Editor’s note: This story focuses on suicide, self-harm and other topics related to psychiatric distress. If you or a loved one is in crisis, resources are available at: st.news/resources. The story also includes descriptions of sexual assault.
The family of a 23-year-old woman who took her life in a Clallam County jail nearly three years ago has received a $1 million settlement from the city of Forks.
Kimberly Bender, a single mother and member of the Quileute Tribe, was found dead in her jail cell, 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 directed at people in jail and co-workers alike.
The corrections officer, John Russell Gray, was later sentenced to 20 months in prison after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting four other women incarcerated in the Forks City Jail at the same time Bender was there.
In October 2021, Dawn Reid, Bender’s mother, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city, police Chief Mike Rowley, the jail supervisor and several other Forks employees, alleging that negligence and “deliberate indifference to Kimberly’s well-being, medical condition and conditions of confinement” led her to take her own life.
The lawsuit claimed Rowley and several city employees “breached the well-established duty owed to keep a prisoner safe.” The Forks City Council approved the settlement Nov. 9.
“Kimberly was a bright and beautiful young mother and did not deserve what happened to her,” Reid said in a statement. “It has been a long, hard road, losing my daughter. This settlement will never replace her by any means, but it will help her wonderful son.”
A “significant portion” of the settlement funds will be placed in a structured settlement for Bender’s son, according to a statement from the city of Forks.
As part of the settlement, the plaintiffs agreed to dismiss all claims against the individual defendants with prejudice, so the city is the only party to the settlement, the statement said. All the current and former employees named in the lawsuit, including the police chief and jail supervisor, will be dismissed from the case, and no money will be paid on their behalf, according to the statement.
“There’s no amount of money that will bring Kimberly back to her son and family,” said the family’s attorney, Gabriel Galanda. “In that respect, it’s insufficient, but we are pleased by the outcome, because it will give her son, in particular, a chance in life.”
Bender struggled with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress after she was molested when she was 11, which led to heroin addiction and trouble with the law, her mother said. Galanda maintained Bender’s 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.
Police and hospital records note that Bender was afraid to even go to the bathroom while Gray was working, and that he’d come into her cell at night to whisper lewd comments.
Investigators believed Bender’s story, but police chief and jail officials said they were “unable to substantiate” her allegations even as they terminated Gray for “verbal unprofessionalism” for addressing Bender as “princess.” On Dec. 7, 2019, Bender was found hanging in her cell.
A coroner’s reporter noted she had suffered “possible sexual assault while incarcerated.” A court filing by the plaintiffs
argued that, had Bender been alive, Gray would have faced an additional count of sexual assault.
According to a motion filed by the plaintiffs, Gray was seen sexually assaulting another inmate who was detoxing from heroin like Bender in 2019, and that the jail had not employed a Prison Rape Elimination Act coordinator since 2007.
A Forks jail supervisor, Sgt. Ed Klahn, reported that he “counseled” Gray but, according to the motion, did not investigate him. According to the motion, Klahn said he did “sweep it under the carpet because [Gray] was such a hard worker.”
The motion said the city of Forks failed to provide Bender’s state-licensed mental health counselor and the Quileute Tribe’s behavioral health director with information about her past suicidal statements and attempts.
“Forks failed to consider Kimberly’s self-harm as a legitimate suicide risk,” the motion said.
Several employees, the motion alleges, did not receive annual suicide prevention training from Forks, even though city policies mandate it.
Galanda said what happened to Bender is a reflection of how ill-equipped rural Washington is to deal with affliction and addiction.
“Nobody in the City of Forks’ custody and care should ever be dehumanized,” Galanda said in a statement. “Kimberly’s family hopes Forks will take greater efforts to honor and protect the lives of incarcerated women and Indigenous people.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated the Forks police chief and jail supervisor were party to the settlement. They were not.
Information from The Seattle Times archives is included in this story.