Family searches for answers in death of Autumn Stone

SEATTLE — It’s a place that once brought peace.

“It’s really hard. I thought I had more time,” said Jeanine Staley.

But now, all Staley feels is pain at Green Lake. It’s where the body of her sister, Autumn Stone, was found floating near Duck Island, about 20 yards from the shore on Aug. 30, 2019.

KIRO 7 met Staley one year ago, before the pandemic. It was her first time back since her sister’s death.

Now, her pain is just as fresh.

“I was always very protective of her, so it just killed me, just absolutely kills me that she’s not here,” Staley said.

Autumn was just 23 years old. She was a mother of two - a toddler and a newborn

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“It’s devastating. She was my best friend,” said Kjersty Rusch, Autumn’s mother.

The Seattle police officer who responded says when he found Autumn’s body, “The vest was zipped up fully, covering the victim’s neck.” Then he and a firefighter forced open the zipper and “saw what appeared to be shoelaces wrapped around her neck several times.”

She had all her clothes on except for her shoes, which were found without the laces, tossed aside in the bushes near where she was pulled to the shore.

“I just want justice for my daughter. I want her to rest in peace. I want us to be able to have the answers we need,” Rusch added.

The medical examiner stated that Autumn died of “asphyxia due to ligature applied around the neck (strangulation).” In other words, she was strangled to death. But the medical examiner couldn’t figure who did it and left the manner of death as “undetermined.”

Meanwhile, the Seattle Police Department closed the case as death by suicide just two weeks later.

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“It was shocking to me. I felt like they just didn’t care what happened to her. It just didn’t matter,” said Amy Stone, Autumn’s stepmother.

The morning of her death, Autumn wrote a letter which the detective believed to be a suicide note. The family rejects that.

“I see my daughter thanking God for her children,” said James Stone, Autumn’s father. “It’s essentially a prayer.”

They’re adamant that Autumn, a woman of faith, would never take her own life.

“She loved those boys. She would not have left this world, and left them without a mom,” Rusch explained.

Autumn was going through a lot at the time. She’d just given birth to her second son and had just broken up with her fiancé, who she suspected of hurting their child.

Autumn’s friend, Kymberly Adams, was one of the last people to speak to her that day.

“She told me that she was going to get answers as to what happened to the baby that day. And when she said that day to me, she stressed today,” recounted Adams.

The autopsy reports shows she had sperm in her body which was never tested.

“They didn’t run any DNA. She’s got DNA on her person. Who is that? That’s going to help us find who she was with,” said Amy Stone.

Only recently was that glass slide sent in for study, thanks to pressure from the family and private investigator Brent Campbell.

“We’re driven by something different. SPD is driven by closing cases. We’re driven by finding the truth, getting justice for Autumn. That’s what we really need,” Campbell said.

He’s reached out to numerous experts. One of them is forensic investigator Jennifer Shen, the former director for the San Diego Police Department Crime Lab.

“No one has been able to explain to me how it was she could kill herself like this. How could she strangle herself and wind up in the lake as she did with the shoelaces around her neck and the jacket zipped up and move her body into the lake and be found there?” said Shen.

SPD reopened the case months later. But Autumn’s father is disappointed with how it has handled the investigation.

“I don’t know that anything is actually happening. They give us lip service and tell us that they’re actively working on the case. But that’s as far as it goes,” James Stone said.

A year and a half in, they feel like they’re racing against the clock and people’s dwindling memories of that warm summer Friday afternoon at one of Seattle’s most popular parks.

“People who were at Green Lake that day, August 30th, 2019, check your phones, check your videos, check your memories, see if you can find anything,” Staley added.

They’re hoping their long-awaited answers will come soon.

While the pain will always be there, perhaps they can find some peace in the truth.