South Sound News

Police speak out on how Pierce County medical examiner handled possible homicide case

STEILACOOM, Wash. — A picture of Stephen Gale taken at a party on July 4, 2017, shows him sitting with a group of friends, holding a dog in his lap. A few hours later, Gale was dead.

Steilacoom police quickly arrested Tyler Thiel, the son of Gale's girlfriend, saying he admitted under questioning that he and Gale had gotten into a fight at the party and later told investigators, “when Gale was on the ground he hit him several more times and kicked him in the head, chest, [and] face area".

“That day I felt justice was done,” said Gale’s brother, Tom.

After his death Gale's body was examined by Pierce County Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Clark who, “stated the temporal component of the assault makes it contributing factor to the death” according to a probable cause affidavit.

“Our investigators submitted charges for murder two,” said Steilacoom police Chief T.J. Rodriguez. “I believe the facts of the case supported that.”

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Thiel, then 23,  was charged with second-degree murder two days later. Less than two months later prosecutors moved to dismiss those charges after Clark changed his findings. In the motion to dismiss prosecutors stated, “Dr. Clark has completed his forensic analysis and has classified the cause of death as ‘undetermined’".

KIRO 7 has interviewed families and forensic pathologists who say they have doubt in some of Clark's findings. Associate medical examiner, Dr. Megan Quinn, works under Clark and has filed a whistleblower complaint claiming he often comes to questionable conclusions about the cause of a death during his investigations.

“I believe that he deliberately makes a decision to take shortcuts,” Quinn said in a Jan. 24 interview.

Dr. J. Matthew Lacy told KIRO 7 he left his job with the Pierce county medical examiner's office for Snohomish county in 2017 because of the way Clark ran the office.  Lacy also questioned some of Clark's conclusions, saying the public has lost confidence in his findings about suspicious deaths.

“Families are now coming forward questioning decisions that were made and conclusions that were drawn. And that indicates that that confidence is gone,” said Lacy.

More than a year and a half after Gale’s death, Steilacoom police have asked prosecutors to review the case again saying they still believe Thiel should face trial.

“We’re disappointed with the finding from the medical examiner’s office,” said Rodriguez. “We respect the decision that prosecutors made at that time, but we’d like a review.”

An lawyer representing Gale’s family has received a letter from Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mary Robnett saying her office will reexamine the case.

Tom Gale says to his family re-opening the case is important. He says he believes Clark's determination about his brother's death has put justice on hold.

“Travesty,” said Gale. “It’s a travesty to the citizens of Tacoma. Our citizens aren’t safe with this medical director (sic) in charge.”

Clark also faces an investigation by the Washington State Medical Commission after three complaints were filed with that office.

The Pierce County Executive’s office has turned down repeated requests to comment on the complaints while they are under investigation.