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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 24, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 08
Death of Missoula bar owner remains a mystery
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Death of Missoula bar owner remains a mystery

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Aaron Bolton drowned in Elliot Bay sometime between 11 p.m. on February 26 and 6 a.m, on February 27. The exact circumstances of his death remain a mystery, however.

Bolton owned a complex of bars in Missoula, Montana, catering to a mixed Gay and straight clientele, including the Badlander, one of Missoula's premier live music venues.

He reportedly drove to Seattle with his stepbrother to buy new speakers for the Badlander's sound system.

According to Bolton's business partner, Chris Henry, at around 11 p.m. on Sunday, February 26, Bolton told his stepbrother he was going to Re-bar, in the triangle of land between the Denny Way and Boren Street overpasses.

There is no way to prove that Bolton ever made it to Re-bar. Bar employees say they don't know whether he was there Sunday night or not.

Henry subsequently had his phone disconnected and was not reachable for further comment. Other Missoula friends told Seattle Gay News they weren't even aware Bolton was in Seattle.

In any case, Bolton's body was recovered from Elliott Bay at Pier 57, more than a mile from the bar, on the morning of February 27.

According to Seattle police, a construction worker at the pier reported a body in the water around 6 a.m. Both police and fire department units responded, and Bolton's body was recovered just before 7 a.m.

He was clothed in regular street clothes, police said. Initial reports said that he was wearing a lifejacket, but that turned out to be his regular jacket, which had partially inflated with trapped air.

According to Fire Department spokesperson Kyle Moore, Bolton's body was found under Pier 57.

'Our boat responded to the call,' Moore told SGN, 'and then we called for the SPD boat.'

'Our objective is to save lives,' Moore explained. 'Once we determine it's a body, then it's a crime scene - not necessarily a crime scene, but it's up to the SPD to investigate whether there was a crime or not - so we turn it over to them.'

'The fire department boat was the first at the scene,' Seattle Police Department spokesperson Renee Witt confirmed, 'then they called in the SPD boat.'

Witt explained the sequence of events that would follow anytime a body is discovered.

'Our patrol officers would be the first responders,' she told SGN, 'they would 'freeze the scene,' then call in a supervisor. The supervisor would determine if there was anything suspicious and try to determine if the cause of death was foul play, or an accident.

'Then they would brief the homicide sergeant - even if it looks like an accident.

'Homicide decides whether to respond or not,' Witt continued. 'Possibly they call in CSI. The medical examiner's office takes custody of the remains.'

The medical examiner then conducts an autopsy to determine the cause of death, Witt said, and if there are no signs of foul play - as in this case - then they file a report and hold the remains for relatives.

In Bolton's case, the medical examiner listed 'drowning' as the cause of death.

Samantha Jasso, of the medical examiner's office, told SGN that there are very specific physical indications of drowning.

'When you do the autopsy, you find water in the lungs,' she said. 'It's the mechanics of trying to breathe while in the water. The lungs fill with water.'

The medical examiner will also try to determine if there was foul play involved in the death, Jasso added.

'We look for trauma to the body, so if there is no trauma we would rule that out. Also, we distinguish between trauma that might be from physical injury and something that might be due to animals - or fish in this case - after death.'

Jasso confirmed that a ruling of 'drowning' indicates Bolton was alive when he entered the water.

'Yes, he would have been alive,' she said. 'He may not have been conscious, but he was alive.'

Asked if her office took the physical layout of the scene into account when trying to determine cause of death, Jasso said they do to some extent.

'We need to know the circumstances to establish a cause of death,' she said, 'but we don't investigate much beyond 'he drowned.' Anything more than that is a police investigation.'

Someone would have to be very determined - or very unlucky - to get into the water at Pier 57. Located south of the Seattle Aquarium and adjacent to Seattle's Waterfront Park, Pier 57 is occupied by restaurants and souvenir shops. A waist-high fence surrounds the boardwalk around the pier.

Space on the west end of the pier is under construction, and what used to be an open area is no longer accessible to foot traffic. It was one of the workers on this construction project who discovered Bolton's body.

North of the pier is Waterfront Park, also surrounded by a fence. A barge sits just off the north side of the pier, and a derrick sits at the northwest corner.

On the south side of the pier, part of the boardwalk adjoining a restaurant is blocked by dumpsters and vinyl tables. Restaurant employees say the tables are only used for seating during the summer, when the weather allows for outdoor dining. Another barge and derrick also sit off the southwest corner of the pier.

Also on the south side of Pier 57, a gangway goes down to a float where cruise boats load passengers for a tour of the Ballard locks. The float is open to the water, but access is restricted by two gates. On the day I visited the scene, the upper gate was unlocked, but the lower one was secured with a padlock.

Police say that someone entering the cold water of Elliott Bay in the winter could not survive for very long. 'This time of year if someone fell in there, there's a high likelihood they're going to get hypothermia relatively quickly,' police spokesperson Jeff Kappel told reporters on February 27.

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