Family claims Pierce County medical examiner should not have ruled son's death a suicide

PUYALLUP, Wash. — Surveillance video captured the last moments of Jordon Gish's life before he plunged to his death. Pierce County Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Clark called the 16-year-old's death a suicide. But Gish's family claims that's not true.

“Because it wasn’t a suicide,” Gish’s father Michael said in an interview with KIRO 7. Gish has been fighting to have his son's cause of death changed for more than a year and a half. He says the finding of suicide is painful for a family still dealing with the loss of a child.

“To see the death certificate, the fact of the matter that I’ve already lost my son and then to see that. It wasn’t suicide,” Michael Gish said. “It shouldn’t be there.”

It was the early morning hours of July 6, 2017, when Gish was out with a girl near Meridian Street and the Puyallup River.

“Jordon Gish, being 16 years old, decided to head out on his bike for the evening,” said Gish family attorney Joan Mell. “Had a plan to stay out all night with his girlfriend.”

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Surveillance video from businesses near the scene of Gish’s death show the two setting off fireworks, taking a balloon from a nearby business and running around vacant parking lots in the dark. Then Gish and the girl are seen near two bridges along Meridian street crossing the river.

According to a Puyallup police report the girl told officers at the scene, “Jordon had been leaning over the bridge wall with his feet off the ground.” The report said the girl stated, “He never stopped and just fell off the bridge.”

Then Puyallup police Capt. Scott Engle, now the city’s police chief, was interviewed by KIRO 7 News and said of Gish’s death, “It appears initially that the subject may have thought the bridges were connected or something was in between the bridges that he would land on.” Instead Gish fell 30 feet, landing on a sandbar and dying from his injuries.

Michael Gish said he’s convinced his son’s death was accidental, not intentional. “Yes 100 percent,” Gish said. “It was an accident.”

Gish says he's been frustrated in his attempts to have his son's death certificate changed, claiming he made repeated calls and visits to the Pierce County Medical Examiner's Office  office trying to convince Dr. Clark his son’s death wasn't suicide. But he says Clark wouldn't talk to him.

“No, never once. And even trying to talk to the medical examiner himself, I could never get him on the phone,” Gish said.

That lack of communication is no small matter in fact communication in a death investigation is a requirement. According to General Principles, Practices and Guidelines for Death Investigations by the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office posted on Pierce County's website, in a death investigation, “The first step is to gain history. Contacting family, physicians, nurses, friends, employers, fellow workers, neighbors, and acquaintances, may gain information concerning what the individual's past medical history was.”

But no one ever asked the Gish family those questions.

“There was no intent by that young man to end his life. And suicide is an intentional act,” said Mell.

In an independent review requested by the Gish family attorney forensic pathologist Dr. Thomas Andrew from White Mountain Forensic Consulting Services wrote, “A suboptimal video is more consistent with impulsivity than an intent to die. In particular, the failure to interview Michael Gish and confer with law enforcement regarding issues surrounding the manner of death represent substandard work.”

Michael Gish claims if Clark or any investigators had talked to his family they would have known his son wasn't suicidal.

“My son was happy, outgoing, he was happy. He loved to hang out with friends and family. He loved his brothers and sisters. [I’d] just never seen anything like that come out of him,” said Gish.

Gish’s attorney filed a demand to change the death certificate with Pierce County on Monday. KIRO 7 contacted a county spokeswoman and an attorney for Dr. Clark for comment on the family’s claim but have not received a response.