Too Late for Justice? Jury to Decide How Ronda Reynolds Died

Justice for Rhonda ReynoldsPlayCourtesy Barbara Thompson
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Barb Thompson is still seeking justice, more than a decade after her daughter, Ronda Reynolds, was found dead on a closet floor from a gunshot wound to the head, covered with an electric blanket in the bedroom she shared with her husband.

"It's devoured my life," Thompson said of the 13 years spent examining every detail of her daughter's death. "It's taken everything we have financially, mentally … but it's what you do."

Ronda Reynolds' death was originally determined a suicide in 1998 by then-coroner Terry Wilson -- even though the forensic pathologist who did the autopsy said the death was undetermined.

Today, a five-person jury is being assembled to determine whether or not the cause of death on Ronda Reynolds' death certificate should be officially changed to "homicide."

"I need the world to know that my daughter was murdered," Thompson said. "Will we ever get arrest and conviction? I don't know, that remains to be seen."

ABC News affiliate KOMO broke the story in 2008, exposing several inconsistencies in the case. Thompson sued the coroner and in 2009 a Thurston County judge ordered a judicial review -- the first one ever in Washington State.

During that review, the jury heard from Thompson's team of pro bono investigators who challenged the coroner's ruling. They unanimously found Reynolds had not killed herself. The judge subsequently asked the coroner to change the death certificate, but didn't permit the jury to decide what it ought to say.

The coroner appealed, and Thompson -- believing the judge didn't go far enough -- cross-appealed.

Then-coroner Terry Wilson refused to change the cause of death, but when a new coroner was elected in January of this year, he did. It now reads "undetermined."

That was a victory for Thompson, but she still wants it to say "homicide."

The state appeals court asked for an inquest to determine the cause of death, which is being held this week. But even if this jury does decide it was homicide, Lewis County Sheriff Steve Mansfield said today in a statement that the case will not be reopened "unless there is clear and compelling new information."

"If the Prosecuting Attorney of Lewis County determines that the case warrants an arrest and moves forward to prosecute, my Office will assist in the same professional and non-biased way that we always have," Mansfield wrote.

The new coroner who launched the inquest, McLeod, says he has one goal: "to come to a final resolution one way or another."

He quashed efforts by Thompson to force Ron Reynolds and his three sons to testify, and refused her request to prevent "suicide" from being one of the jury's options.

For now, McLeod isn't commenting on what he thinks might have happened 13 years ago.

"At this particular time I'm going to hold off on my opinion," he said, concerned that if he spoke out now it could influence the jury.

Thompson now says her attorneys have evidence that Ron Reynolds, Ronda's husband, may not have even been home on the night of her death, but his three youngest sons from his relationship with his ex-wife were there, she says, in addition to another older son.

"These boys were using drugs," she said.

Rick Cordes, the attorney for the three youngest sons, told, "There's absolutely no evidence of that."

He called the inquest "a waste of time and money" because, regardless of the outcome, "it's not going to change anything."

Ron Reynolds did not respond to an interview request from and his attorney declined to be interviewed.

Unanswered Questions Plague Barb Thompson

Thompson's daughter was found dead in 1998 on the floor of the closet near in the bedroom she shared with her husband, Ron Reynolds, who still works as a principal at the Toledo Elementary school in Washington.

Her body was covered with an electric blanket that had been turned on, both of her hands were underneath. The gun was found in her left hand which was in the blanket and it had no fingerprints on it.

Thompson's attorney asked forensic pathologist Jeffrey Reynolds, no relation to Ron Reynolds, to examine the case a few years ago.

One of the several red flags, he said, was the position of the gun, which had been shot through a pillow placed over Ronda Reynold's head.

"The bullet entry wound is in the right temple and that bullet doesn't cross to the left side," he told "Which means the bullet is angled backward, not sideways, and the question is: How do you do that [if you shoot with your left hand]?"

He also questioned the fact that her hands were found under the blanket, because a shot to the brain would cause her hand to "drop from the recoil."

"Personally," he said. "I think it's a homicide."

The evening before she died, Ronda Reynolds had made plane reservations to visit her mother in Spokane, Wash., and planned to bring her dogs too, one of the reasons why suicide seems unlikely, Thompson said.

Ronda Reynolds, who had only been married to her husband for 11 months, was planning the visit because she had discovered her husband was having an affair with his ex-wife, said Thompson. They agreed to split.

The day before she died, Thompson said, her daughter was going to stay with a friend and go straight to the airport.

"But she decided she was going to go back that night and face him and tell him she was going to be compensated for her equity in the house," Thompson said. "There was nothing suicidal about this girl. She had plans. She was ready to move forward."

The mysterious circumstances of the case generated headlines for years, piquing the interest of best-selling author Ann Rule, who wrote a book published in 2010: "In the Still of the Night: The Strange Death of Ronda Reynolds and Her Mother's Unceasing Quest for the Truth."

"I think a lot of it was because I was a cop and she was a cop, and there was that kinship. I had daughters the same age," Rule told KOMO last year. "So it was always there waiting for me, and I just, you know, maybe because I'm older, maybe it's because this is my 31st book, but it was time."

The lead detective on the case, Jerry Berry, insisted Ronda Reynolds' death was not a suicide, but also noted the first officers to arrive on the scene had not properly gathered evidence.

Inconsistencies in Ronda Reynolds' Investigation

At the Lewis County Sheriff's request, the Washington state attorney general's office examined Reynolds' murder in 2002. In their letter to Sheriff McCroskey, prosecutors concluded her death should be classified as suicide.

Even so, the attorney general's office noted several inconsistencies in the investigation. Among them, officers had not interviewed Ron Reynolds' children after they left the house "in a timely manner," they had not tested Reynolds for gunshot residue, and prosecutors noted "lack of documentation and the timeliness in filing some of the investigative materials."

The Lewis County Sheriff's office also asked Vernon Geberth, a retired NYPD detective in New York, to evaluate the case. His findings, however, were quite different.

"In my professional opinion, this was a staged crime scene," he wrote in 2001, noting that Rhonda Reynolds didn't use electric blankets, and had made both short-term and long-term plans.

Lead detective Berry was demoted in 2001 and eventually quit.

He could not be reached for comment. But in 2008 he told KOMO, "Every piece of circumstantial evidence screamed murder."

Despite his objections, the sheriff's office closed the case as a suicide.

"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 told KOMO.

But at this point, Jeffrey Reynolds told, all the forensic evidence is gone so there's no way to prove homicide.

"You can call it a homicide but you'll never convict anybody of it," said Reynolds. "Somebody would have to confess."