Family was ‘happy and free out in the woods’

OSO — Former Snohomish County sheriff’s sergeant Tom Pszonka just knew.

He saw a photograph of a mile-wide scar on the earth covering the riverside neighborhood where his daughter had been building a life with the man she loved.

“I saw that there was nothing left. No trees. The dirt. I knew,” the Marysville man said Saturday.

He wanted to hope that Katie Ruthven, 34, his son-in-law Shane, 43, and his grandsons Hunter, 6, and Wyatt, 4, had somehow lived when a wall of mud thundered down on their home along E. Steelhead Drive.

But he’d spent a lifetime prior to retirement working as a cop in this place. He knew evidence speaks loudest.

Pszonka drove to the incident command post. He took in a press conference where details were shared about the frantic efforts being made to find survivors in the hours after the March 22 slide.

When it was over, he walked up to Sheriff Ty Trenary, his former colleague.

“I said, “Give it to me straight. Tell me what is happening out there,” Pszonka recalled. “He said, ‘There is nothing left where your family was.’”

Pszonka on Friday got word that his son-in-law’s body had been found near where the home had stood along the North Fork Stillaguamish River. He also was told that Shane’s stepfather, Lou Vandenburg, had been found. The retired state Department of Corrections worker and his wife, JuDee, had moved from Spokane and lived in an RV next door to be near the grandkids.

Pszonka said there has been no word about his daughter or the others. His grandsons had just got a new puppy. He believes the boys likely were playing with their dog outside when the hillside fell.

He spoke Saturday because he wanted people to know how proud he was of his girl and the beautiful life she’d found at the river’s edge.

One of four children raised with his wife, Karen, the retired deputy said Katie thought she’d become a doctor. She initially studied pre-med at the University of Washington, then switched her focus to law.

She took a job as a paralegal for Russ Juckett, a longtime Everett attorney and former county prosecutor. She talked about pursuing a career in law enforcement, maybe something with the FBI.

“But it was never really there,” Pszonka said. “What she wanted was family.”

She met Shane Ruthven online. They struck up a relationship that blossomed into love.

Pszonka said he wasn’t particularly thrilled. For one thing, he was a few years older than she. Then he got to know the guy.

“He became my best friend,” Pszonka said. They had so much in common, people would sometimes joke that his daughter had found a man just like her dad.

“Luckily, he was better looking,” he said.

The couple wed in 2007. The year before, they bought a little place on East Steelhead Drive. The house had been there since 1975.

The couple started a small business, Mountain Lion Glass. They prospered, landing contracts to replace windows in buildings and condos. They were close to owning their home free and clear. There was a little left over to buy vacation property at Ocean Shores, a place where the family could spend even more time together.

Shane was a great dad, Pszonka said. He taught the boys how to ride motorcycles and four-wheelers. There were hours spent relaxing along the river and teaching the boys how to shoot.

“The American dream, I’m telling you,” Pszonka said. “You got your love story. You got your kids, happy and free out in the woods.”

And then it was all gone.

“I’m struggling to get my head around it,” Pszonka said.

Scott North, 425-339-3431, north@heraldnet.com.

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