August 19, 2010 in Region

Washington troopers died from smoke inhalation

Chris Bristol Yakima Herald-Republic

ZILLAH, Wash. — Smoke inhalation caused the deaths of three Washington State Patrol employees who were killed in a house fire early Monday.

Yakima County Coroner Jack Hawkins said autopsies that were completed Wednesday found no sign of foul play unrelated to the fire, and that asphyxiation from smoke inhalation will be listed as the official cause of death.

“Basically, they suffocated,” he said.

Killed in the blaze were trooper Gary Miller, 55, his wife, emergency communications manager Anne Miller-Hewitt, 54, and trooper Kristopher Sperry, a 30-year-old rookie.

The fire gutted the Millers’ home on Falcon Ridge Road outside Zillah. Sperry was living there temporarily until his home was built.

Investigators resumed work at the scene of the blaze Wednesday and are expected to remain there through the end of the week, Yakima County Chief of Detectives Stew Graham said.

He said evidence is being handled meticulously and that investigators are conducting interviews with a number of witnesses, including people who reported the fire, firefighters who fought the blaze and people who have knowledge of the Miller home.

About 25 people from several agencies, including the sheriff’s office, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the State Patrol and the county Fire Marshal’s Office, the lead investigating agency, were at the scene Wednesday.

Graham and Hawkins said the bodies were found in the basement of the three-story house, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they died there. Sperry is said to have been living in the basement, but the floors collapsed from fire damage.

A cause is not expected soon, and Graham has warned that investigators may never reach a definitive conclusion.

While authorities haven’t ruled out any possible causes for the early-morning fire, they have dismissed any suggestion of arson or that the State Patrol employees had been the target of threats.

The autopsy results, Graham said, are “another fact to be considered among many many others” when investigators complete their report.

Miller was a 20-year veteran of the State Patrol who, along with Sperry, worked out of the patrol’s detachment, or field office, in Grandview. (The detachment had been based in Sunnyside until February 2007.)

Miller-Hewitt was the manager of the State Patrol’s emergency dispatch center in Wenatchee.

Memorial services for the three employees are expected but have not yet been announced. Their deaths were the largest single loss of life for the patrol in its 89-year history.

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email