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Guerneville woman's death after 911 call raises questions


A Guerneville woman was found dead in her trailer two days after a 911 call from her home, leaving her family wondering if more could have been done to prevent her death.

Sonoma County sheriff's officials are investigating the response over the weekend by two deputies who went to the predawn call at the Drake Road trailer of Ranae Bunch, 70. Fire officials also are conducting an internal review of firefighters' actions.

Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman, who responded to the 911 call with Russian River firefighters and Sonoma County sheriff's deputies, said emergency crews did all they could to determine if someone needed help, short of breaking through the locked door.

They banged on the door and peered through windows with flashlights looking for signs of someone in distress, Baxman said. They even broke a bedroom window, allowing Baxman to reach in up to his shoulder to flip through the blankets covering the bed below to feel for someone there.

They saw no one in the small trailer, said Baxman, a veteran chief known for his rapid and aggressive response to emergency calls throughout the west county.

"I am sorry. We all feel terrible," Baxman said. "We tried the best we could with the information we had and what we could see."

Sheriff's Lt. Steve Brown on Wednesday said an internal investigation is underway to determine whether the two deputies should have forced their way into the locked trailer.

"The (sheriff's) policy is if you believe a life is in danger or somebody is in medical distress or somebody is dying, you go in," Brown said.

Friday's 911 call offered little information, according to a preliminary review.

Sheriff's dispatchers took a call shortly before 5a.m. Friday and transferred it to county fire dispatchers as a possible medical emergency involving breathing problems.

The only comments made by the caller may have been "Oh God. Oh God," Brown said, citing an initial review of 911 tapes by the Sheriff's Office. Those statements could have been enough for deputies to break into the trailer, depending on other information available.

Serena Bunch, the woman's daughter, struggled Wednesday to understand why emergency responders left without forcing open her mother's door.

"For me, the biggest thing is why didn't you enter the residence on a 911 call? She may have been incapacitated" and out of sight, said Bunch, who lives in Santa Rosa.

Firefighters and deputies at the trailer discussed going through the locked door, Baxman said. At the time, it appeared they didn't have the information they needed to take the action, he said.

Ranae Bunch's body was found at 1 p.m. Sunday by her daughter. The woman recently had been hospitalized for breathing problems, her daughter said.

Serena Bunch, unaware of Friday's 911 call, had called her mother repeatedly Sunday. Getting no answer, she became concerned and drove to Guerneville.

She found her mother in her bedroom. Her body was on the floor up against the bed.

Outside the trailer on a window, Bunch found a deputy's business card with a handwritten note. It said deputies and firefighters had responded to a 911 call just before 5 a.m. Friday to the trailer and they had broken the window while attempting to determine if someone was home. It also said they left when it appeared the trailer was empty, Bunch said.

"I'm really frustrated that a person would place a 911 call that she needed help and nobody would go further than ... 'she didn't respond,'" said Bunch, referring to the deputy's note.

Bunch said that on Sunday it appeared part of her mother's body was visible through the broken window.

Baxman also returned to the trailer Sunday. He said things appeared different inside the bedroom on Sunday than when he'd looked in early Friday. Firefighters would have seen her Friday morning if she had been visible, Baxman said.

"I looked in there, I didn't see anything (Friday). I looked in the window again (on Sunday). It didn't look the same as the night I left," Baxman said.

Firefighters sometimes do break into homes, depending on circumstances, Baxman said. If they do, they contact deputies, he said.

"We're looking into it, how to do things from now on," said Baxman, who serves as Monte Rio's chief but also works as an operations officer for Russian River fire.

For responding firefighters, the call was frustrating from the start.

They had little information and an address to a small campground and a numbered space on Drake Road.

The firefighters could find no corresponding numbers on the handful of trailers at the campground. Baxman said they spent several minutes attempting to determine which trailer was involved, figuring it out after a deputy searched license plate registrations.

Firefighters and deputies spent about 15 minutes at the trailer, Baxman said. After the window was broken, deputies could see into the bedroom, where a light and television were on, and they saw a phone on the bed, Brown said. They yelled through the window and called on the telephone again to determine if someone was inside, but received no reply.

"They believed nobody's there, so they end up leaving and leave a note," Brown said. The note said the resident should contact deputies regarding the damage to the window.

He declined to name the deputies due to the internal investigation.

An autopsy was conducted Wednesday. An official cause of death won't be determined until toxicology tests are completed, Sheriff's Coroner's Sgt. Greg Stashyn said.

The time of the woman's death was set at 1 p.m. Sunday when she was discovered, he said. Determining the exact time of her death is extremely difficult and at best would be set at sometime between when she was last known to be alive and when she was found, he said.

"It's not common practice to nail down a specific time," Stashyn said.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com.