Nearly a year after her death, ‘Justice for Yvonne’ calls persist

The police report gives this account:

A city of Olympia street sweeper was driving up Division Street Northwest about 7 a.m. Aug. 7, 2018, when he spotted a mailbox in the road. He stopped to pick it up, and that’s when he saw Yvonne McDonald, a 56-year-old black woman, in the front lawn of an apparently vacant home.

Her shirt undone, her pants and underwear pulled down. From 15 feet away, he saw her breathing, called 911 but did not approach her and continued on his route.

McDonald died at a hospital that evening. In April, the coroner’s office listed her cause of death as blunt force trauma to the abdomen, with complications of alcoholism a condition that contributed to her death.

The manner of death — whether it was an accident, homicide, suicide or natural — was listed as undetermined.

“Her abdominal injury is consistent with a fall, however an assault cannot be ruled out. In view of the information available at this time concerning the circumstances surrounding her death, the manner of her death is classified as undetermined,” the pathologist wrote, as quoted in the police report.

A sign with Yvonne McDonald’s photo at a June 25, 2019, march from Percival Landing to Olympia City Hall. Steve Bloom sbloom@theolympian.com

The investigation remains open pending new information. But police say they’ve found no evidence of a crime, no suspects have been identified and no charges have been filed. Without answers, some in McDonald’s family and their supporters have criticized police for not doing enough.

This past weekend, they held a vigil outside the home where McDonald was found. On Tuesday, about 20 people marched through downtown Olympia to City Hall chanting her name, briefly blocking traffic along Fourth Avenue East at rush hour, all to raise awareness about the case.

“The public still doesn’t know about this. There could be someone out there who knows who committed this crime, and for some reason Olympia police don’t want people to know,” Cheryl Williams, McDonald’s sister, told The Olympian in a recent interview.

“She lived in this community, she worked in this community. Don’t let her just be gone.”

Evidence and questions

Another one of McDonald’s sisters talked to her on the phone Aug. 6 and told police everything appeared fine, according to the police report. McDonald’s neighbors told police they saw her leaving her apartment that afternoon. One remembered she had on the clothes she was later found in.

Video shows McDonald went to Fred Meyer in Lacey about 4 p.m., where she bought a bottle of vodka, according to the police report, but it is unclear where she went next. Just before 2:30 a.m. Aug. 7, her cellphone was used to call her voicemail four times in about a minute.

A resident on Bowman Avenue Northwest, around the corner from where McDonald was found, told police he thought he heard a scream about that time.

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Police found McDonald that morning in front of the home, three blocks from her apartment complex. Inside her purse, which was found nearby, was a half-empty bottle of vodka, according to the police report. Paramedics noted a cut on her chin consistent with falling and that her clothes did not appear ripped or torn. They also noted what they thought were track marks but were later determined to be dirt.

They administered Narcan, the opioid-overdose antidote, thinking she may have overdosed, and took her to Providence St. Peter Hospital. Staff there noted “suspicious aspects” of her condition, including bruising to her thighs and face and scratches on her hip and was concerned McDonald had been assaulted or raped.

A pathologist later determined she was not raped, sexually assaulted or hit by a vehicle. Tests done at Washington State Patrol’s crime lab found low amounts of male DNA on her left hand and in her mouth, though that could have been transferred from medical tubing. DNA found on her right hand did not match anything in a national DNA database, according to a crime lab report from November.

According to the police report, McDonald’s blood alcohol level when she arrived at the hospital was nearly twice the legal limit. She had bruises on her shoulder, abdomen and legs, and the pathologist reported multiple contusions of varying ages consistent with falling.

The report notes 911 calls and hospital visits in recent years by McDonald, a former state worker, related to drinking, including in July 2018 when she was taken to Capital Medical Center in an ambulance with a head injury. She said she had been drinking and fell, according to the police report.

‘I believe they know something’

In the days after McDonald’s death, police faced criticism from family members and others for the slow pace of their investigation. Social media posts suggested McDonald was murdered but that police had ruled it an accident. The lead detective received more than 100 calls from people interested in the progress of the investigation, according to the police report.

Police Chief Ronnie Roberts issued a statement asking for the public’s patience, while activists invoked the Black Lives Matter movement and compared the police response to the case of Bryson Chaplin and Andre Thompson, African-American brothers who were shot by a white Olympia police officer.

A mockup of a wanted poster was recently shared on social media for Roberts, Olympia Mayor Cheryl Selby and others for “their blatant disregard for a black woman’s life.”

Family members who think she may have been hit by a vehicle or beaten to death fault the police for focusing on McDonald’s drinking. They’ve met several times with city and police officials, pressing them on the actions and accounts of the street sweeper, officers and paramedics. Why didn’t the street sweeper stay with her? Why wasn’t he treated as a suspect?

“I believe they know something,” said Talauna Reed, McDonald’s niece who organized Tuesday’s march. “They’re totally cutting us off and protecting their employee.”

The lead detective on the case declined to be interviewed for this story, but Deputy Chief Aaron Jelcick told The Olympian in a death investigation, it is typical to look at the person’s lifestyle and habits — in this case, a history of drinking — leading up to the death.

Jelcick defended the investigation, saying it was thorough and that police went as far as the evidence allowed.

“Sometimes those answers aren’t going to be enough to heal the wounds, they just aren’t,” he said. “I understand there’s an expectation that law enforcement figure it out and get to the bottom of it. The reality is that’s not always the case.”

Viola Young, another one of McDonald’s sisters, said it has been months since she has heard from the detective or other city officials. Young has not been involved in the activism surrounding her sister’s case, but she questions the extent of the investigation, if police did everything they could.

It is bad enough her sister is gone. Not knowing why just makes it worse.

“There’s an answer for everything,” she said. “When I pray, I pray they find out what happened to Yvonne.”

Abby Spegman joined The Olympian in 2017. She covers the city of Olympia and a little bit of everything else. She previously worked at newspapers in Oregon, New Hampshire and Hawaii.