UPDATE: Skamania sheriff steps back from drug claim on woman’s death

He originally said she died from an apparent drug overdose

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

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photoAmber Kellar

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One day after he reported a California woman died from an apparent drug overdose at the Rainbow Family Gathering, Skamania County Sheriff Dave Brown admitted Thursday afternoon he spoke prematurely, without full details from his investigators.

Skamania County sheriff’s officials released a statement Thursday saying Amber Kellar, 28, of Weed, Calif., died Wednesday morning from apparent medical issues at the Rainbow Family Gathering in Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The release came after Kellar’s family informed investigators she had a pre-existing heart condition.

“I could have probably done a better job getting the story straight with our investigating officers,” Brown said, adding he “probably stepped over the line” in reporting speculation from the campgrounds about Kellar’s death.

Brown’s comments inflamed those who knew and loved Kellar. The comments not only soiled her reputation, they said, but soiled the reputation of the festival she loved.

“It’s absolutely outrageous (Brown) made that statement without the facts to back it up,” said Laurel Howard, a New York resident who described herself as Kellar’s best friend. Presumptive statements about drug overdoses should not be made “unless she died with the needle in her hand,” Howard added.

Investigators recovered no such drug evidence, said Sgt. Monty Buettner with the Skamania County Sheriff’s Office.

Kellar’s older sister, Kimberly Kellar, who lives in New York, said she doubted her sister died of an overdose because she did not use drugs. Attempts to contact Kimberly Kellar for further comment Thursday evening were unsuccessful.

Brown cautioned Thursday that his office is in a “waiting game until it gets lab results” on Kellar’s toxicology. Her autopsy is being performed by the Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office. Test results generally take six to eight weeks.

News of Kellar’s death spread quickly around the Rainbow Family Gathering the past two days. Most of the 20,000 campers who attended the peace festival in Skookum Meadows had left or were preparing to leave Thursday, the event’s last day.

Rumors spread just as fast, particularly an unsubstantiated one that psychedelic drug use combined with a heart condition triggered Kellar’s death. Brown said he had heard the rumors and should have waited before releasing information.

Howard suggested Brown’s comments likely came from his own biases.

“They see the drug use that is there and they see the inherent traffic issues,” Howard said. “Those are the things they immediately focus on.”

Brown said he did not let personal feelings about the festival cloud his judgment. He said, in general, he did not object to people gathering in the forest.

“I disapprove of the types of actions within the event, specifically the drug use,” Brown said. “There’s an element that don’t subscribe to what the Rainbow festival was founded on. They come to party, drink and do hard drugs.”

Kellar’s friends argued she was not among the camp Brown described.

“She loved going to the Rainbow gathering,” said Stephanie Shaver, president of the Weed (Calif.) Arts Council. “She loved cooking with strangers and making new friends and just the whole experience the Rainbow gathering offered.”

Kellar sold handcrafted jewelry online, her friends said. In her spare time, she volunteered as treasurer for the Weed Arts Council.

Shaver described Kellar as “creative, amazing and supportive.” She called Kellar’s death a “huge loss.”

Upon learning of her death, Kellar’s friends gathered in Weed to celebrate her memory.

Holly Bradford, a Weed resident, recalled Thursday afternoon via telephone how Kellar once made her grandson a piece of jewelry with a boar’s tooth he gave her. The simple act of kindness described Kellar.

“She was one of the pillars of our community,” Bradford said, noting her friend often helped put together art shows.

Staff writer Dave Kern contributed to this report. Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517, ray.legendre@columbian.com//www.twitter.com/col_smallcities//www.facebook.com/raylegend