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Widow challenges Island County coroner’s determination

The wife of a man who died on South Whidbey two years ago wants a judge or jury to overrule the coroner’s determination that he committed suicide.

Rachel P. Anderson, wife of the late Martin Anderson, filed a “petition for judicial review” against Island County Coroner Robert Bishop in Snohomish County Superior Court Aug. 6.

The petition, filed by Bellevue attorney John Peick, claims that Martin Anderson’s death “was caused by unlawful or unnatural means, to-wit, homicide, accident or unintended adverse drug interactions.”

Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks said state law allows for such petitions, but they are rare and the statute offers little guidance. He said it’s unclear how the official cause of death would be changed — whether by a judge, jury or through a coroner’s inquest — but he will oppose the petition.

“My plan is to defend Dr. Bishop’s determination as it is grounded in fact,” he said. “He was very thorough in his investigation.”

Bishop said he was advised not to discuss the litigation in detail.

“I’m very comfortable with our determination,” he said. “I stand behind in 100 percent.”

A deputy with the Island County Sheriff’s Office discovered Martin Anderson’s body in the backyard of a Clinton home while conducting a welfare check Oct. 17, 2011, according to documents obtained by the Whidbey News-Times through a public records request.

Anderson’s brother-in-law called the sheriff’s office and asked for a deputy to check on Anderson at the couple’s vacation home. The man said they were unable to reach Anderson by phone and he was due back at his Bothell home hours prior.

A deputy found Anderson’s body face-down in the backyard of the vacation home. A small red-handled knife and sheath were found nearby.

A detective was unable to find identifiable fingerprints on the knife or sheath.

A small incision was located on the right side of Anderson’s neck, in “the area of the jugular vein.”

Investigators found no evidence of a struggle or break-in at the house.

Detective Laura Price obtained video recordings from the Washington State Ferries. One video shows that Anderson was alone in the car.

Price wrote in her report on the investigation that she had multiple conversations with Bishop and concurs with his finding that Anderson committed suicide.

“Neither the detectives nor the coroner found any reason to believe it was homicide,” Banks said.

The petition, however, alleges that Bishop made the determination without adequate investigation and “despite contrary and additional information and without judicial review.”

“The cause of death of Martin Anderson has not been properly determined by the coroner as undisputed facts continue to contradict the coroner’s opinion,” Peick wrote in the petition.

“The family and coroner met on Aug. 9, 2012, but the coroner refused to consider alternative scenarios or acknowledge the contradictory evidence,” the petition states.

In addition, the petition faults Bishop for not convening an inquest.

The last inquest in the county, Banks said, occurred after 23-year-old Edward Gregoire hanged himself in the Oak Harbor jail in 1995. Bishop’s inquest cleared the police of any wrongdoing in the death, but the tragedy spawned a series of lawsuits.

In 2005, a jury found that the police officers were negligent, but not the “proximate cause” of the death.

Banks said he was only able to find one example in the state of a successful judicial review of a coroner’s decision. In that case, a coroner for Lewis County ruled that former State Trooper Ronda Reynolds 1998 shooting death was a suicide. Her mother was convinced it was murder and filed a lawsuit against the coroner. After lengthy legal battles, a newly-elected coroner held a public inquest and the jurors determined that Reynolds’ death was a homicide and suspects named.

Bishop has a doctorate in veterinary medicine and a certificate as a “medicolegal death investigator” and has completed a series of death-investigation classes at the renowned St. Louis University. He is a fellow with the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators, the highest level attainable.

 

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