Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Clear Night 60° Clear

Undetermined: A suspicious death at Seattle’s Green Lake and an investigation’s limit

UPDATED: Sun., Nov. 22, 2020

Kjersty Rusch of Marysville holds a photo of daughter Autumn Stone cradling her 1-day-old son. Of Autumn’s death, she says “There’s so much I just don’t understand.”  (Steve Ringman/Seattle Times)
Kjersty Rusch of Marysville holds a photo of daughter Autumn Stone cradling her 1-day-old son. Of Autumn’s death, she says “There’s so much I just don’t understand.” (Steve Ringman/Seattle Times)
By Daniel Gilbert </p><p>and Asia Fields Seattle Times

On a late summer afternoon, Justin Kearns took his paddleboard and pushed off into the glasslike water of Seattle’s Green Lake. He traced the path that his young daughters had taken, gliding by a dark object that they thought was a turtle. It hadn’t moved in at least 30 minutes. “Weird,” he thought.

On his return, Kearns paddled closer and made out a shape that set his mind racing. A person. He checked for signs of life, then hurried back to shore to call 911.

It was just after 4 p.m. on Aug. 30, 2019. A police officer arrived within minutes. He waded into the water through the milfoil, stumbling over the rocky lake bed until he reached the body. It was a young woman, her vest zipped all the way up.

The officer and a firefighter struggled with the zipper, forcing it open and revealing shoelaces bound around her neck. Autumn Lee Stone, 23 years old, mother of a toddler and a newborn, had been strangled to death.

How she came to be floating 20 yards from shore – in one of the city’s most popular parks, on a crowded day, in the middle of a Friday afternoon – led Seattle police detectives to consider foul play. But not for long.

Almost immediately, they formed a theory. Autumn was fully clothed except for her shoes, which investigators found without laces some distance apart in the bushes near where she was pulled ashore. Police saw no sign of a struggle and concluded she had no “defensive injuries.”

An hour after the 911 call, a police spokesman told a Seattle Times reporter that the death in Green Lake was probably a suicide. No witnesses came forward to report anything unusual. The lead detective later obtained what he considered a suicide note. Two weeks after Autumn’s death, he closed the case.

This level of certainty on how Autumn died is not widely shared outside the police department. Not by friends and family members who were in touch with her hours before her death. Not by a firefighter who tried to revive her. Not by independent forensic experts who reviewed case records on behalf of The Times.

And not by the King County Medical Examiner’s Office, the authority on how a person died, which found she’d been strangled to death but could not determine by whom. Of roughly 2,300 deaths that Seattle police responded to since 2017, the medical examiner hasn’t been able to determine the manner of death in less than 3% of cases. Autumn Stone’s death is among this small number, where the official ruling on how she died is “undetermined.”

Now even SPD is re-examining the case in response to questions raised by Autumn’s family, while standing by the thoroughness of its original investigation.

“We haven’t yet found anything that would change the initial determination on the case, but we are welcoming any new information,” said Lauren Truscott, a sergeant in the homicide division.

It is very uncommon for people to strangle themselves in the way Autumn died. Dr. Sally Aiken, Spokane’s medical examiner and the president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, said that she has seen two or three such cases out of more than 9,000 autopsies she’s performed.

Autumn’s family members have agonized over the unanswered questions in her death. “There’s so much I just don’t understand,” said her mother, Kjersty Rusch. “I don’t know why they can say it’s a suicide and just let it go.”

The SPD formed a theory early on and stuck to it, closing the case and not pursuing additional evidence, an examination by the Seattle Times found.

The police didn’t contact several people who were in touch with Autumn the day she died. They considered a written prayer from her notebook to be a suicide note, to the shock of family members who read it. They didn’t mention in their case report that the medical examiner found sperm cells in her – and they didn’t send this or any other evidence to a lab for DNA analysis until months after closing the case.

The lack of evidence that someone killed Autumn became SPD’s strongest evidence that she killed herself.

Said one forensic pathologist: “The absence of something doesn’t tell you anything.”

A revelation

Autumn Stone was always smiling, sometimes more for others than for herself. When her parents divorced, a 12-year-old Autumn “tried very hard to make sure that I was OK and that I was loved,” her father said.

Her mother, who was addicted to alcohol, credits Autumn with helping her get sober. In high school Autumn developed ulcers from stress and dropped out, later getting her diploma.

By the summer of 2019, her family members had never seen her happier. She was in love, engaged to marry her fiancé, Tyler Washington, that September. The couple had just welcomed their first child together, Autumn’s second son. They lived in her grandparents’ spacious home in Everett as they tried to save up for their own place.

At 9:45 p.m. on Aug. 21, 2019, the week before her death, Autumn stepped out to pick up food from a Jack in the Box nearby. The baby was sleeping and she left him with Washington, who didn’t drive. She was gone only 12 minutes but returned to find her fiancé and grandparents tending to the baby, who was limp and gasping for air.

The baby survived but was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and broken ribs. As doctors worked to save the infant’s life, they determined that the injuries couldn’t have been accidental.

Two days later, state child welfare workers sat down with Autumn, Washington and a few of her family members to explain why they were taking custody of the baby pending an investigation. After going over the medical evidence, a state official said, “Tyler’s past also played a part.”

“What past?” Autumn asked.

Autumn and her fiancé had known each other since they were kids, but had lost touch before reconnecting in 2017. She wasn’t one to Google a boyfriend’s name, and what the state official said took her breath away.

Washington had another child with a previous partner, and pleaded guilty in 2014 to shaking his baby daughter when she was a month old, causing permanent brain damage, the (Everett) Herald reported at the time.

“I just snapped,” he had told an Everett police detective after failing a polygraph. He was sentenced to five years in prison and released after two.

At the meeting in August 2019, Washington apologized for not telling Autumn or her family, saying he thought they wouldn’t have accepted him. He said he pleaded guilty to protect his family but didn’t commit the crime.

Autumn broke off the engagement. Washington moved out of her grandparents’ house and they changed the locks.

Gone without goodbye

Kymberly Adams had seen the Facebook posts asking for prayers and knew something terrible had happened to her friend. At 9:36 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 30, she dialed Autumn.

“I’ve never had a conversation so ingrained in my brain,” Adams said. Her friend’s voice had the sound of a “a mama bear growling.”

Over 15 minutes, Autumn let her in on the past nine days: a blur of tears and prayers, phone calls and meetings with social workers, doctors, lawyers and police. A criminal investigation was pending. Her parental rights were on the line.

She was distraught at what had happened to her baby and that she wasn’t allowed to visit him in the hospital. But she was determined to get her boys back.

“I know it will be a long process but I have Faith that eventually I will have my babies with me!” she texted her father one night that week, signing off with heart and halo emojis.

The day before Adams called, Everett police detectives had carted away evidence from her home – blanket, jumpsuit, car seat cover – and told her and her mother that they were not suspects. Even after the split with Washington, Autumn told the detectives she had never seen him act violently.

Adams had worked with both Autumn and Washington at the Nordstrom Café in Bellevue, and said she knew about Washington’s criminal record. She thought Autumn knew, too. Everett police considered his prior conviction “extremely similar” to what happened with his and Autumn’s baby, and Adams also made the connection.

“I said, ‘It was him, wasn’t it?’” Adams recalled saying.

Adams said that Autumn wouldn’t name names because of the pending investigation, but confided one thing that she had withheld from family. “I’m going to get answers today,” Adams remembered her saying. Autumn didn’t elaborate on her plans, but there was an urgency in her voice, Adams said. “She stressed the word, ‘today.’”

About half an hour after they spoke, Autumn sat down with a notebook she’d been using to jot down notes and appointments. She began writing a prayer.

It wasn’t unusual for her to do so. In an undated journal entry, apparently after her baby was born the previous month, she wrote that her sons were “my whole world” and “I pray to you Lord to continue to surround us with your love and angels,” concluding with an “Amen.”

Now, at 10:26 a.m. on Aug. 30, 2019, she appealed for her baby’s healing. “Thank you for all the Blessings you Have given me in my life, my Two Beautiful Sons who are my whole world,” she wrote.

“I love my babies with every piece of my heart and would and will do anything and everything I need to make sure they have the absolute best lives possible!” she wrote, bracketing the page with hearts and underlining the word “will.” “Amen!”

Autumn told her mother she was going to Green Lake Park, where they had occasionally gone as a family, for a walk and a pedicure. She also made plans to visit her toddler son, who was with his father, Jakob Johnson, later in the day. Johnson had taken custody of their son the prior week and had just filed a petition to limit Autumn to supervised visits, a step he felt forced to take by child welfare workers and not over any concerns about her as a parent.

He believes the last text he received from Autumn confirming the visit was around 1:30 or 2 p.m.

At 11:31 a.m., Autumn called her mother to say she’d arrived at Green Lake. “It was more of a, ‘I just want to touch base with you, let you know that I’m OK,’ you know, with everything that was going on,” said Rusch. “It wasn’t a ‘goodbye.’ It was an ‘I’ll see you later.’”

At 11:51 a.m., Autumn texted her stepmom, thanking her for sending a photo of the baby and telling her about plans to meet with police. “I should be able to talk with the police on Tuesday for polygraph,” she wrote.

Her 2013 Hyundai was parked at the Green Lake Community Center. From there, a popular path traces the lake’s curves, bending north and west over a mile to a pebble beach.

It was here, around 3:30 p.m., that two young girls paddling along the lake remarked on what they thought, mistakenly, was a turtle.

‘Nothing that indicates homicide’

The police officers who responded to Green Lake were confounded by the scene of Autumn’s death.

“How did she end up in the water? That’s a good question, right?” one officer said.

“Right. And then nobody saw a damn thing, right?” a second officer replied.

“I don’t know, doesn’t seem right,” said the first.

“Doesn’t seem right,” the second agreed.

A firefighter who helped retrieve Autumn from the lake had never seen a death like it in his decades of work for the Seattle Fire Department. “I don’t think anyone could have done this to themselves,” he said later.

The paddleboarder who discovered the body told police he’d seen a man sitting on a bench nearby. His wife also saw a man – about 6 feet tall with a salt-and-pepper ponytail – who hurriedly left the area after sirens approached. It isn’t clear if they saw different men, but officers never located anyone matching their descriptions.

Police found only one person in the immediate vicinity: a 47-year-old man lying in a hammock who had multiple protection orders and an outstanding warrant in a misdemeanor domestic violence case. After weighing whether to detain him, officers decided his only connection to the death was being nearby and let him leave.

As the officers searched for evidence of a crime, a homicide detective named Ed Garcia arrived. A low-key SPD veteran of nearly 30 years, he looked at the scene like a canvas and began to read from it.

Garcia saw no signs of a struggle or marks of a body being dragged. In photos taken at the scene, Autumn’s knuckles appear reddened or scraped with a cut on one finger, though the coating of dirt and the camera’s focus make it difficult to tell. A forensic pathologist who examined her said he saw no injuries to her hands after cleaning them of debris.

For the detective, the body was the “main piece of evidence” and the story written there bore no traces of homicide.

“I gotta tell you,” he later told Autumn’s mother. “We completely and literally have zero homicidal marks that we look for, nothing that indicates homicide.”

Autumn’s phone had been damaged in the water and SPD couldn’t extract any data from it.

But there was more to consider. Garcia had questions for her fiancé, and he wanted to look at his phone.

Garcia called Washington four days after Autumn’s death. He sounded shocked, Garcia noted, an appropriate response for someone just getting the news.

Washington arrived at SPD headquarters within 45 minutes. He said he hadn’t communicated with Autumn on the day of her death and handed over his phone for analysis. He said he had been at his mother’s home in Bellevue all day on Aug. 30, and she verified this to police.

Garcia pressed the point. We live in a world of electronic surveillance, he told Washington, “So if we start looking for surveillance cameras all over where she was found, we’re not going to find any video of you and her together.”

“That is correct, you won’t see anything,” Washington said.

Garcia’s report makes no mention of messages on Washington’s phone, but it does note that there was no location data after Aug. 10 – more than a week before the hospitalization of his and Autumn’s son. Garcia wrote up a warrant seeking Washington’s phone records but hit a stumbling block.

In death investigations, there is a kind of feedback loop between police and medical examiner. If pathologists rule a death is homicide, police investigate accordingly. If they aren’t sure, it can be harder for police to gather evidence. Without more evidence from police, the medical examiner sometimes can’t determine how a person died.

In a recorded call with Autumn’s mom, Kjersty Rusch, from Sept. 9, 2019, Seattle police detective Ed Garcia describes the lack of evidence they have in the case.

“In this case, there is not sufficient evidence for KCMEO (King County Medical Examiner’s Office) to conclude either suicide or homicide as the manner of death,” a county spokesman said, declining further comment.

“If no crime is established either in a medical examiner’s ruling or through the gathering of evidence, it can limit the investigative process,” said Sgt. Truscott of SPD’s homicide division.

A judge ruled that Garcia lacked probable cause to obtain Washington’s phone records. A prosecutor advised Garcia that the warrant wasn’t justified “since there was no crime established.”

Garcia had described an investigation as assembling a “global picture” of what Autumn was doing the day of her death, talking to “anybody and everybody.” She had spoken or texted that day with her court-appointed lawyer, her friend Adams, and her former partner Johnson. All three said SPD never contacted them. Washington gave Garcia the names of two other friends of Autumn’s; both said they were never contacted by SPD.

In a recorded interview with Tyler Washington on Sept. 3, 2019, Garcia said he would conduct an investigation that builds a “global picture” of the day Autumn Stone died.

But Garcia did acquire one other piece of evidence that he found significant: the prayer she’d written the day of her death promising do anything to ensure her sons had the best lives.

Unexamined evidence

James Stone got the call the night of his daughter’s death. He tried to climb the stairs to his wife Amy but staggered to his knees. “Is it the baby?” she asked. “All he could say was, ‘Autumn.’”

In their grief, the Stones put their trust in SPD to get to the bottom of how Autumn died. But their trust quickly began to fray.

Garcia wouldn’t give them much information, they said, and they struggled to get him to return calls. They later learned, to their shock, that SPD considered the prayer Autumn wrote on the morning of her death – promising to do anything to ensure her sons had the best lives – to be a suicide note, and that Garcia had closed the case so quickly.

“I was shaken and realized at that point they’re not going to figure it out,” Amy Stone said.

James, a business analyst for Nintendo, and Amy, a hair stylist, had been trying to run down leads on their own, and it had become overwhelming. That’s when they hired a private investigator named Brent Campbell, a former patrol officer in Redmond. What initially struck Campbell was the physics implied by SPD’s conclusion.

“If they’re going to call it a suicide, how?” he said. “How did she do that? Nobody seems to be able to tell us.”

Above all, Campbell was surprised by how fast SPD closed the case – and that they did so without submitting any evidence for DNA analysis.

He and the Stones wanted SPD to send Autumn’s shoes, shoelaces and jacket zipper to a crime lab, along with another piece of physical evidence that isn’t mentioned in the police report: sperm cells recovered by the medical examiner from a vaginal swab.

“As soon as we saw that, we notified the detectives,” said Dr. Timothy Williams, a forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy. He didn’t remember the exact date he made the call but said it was before the report was finalized last November.

Truscott, of SPD, said only that Garcia received the autopsy report on Jan. 21.

In early February, he mailed swabs collected by the medical examiner to the Washington State Patrol’s crime lab. He didn’t name any suspects in the paperwork he submitted, only noting that Washington had been a “person of interest due to issues surrounding their relationship.” Nearly five months after closing the case, Garcia wanted to know whose DNA was in Autumn’s body.

By early May, the crime lab had an answer: There was no semen or male DNA at all on the swabs. Garcia retired from SPD about two weeks later. No one told Autumn’s family about the WSP analysis until the Times shared a copy of the report last summer.

Sean Carhart, WSP’s technical lead for DNA analysis, said there are many reasons that could affect detecting sperm cells, from how evidence is stored to the kind of stain and microscope used. It’s also possible that for a sample with few sperm cells, the portion that the lab analyzes might not include them, he said.

In consulting with Campbell, the family contacted the King County medical examiner and learned that it still had the original slide on which it identified the sperm. James Stone sent another email to SPD detectives asking for the slide and other physical evidence to be submitted to the WSP crime lab. This time, he copied then-Chief Carmen Best.

Best replied one minute later. “Please handle, and advise me,” she wrote to her staff.

SPD has now reopened the case in response to the family’s questions and shared the investigation with prosecutors for additional review. It is considering sending the slide from the medical examiner to a private lab.

Unanswered questions

Autumn’s family agonizes over questions they still can’t answer.

Why did it take months for SPD to submit the sperm identified by the medical examiner for DNA analysis? What information could be gleaned from the yet-to-be-analyzed slide? If Autumn had injuries on her hands, as Campbell firmly believes the photos show, what could explain them? Why did SPD consider Autumn’s prayer to be a suicide note?

Truscott, the homicide sergeant, said her knowledge was largely limited to the detective’s case report. She had no answer to these questions, but stressed that the investigation is active.

Garcia told the Times he couldn’t comment because the investigation is open.

SPD has asked Autumn’s family members for a copy of the notebook in which she wrote the prayer that police considered a suicide note, to better understand the context. The department is working with the U.S. Secret Service to see if they can salvage her water-damaged phone.

Four independent forensic pathologists and death investigators reviewed case documents at the request of the Times. None thought the evidence pointed definitively to suicide or homicide.

“I would lean towards homicide,” said Dr. Donald Jason, a forensic pathologist based in North Carolina, largely because he doubts she could have killed herself in this way. Still, if Autumn had died exactly as police described, it struck him as “a very strange way to kill someone.”

The other three said that suicide in this way – while rare – was at least possible, particularly given the lack of evidence of a struggle.

“When you put everything together, I can see that police would come up with suicide,” said Dr. Lee Ann Grossberg, a Houston-based forensic pathologist. “It does sound like ‘I’s’ have not been dotted and some ‘T’s’ haven’t been crossed,” she said. “There are some questions that haven’t been answered.”

Did Autumn encounter someone at Green Lake? It’s a question that still lingers in the case, with SPD unable to seek answers from her phone or her fiancé’s phone records.

It’s a question that haunts him, too, Tyler Washington said.

A different theory

It had been a year since Washington left his police interview when a Times reporter caught up with him, and he readily agreed to talk. Now 26, Washington seemed to know little about the course SPD’s investigation had taken.

“My main question would, of course, be how?” he said. “How did she pass away?”

He said he hadn’t heard, until informed by the Times, that police concluded she killed herself – but that disclosure hardly registered.

“My emotions are just devastated,” he began, “just the fact that someone did her for no reason. It just, it kills me.”

But about the police conclusion of suicide? What did he think of that?

“It doesn’t sound like anything that Autumn would do,” he said.

He’d formed his own theory about how Autumn died, based on information he’d gathered about the cause of death and the presence of DNA in her body: “She was at the wrong place at the wrong time and someone, maybe some crazy dude, came over and got her.”

Yes, Washington knew that police considered him a person of interest in Autumn’s death, and he felt the suspicion was unfair. He hadn’t corresponded with Autumn or met up with her the day of her death, he said.

No, he hadn’t known that police found no location data on his phone after Aug. 10, and he seemed puzzled by this.

“I always have my location on, no matter what,” he said. “(SPD) had a year to figure this out and they’ve still come up with nothing.”

Washington had been trying to move on, but it hadn’t been easy.

Everett police found Washington deceptive about injuring his baby on a polygraph, but there were no witnesses and he denied it. The investigation concluded with no charges.

“It is a little hard to believe that both cases are similar,” Washington said of the abuse investigations. He said he hadn’t harmed either baby – including the charge he pleaded guilty to. “My kids are everything to me, and I would never do anything to cause them physical harm.”

He’d started a new relationship but said it didn’t last. Autumn will always be a part of his life, he said, and he imagines her smiling down from above. “I live on in her name,” he said.

Epilogue

On Aug. 30, a few of Autumn’s family members met at Green Lake and made their way out along a dock. They brought purple flowers, her favorite color, cut the stems off and set them in the water.

Autumn’s older son, now 4, tossed the petals at ducks as if they were breadcrumbs.

“He does pretty good,” said Johnson, his father, his voice breaking. “He still comes to the window from time to time, stares out the window and says, ‘Mom?’”

Autumn’s younger son “still has a lot of issues,” said Rusch, Autumn’s mother. “He’s very fragile. But he’s a miracle.”

The uncertainty about Autumn’s death has kept the wound open. Her family members have one main goal: reaching the hundreds of people who went to Green Lake park on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019, in the hope that someone might have captured something on a camera or smartphone.

“Somebody out there has to have seen something,” James Stone said. “There’s no way in the world that nobody has any information.”

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter

Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.