard the shot because "she had the door shut." But police reported they found the door wide open.

So we returned to the scene and did a test in the actual closet where Ronda's body was found. She was 5 feet 6 1/2 inches tall. We stretched a tape measure from where her head would have been and marked the tape at five feet. The door wouldn't close without pushing our five-foot mark out of the way.

That's backed up by reports from one of the first officers on scene, who noted he didn't think the door could be closed due to, "Mrs. Reynolds' body being in the way of it."

Jerry Berry was Lewis County's lead detective on the case and said "this appeared to have the earmarks of a staged homicide."

But Berry faced serious evidence problems because he wasn't called to the scene until two hours after Ronda's body was found, and the crime scene had already been disturbed. Even so, many inconsistencies caught his attention. Among them, the position of the gun.

"The first red flag was the gun being in her left hand," says Berry.

Ronda was shot just in front of her right ear. And she was right-handed. But the first officers on the scene reported the gun was in Ronda's left hand, inside a blanket.

"If Ronda was in fact right-handed, what was the gun doing in her left hand?" asks Berry.

Another oddity: No fingerprints on the weapon. "There should have been at least smudges somewhere on the gun, but there was nothing," said Berry. "It was clean."

Berry admits he and the department made mistakes which caused them to lose critical evidence. For instance, he wasn't allowed to interview the three Reynolds boys until two months after Ronda's death. But he still thought the case could be solved.

"Every piece of circumstantial evidence screamed murder," he said.

Investigation closed

But seven months after Ronda's death, Ron Reynolds' attorney wrote the department insisting they remove the cloud of suspicion and close the case. And "if you do not then we will."

Berry says the sheriff's office caved, closing the case as a suicide over his objections.

"They just basically wanted me to let it go, leave it as a suicide and move on and take on other cases and be done with it," Berry said.

There are also other key discrepancies that have never been explained. For instance, the gunshot. How does a person miss that sound in a quiet, sleeping house?

Ron Reynolds and all three of his sons told police they never heard the gunshot that took Ronda Reynolds' life. Reynolds said he was asleep in the master bedroom, about 12 feet away from the closet floor where Ronda was found. So we asked firearms expert Marty Hayes to re-create decibel tests using the same type of gun.

While Hayes fires the gun inside a bathroom, behind a closed door, we're 15 feet away in a bedroom. A loud voice right next to the decibel meter hits first 75 then 87, and the gunshot hits 95 from 15 feet away, behind a closed door. Most of the gunshots averaged around 90 decibels.

When we used the decibel meter right next to a ringing phone, the meter never pegs above 75. And next to an alarm clock? Never over 62. Remember, Ron Reynolds claims he woke to his alarm clock, but no one inside that house heard the gunshot.

Reynolds took two polygraphs. The first one, two days after Ronda's death, was initially found inconclusive. Another expert later reviewed the test and found Reynolds was being deceptive.

Seven months later, Reynolds' attorney arranged a second polygraph. In this one, the examiner found he was not attempting deception and another expert agreed.

That polygraph, and pressure from Reynolds' attorney to close the case, convinced the Sheriff's office to do just that. Ronda's death was officially ruled a suicide.

Forensic review

Early this year, Ronda's mother asked forensic pathologist Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds - who's no relation - to review the case. With 2,000 autopsies and 30 years of practice to his credit, the Problem Solvers asked him to review it again - for us.

"This is not a self-inflicted wound," says Dr. Reynolds.

Dr. Reynolds had several reasons for making this determination. He says the way blood pooled in Ronda's body - called fixed lividity - proves the timeline is off and says she had to have been dead by 3 a.m. at the latest, at least two hours before Ron Reynolds says he fell asleep.

Ronda was a firearms instructor with the State Patrol, so she knew guns. But Dr. Reynolds says the acute gunshot angle doesn't fit suicide.

"It's so unusual that I've never seen it in a suicide, OK? Never, ever, ever, ever -- in over 30 years," he said.

And finally, he says, after the shot, Ronda never could have gotten her hands beneath the blanket because the damage inside her skull instantly stopped all movement. When asked if he has any doubts about this case he answers, "it's not a suicide - that I can say. This is a homicide."

Lewis County Coroner Terry Wilson originally ruled Ronda's death a suicide in 1999. When we tried to talk to Wilson, who is a physician's assistant by profession, he told us, "my counsel recommended that I not speak to you at all."

He did say he still believes it's suicide, but wouldn't explain why. "We're not gonna talk."

Ronda's mother Barb Thompson has given up expecting anyone will ever face charges. Now, she just wants Ronda's death certificate changed from suicide to homicide.

"She definitely deserves that," she said.

We've asked the Lewis County Sheriff to explain their reasons for closing the case as a suicide. They've refused.

They did ask two outside organizations to review their investigation of Ronda's death.

The Washington State Attorney General's homicide team agreed with Lewis County, calling it suicide. The former commander of the New York Police Homicide Task Force found this was a staged crime scene and murder.