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Pierce County prosecutor to review death determination in case of dropped murder charge

breaking news graphic
Adrian Florez

A year and a half ago, the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office issued a death determination that eventually resulted in a dropped murder charge. Now, the county prosecutor is re-evaluating the case.

In a letter from Mary Robnett, obtained by KNKX Public Radio, the prosecutor says her office has agreed to re-evaluate the case of Stephen Gale, a 52-year-old man who died in the yard of his Steilacoom home on July 4, 2017. His girlfriend’s son, 23-year-old Tyler James Thiel, was arrested and charged with second-degree murder for beating Gale. But the charge was dropped after Pierce County Medical Examiner Thomas Clark ruled the manner of death “undetermined.”   

A judge dropped the charge just as Thiel was preparing for trial, because Clark couldn’t say “with any degree of medical certainty” that the death was a homicide, according to a report by The News Tribune. It was dismissed without prejudice, the newspaper reported, meaning prosecutors have the option to refile charges later.

Clark is facing a growing list of complaints that he’s violated laws and standards, including claims that he comes to hasty conclusions in death investigations. Clark has repeatedly denied the claims; his attorney Jack Connelly calls them “vindictive.”

The turmoil started in January, when Associate Medical Examiner Megan Quinn filed a whistleblower complaint against Clark. Quinn has since been put on administrative leave, prompting her attorney to file a retaliation complaint on her behalf.

Other complaints against Clark have surfaced since the whistleblower first came forward, and now the state Medical Commission has launched an investigation. The county has said it's investigating internally, too.

But Joan Mell, Quinn’s attorney, said Wednesday that her client still hasn’t heard from any investigators tasked with reviewing the claims — more than four weeks since they were filed.

Libby Catalinich, a spokeswoman for the county, said the contracted investigator had reached out to Mell early Wednesday to arrange an interview with Quinn.

"After we found and entered into a contract with the investigator, they spent time reviewing a large number of documents and securing a medical expert to consult," Catalinich said in an email. "They presumably wanted to get through as much background information as possible before beginning the interviews."

Mell had urged Robnett and the prosecutor’s office to review Gale’s death once more. The prosecutor, in response to Mell’s request Wednesday, said the office previously agreed to re-evaluate the case following a “law enforcement request,” the letter states.

Robnett confirmed the action in a brief statement to KNKX via email Wednesday afternoon.

"The Steilacoom Department of Public Safety asked our office to review the case involving the death of Stephen Gale," the statement reads. "I agreed that this office will review the case."

Tom Gale, the decedent’s brother, has asked Robnett to recharge Thiel, Mell said in a letter filed to county officials Wednesday.