This story includes descriptions of sexual assault and suicide.

Everyone, even her mother, thought 23-year-old Kimberly Bender would be safe in the Forks City Jail, away and protected from the drugs and past abuse that haunted her and fed her depression.

It turned out that everyone was wrong.

Bender, a single mother and member of the Quileute Tribe, died by suicide in her jail cell in December 2019, apparently after enduring weeks of torment and abuse at the hands of a corrections officer with an extensive history of abusive behavior, racism and sexual abuse aimed at men and women behind bars and co-workers alike.

Police and hospital records note that Bender complained, saying she was afraid to even go to the bathroom while the guard was working, and that he’d come into her cell at night to whisper lewd comments.

Investigators who interviewed Bender believed her story, but the Forks police chief and jail officials said they were “unable to substantiate” her allegations even as they terminated the guard, John Russell Gray. He then returned to a job as a correctional officer for the state Department of Corrections.

In February, Gray was sentenced to 20 months in prison after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting four other women incarcerated in the Forks City Jail during the same time period that Bender was held at the jail.

Warning signs of suicide

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or have concerns about someone else who may be, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You will be routed to a local crisis center where professionals can talk you through a risk assessment and provide resources in your community. The more of the signs below that a person shows, the greater the risk of suicide.
  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings
Source: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
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Gray, who had worked for more than 20 years at the state’s Clallam Bay Correctional Facility, had been an “emergency hire” by the city of Forks in 2018, where it was believed that his experience at the prison would make him an asset at the tiny jail, which was facing a staffing shortage at the time.

It is not clear whether Forks knew he was on paid leave from the DOC while under investigation for a string of policy violations for misconduct when he applied.

Hundreds of pages of DOC personnel file documents obtained through public disclosure or provided to The Seattle Times by Bender’s attorney show Gray was a problem employee who had been repeatedly disciplined — and even fired at one point, only to be reinstated — for using racial slurs, intimidating LGBTQ+ inmates and staff, and sexual harassment.

He remained an employee of the state until January 2021 — a month before he went to prison himself, according to DOC records.

“The system failed her”

“I only wanted the best for her,” said Bender’s mother, Dawn Reid, who lives in La Push. Reid said her daughter bottled up all of her troubles. Outwardly, she was vivacious and a help to anyone who asked. “No matter what she was going through, she always had a smile, and could put a smile on anyone’s face.”

But a history of mental illness and abuse — Bender struggled with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress developed after she was sexually molested when she was 11 — had led to heroin addiction and trouble with the law, her mother said.

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“At the time, I thought jail was the safest place for her, so she could get clean. They were supposed to take care of her, to protect her. But instead …,” Reid said, her sentence trailing off to a long moment of silence.

“It breaks my heart to know that the last days of her life were torture,” Reid added.

In October, Reid and Bender’s son, now 5, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Forks, police Chief Mike Rowley, the jail supervisor and several other Forks employees, alleging their negligence and “deliberate indifference to Kimberly’s well-being, medical condition and conditions of confinement” led her to take her own life.

“The system failed her,” her mother said. “My goal is to stop it from happening to anyone else.”

Bender had been incarcerated in the Forks jail as early as 2014, where jail booking instructions placed her on suicide watch, to be checked on every 15 minutes, according to the lawsuit. In 2016, she was taken to the hospital before she was booked. A report by a jail nurse remarked on her “longstanding” history of depression and self-cutting.

Gabe Galanda, the Seattle attorney representing Bender’s mother and son, argued that her mental health issues and tendency for self-harm were “well known” to jail officials when she was booked on three different occasions in 2019, most recently for a probation violation for possessing marijuana paraphernalia.

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Megan Coluccio, a Seattle attorney representing the city in the lawsuit, said Forks officials declined to comment on pending litigation.

Gray had applied at the Forks Police Department in July 2018, while still employed as a correctional officer at Clallam Bay. The department was processing his application when the mayor of Forks approved him as an “emergency hire” in October of that year because the jail was down two employees. He was placed on the night shift, working alone, according to records obtained by The Seattle Times.

At the time, Gray was on paid administrative leave from his prison job while under investigation for being verbally abusive and “creating an unsafe work environment” by allowing doors separating prison pods to remain open at the same time — increasing the risk of assault or riot — and using racist language.

Gray’s personnel file contains reports of similar incidents involving calling incarcerated men racist or sexually charged names, using disrespectful language or racial epithets toward inmates and “racially slanderous” language to fellow correctional officers.

He received several disciplinary letters in his file, including one for calling his Asian supervisor by racial slurs and referring to another co-worker by a derogatory term for a gay man. In another incident, he reportedly joked that he had angered a Native American corrections officer and that she might “scalp” him.

While investigating these allegations, which occurred in 2016, another DOC corrections officer reported that he asked Gray if he thought those terms were insensitive or discriminatory. “Gray replied that since he was a Republican, he didn’t have to worry about it … He explained that President-elect Trump made it okay to say things like that again.”

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In February 2018, the DOC opened another investigation of Gray who, during a crowded training session required under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, reportedly made sexually suggestive noises during a video demonstrating the proper pat-down techniques to be used on transgender inmates.

Following a lengthy investigation, the DOC recommended Gray be fired. However, Gray and his union negotiated a 15-day suspension without pay in exchange for him dropping two grievances he had filed over discipline for other substantiated policy violations, according to the documents.

That so-called “last chance” disciplinary document was signed a month before he was charged with sexually assaulting women incarcerated in the Forks jail.

Bender was booked into the jail three times in 2019, all while Gray was working as the sole night corrections officer.

In July 2019, another Forks officer observed Gray in the hall with a jailed female “in the middle of the night” when and where he should not have been, according to the lawsuit and a Forks police report. The officer said the woman “looked very uncomfortable” and had a “deer in the headlights” look when the officer asked them what they were doing. The officer reported, “Quite often, John was out in the hallways with the female trustees [sic] at night, one o’clock, two o’clock in the morning.”

A Forks jail supervisor, Sgt. Ed Klahn, who is also a defendant in the lawsuit, reported that he “counseled” Gray but, according to the lawsuit, admitted, “I just kind of brushed it off the side because he was such a go-getter … I did just kind of swept it under the carpet because I thought he was such a hard worker.”

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The criminal charges allege Gray forced one jailed female to perform oral sex in a back room, and then paid her $200 bail. Another woman said Gray forced her to grab his penis after threatening to “make her life living hell” in jail if she didn’t. Later, he required her to come out of her cell wearing only a T-shirt.

He was not accused of sexually assaulting Bender.

Gray was charged in May 2020 and pleaded guilty that December to four counts of custodial sexual misconduct — two felonies and two gross misdemeanors. The DOC fired him in January.

He was sentenced to 20 months in prison in February.

“Uncomfortable”

Bender had complained about Gray after she was hospitalized on Nov. 16, 2019, for cutting herself while in the jail.

Bender told a police officer who took her to the hospital that Gray had been making inappropriate comments. Her tearful statement was recorded on the officer’s body camera.

Bender, who at the time was sick from heroin withdrawal, said Gray called her “princess” and would enter her cell at night, sometimes just watching her and other times waking her up with “vile” or suggestive remarks, according to the lawsuit and investigative documents.

“He’s starting to make me feel uncomfortable,” Bender said. “I won’t go to the bathroom when he’s on.”

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An internal investigation ensued, and even though the detective said Bender’s account was credible, Forks police Chief Rowley found the allegations “unsubstantiated.” Gray was on probation as a new hire with the Forks Police Department, and the mayor terminated him for “verbal unprofessionalism” for addressing Bender as “princess” on Nov. 18, 2019.

After her injuries were treated, Bender was returned to jail, where the lawsuit alleges her mental health deteriorated. She was hospitalized again Dec. 4 for cardiac monitoring and returned to jail. On Dec. 7, she spoke with her mother on the phone just before 4 p.m.

The lawsuit alleges nobody checked on her because of staffing shortages. At 7 p.m., she was found hanging in her cell. She had been dead for at least a half-hour, according to reports.

Dawn Reid sees her grandson every week, and those visits are both joyful and painful. “He’s the spitting image of his mom,” Reid said. “It’s almost like having her here. Except, she’s not,” and the tears came again.