Editor’s Note: This story contains descriptions of a dog that was killed along with details about forensic necropsy and other information readers may find disturbing.
New evidence in the case of Aron Christensen, the 49-year-old hiker who died of a gunshot wound beside his 4-month-old puppy, an Australian cattle dog named Buzzo, along a trail south of Packwood in August 2022 casts new questions and doubts onto the investigation.
Documents from the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office’s case file already show the investigation was flawed since the beginning, with the first responding deputy erroneously determining the wound in Christensen’s side was not a gunshot wound and calling off detectives who were already on the way to the scene, followed by the possible cross contamination of evidence at the Lewis County Coroner’s Office.
The fact that the two necropsies on Buzzo, one performed by local veterinarian Dr. Brandy Fay and one performed by forensic veterinary specialist Dr. Kris Otteman, resulted in vastly different determinations on Buzzo’s cause of death also caused concern for Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer, who declined to file charges against the primary suspect in the case last month.
Fay recently obtained the dog’s body a second time for evaluation. She reported this week that a second wound on the dog, one found during Otteman’s autopsy but not during Fay’s, that was thought to be the entrance or exit wound from a passthrough bullet, very likely occurred post-mortem, meaning it was created after the dog died.
This finding is based on a test done on the tissue by an independent lab, IDEXX, a reference animal laboratory used frequently by standard veterinarians. The Chronicle attempted to reach the lab, but the results were generated by a researcher based in Australia who did not respond by email before The Chronicle’s deadline.
Beyond reaching out to the lab, The Chronicle attempted to consult with four independent forensic veterinary scientists on the matter. Each was either not willing to make a statement on the record because they didn’t have a veterinary license in Washington state; felt they couldn’t consult without their own review of the dog; or simply didn’t respond.
One local independent veterinarian, who is choosing not to be named in this story, also viewed the reports and agreed the wound is consistent with being post-mortem.
A fifth independent reviewer, with a specialty in forensic veterinary medicine, felt it would be necessary to evaluate the dog in person to make that call.
When asked about the new information on Tuesday, Lewis County Sheriff’s Office Special Services Chief Kevin Englebertson said, “This is the first I’m hearing about any of this.”
Engelbertson then asked whether Fay was suggesting “law enforcement shot the dog?”
A reporter said that was unclear, but the test “strongly suggests” the wound was made post-mortem.
“Obviously we’re gonna now follow up on some things,” Engelbertson said, adding he’d need to reach out to the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office. “But I can’t comment on why (Dr. Fay) would have found that or why she would have seen that. She’s doing something totally outside of our investigation at this point.”
Dr. Brandy Fay has worked as a veterinarian in Lewis County since 2007.
She began working with local law enforcement offices’ K9 units in 2010 and is currently the go-to veterinarian for Lewis County Animal Control.
When the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office K9 Arlo was shot, she performed his life-saving surgery.
“I’m working six days a week. I see a ton of cases, and I’ve dealt with a lot of gunshot wounds,” Fay told The Chronicle on Saturday, April 29. “One of the most prominent ones, of course, was Arlo. … I’ve become the go-to veterinarian for consultations. I have just a ton of experience with law enforcement, many of which I consider friends.”
When law enforcement officers come in, Fay said, she has a standard rule: “Just walk to the back, we’ll take good care of your dogs.”
In August 2022, when Aron Christensen, 49, of Portland, and his 4-month-old cattle dog puppy (often called a blue or red heeler, depending on coloring), Buzzo, were found dead beside one another on the 101 trail near Walupt Lake, south of Packwood, the Lewis County Coroner’s Office asked Fay to perform the necropsy.
Buzzo’s body was brought to the office, Newaukum Valley Veterinary Services in Chehalis, on Aug. 30, 2022, 10 days after the two bodies were found. At the time, the cause of death for Christensen was still pending, but the forensic pathologist had found a bullet inside his body.
Later, that bullet would be matched with the gun turned in to law enforcement after being used by Ethan Asbach, 20, of Tenino. Asbach claimed in a sworn statement he had “shot a dog” and subsequently discovered Christensen, already dead.
In a recently-obtained interview between the forensic pathologist, Dr. Megan Quinn, and Prosecutor Meyer, though, Quinn stated it’s more likely Christensen was alive for “up to hours” after the gunshot wound. Quinn also briefly examined Buzzo before the dog was sent to the Thurston County Coroner’s Office for X-rays, as he was wrapped in a tarp with Christensen and she was tasked with finding the cause of death. On Buzzo, she saw one main wound and another, nearby, superficial wound. She believed them to be connected.
But Fay didn’t know any of this information when she examined the dog. She said sheriff’s office Detective Jamey McGinty asked that she preserve as much of the dog as possible for evidence, so she avoided cutting open Buzzo’s abdomen.
Not doing so was her only regret from the necropsy, Fay said during an interview with The Chronicle on Saturday, April 29.
Without the ability to cut open the dog fully, she performed what she felt to be her best examination possible. She said she shaved the dog’s side and used a fine-toothed comb to brush Buzzo’s fur forward and backward.
Fay’s conclusion, after more than three hours of continual external examination and up to 18 hours with the dog cumulatively, was Buzzo had one single penetrating wound, about 1 centimeter wide, which served as both an entry and exit wound. The cause of death, she said, was a puncture to the puppy’s heart and bleeding in his chest. She also observed an additional superficial wound near the first, but did not believe it to be connected to the other, as the pathologist originally had.
Her report stated Buzzo would have died within seconds.
Fay inserted a probe within the wound and took an X-ray, showing where she believes the tract ended.
“I then got on the phone with the coroner and a detective, who I believe was McGinty,” Fay said. “They said, ‘Well, this is the story. Apparently this guy was found, shot, and the puppy was found next to (him) ... the puppy was shot first and then the bullet went into the gentleman, and he died.’ And, I remember laughing. Because that dog wasn’t shot. That dog wasn’t shot, the dog was stabbed.”
Asked how she could be sure, Fay told them Buzzo, if shot, would have had a bullet inside him, or a separate exit wound, and she found neither. In reports obtained through a public records request, McGinty notes Fay’s conclusion and states this evidence contradicts the story of Ethan Asbach and his, at the time, 16-year-old girlfriend, whose name is redacted from the records because she is a minor.
Though not admissible as evidence in the case, Asbach took a polygraph which determined he was not being deceptive when saying he did not know there was another human present in the area when he fired his gun.
McGinty then requested charges of manslaughter and first-degree animal cruelty, which suggests an animal was killed intentionally and cruelly, to the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office. The prosecutor declined to file the charges, asking for more information on the case including details on the bullet and phone records from the suspect.
When the detective came to retrieve Buzzo and the necropsy report, Fay said McGinty did not provide any chain of custody paperwork. In the records request, Fay’s office and name are not listed on the chain of custody paperwork for Buzzo, either, despite his body being categorized as evidence, according to a previous interview with the Lewis County Coroner’s Office.
“When McGinty came and got that report, he asked that the report be on a flash drive, not emailed to him,” Fay said, later adding, “According to my chain of custody form, I still had the dog this entire time.”
After Fay turned in her necropsy report, McGinty reportedly asked her to sit down with Dr. Megan Quinn, the forensic pathologist, and discuss their differences of opinion on the superficial wound. Fay said the meeting never happened.
In the following months, Aron Christensen’s family’s attorney would email Fay asking for copies of the necropsy report. While veterinary medicine isn’t subject to the same confidentiality laws as human medical practice, she said she’s very selective about who gets to see her records, especially when they’re part of an active investigation.
Fay assured McGinty she would not release the information at the time.
“He said, ‘OK, well, send me a copy of the letter that you’re going to send the family’s attorney,’” Fay told The Chronicle. “I said, ‘Sure, no problem. Can I send it over email?’ And (McGinty) was like, ‘Yeah, just make sure you do not put a subject line on it so it doesn’t show up in a public records request.’ … That was the last I heard from anybody in (the sheriff’s) office. I have not heard from the coroner. Nobody from the prosecutor. Nobody.”
Months later, Fay learned a second necropsy had been performed on Buzzo in December 2022. Asked this week why they sought a second opinion, the sheriff’s office declined to comment.
Fay said she encourages people to seek second opinions on her work and claimed she’d be the first to apologize if she was wrong. But, the second necropsy was so starkly different from hers, she said, “My initial gut punch was I thought they had actually switched the dog.”
The second necropsy was performed by Dr. Kris Otteman, a board member on the International Veterinary Forensic Sciences Association, a forensic veterinary specialist and a senior advisor to the Oregon Humane Society.
Otteman has written books and taught college classes on animal cruelty investigations. She did not respond to requests for comment by The Chronicle over email and voicemail.
Fay had received just the written report from Otteman’s necropsy, which stated Buzzo was killed by a pass-through, 9mm bullet. Otteman’s report includes a photo of a separate exit or entrance wound from the bullet, too, which Fay hadn’t previously discovered, on the opposite side of the first wound.
Upon her second evaluation of Buzzo in the last two weeks, she found it — less than one inch above the part of Buzzo she first shaved.
“I waited for somebody to reach out to me and say, ‘Oh, God dang, doc. You missed this,’” Fay recalled. “I’m the first one to say … ‘mea culpa all the way. I need to publicly apologize to that family. I need to make it right.’”
Then, Fay received the photos from Otteman’s autopsy. Those show a wound allegedly made in an alive dog, she said, but there was no blood.
“Then, the report said the dog died within five minutes. During that five minutes, the definition of being alive is that the heart is still pumping,” Fay said. “And guess what’s going to happen? It’s going to bleed.”
Fay waited again. Given her long relationship with the sheriff’s, prosecutor’s and coroner’s offices, she said, she expected to be asked to sit down with Otteman and talk about their findings, professional-to-professional, like when Detective Jamey McGinty asked her to confer with the pathologist who performed Christensen’s autopsy. But that never happened.
With cellphone mapping, bullet forensics and the new necropsy report, the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office again referred charges against the suspect, Ethan Asbach, to the prosecuting attorney’s office. After weeks of sifting through the paperwork, Meyer, the prosecutor, again declined to file charges on April 10.
He cited issues with the initial investigation, where a deputy called off detectives from arriving at the scene of Aron Christensen’s death despite at least one having already arrived at the campground near the scene, more than a two-hour drive from the sheriff’s office in Chehalis.
Meyer, in the letter to the sheriff’s office explaining his charging decision, also noted the presence of dog DNA on the bullet.
Previously, Dr. Megan Quinn, the forensic pathologist, said she could not guarantee there was no cross-contamination between instruments or on the gloves worn by staff that were used to evaluate both Buzzo and Christensen.
In a recent interview, Lewis County Coroner Warren McLeod also theorized other ways dog DNA could be on the bullet — besides passing through Buzzo into Christensen — such as the DNA being present on the shirt Christensen wore when he was shot.
With cross-contamination even a possibility, Meyer stated any conclusions drawn from DNA on the bullet “are at best, of questionable reality.”
Now, with the investigation essentially over and with the family’s permission, Dr. Brandy Fay was able to look over Buzzo once again. Upon her second evaluation, she took a tissue sample from the claimed exit/entrance wound which she didn’t find in her original necropsy, and sent it to IDEXX Reference Laboratories.
She also claimed Buzzo had a broken rib which was not present in X-rays from Thurston County nor her own. Fay said her entire follow-up evaluation was performed on video in case it would be part of an investigation.
The report states, “In this case, there is no conclusive evidence to confirm that this wound was inflicted ante-mortem (prior to the animal’s death).”
It also describes discrepancies between the wound and one that would be ante-mortem. A wound of this kind made on the animal while it was alive, for example, would show significant bleeding, cell death in the tissue and inflammation. None of these are present on the secondary wound, but they are present on the first wound.
Asked how Dr. Kris Otteman, the expert forensic veterinarian, could have overlooked this, Fay said, “I think Dr. Otteman found what they wanted her to find.”
It should be noted sheriff’s office Detective Jamey McGinty was present for Otteman’s necropsy, but was not present for Fay’s. McGinty did not return The Chronicle’s request for comment.
If the exit/entrance wound is proven to have been created between the two necropsies, law enforcement could be implicated in tampering with evidence, as the dog was in the sheriff’s office possession between Fay’s initial necropsy until now. Even during the second necropsy, Buzzo remained in the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office’s care. If and why someone would shoot or otherwise maim a dead dog is unclear, though, especially to Fay.
“I am not going to speculate,” Fay said, later adding, “But, like I said, you can’t miss an exit wound or a wound that didn’t exist in the first place. ... Dead dogs don’t bleed.”
According to Fay’s lawyer, Joan Mell, of Three Branches Law, the situation has been reported to the Washington Criminal Justice Training Commission and an investigator has been assigned.
“I think it’s really important to recognize Fay’s expertise and acknowledge that she has a patient and her patient is Buzzo,” Mell said. “And she has a duty of loyalty and responsibility to that dog. And veterinarians care about dogs. Dogs matter and Buzzo mattered.”
• Justice Delayed: Documents Shed Light on Tumultuous Investigation Into Death of Aron Christensen: https://www.chronline.com/stories/justice-delayed-documents-shed-light-on-tumultuous-investigation-into-death-of-aron-christensen,316167
• ‘Do I Wish It Was Different? Absolutely’; Sheriff’s Office Addresses Investigation Into Death of Aron Christensen: https://www.chronline.com/stories/do-i-wish-it-was-different-absolutely-sheriffs-office-addresses-investigation-into-death,317392
• Lewis County Coroner’s Office Details Investigation Into 2022 Death of Aron Christensen:
• Records From Prosecutor’s Office Cast New Light on LCSO’s Investigation Into Death of Aron Christensen: