As Seattle begins to confront U.S. Justice Department findings that its officers use excessive force, Otto Zehm's death in Spokane in March 2006 is a chilling case study on the civic toll of a mishandled response by police.
SPOKANE — In the neon sprawl of North Spokane, a police officer watched as Otto Zehm bobbed into a convenience store for a dinner of junk food and a 2-liter bottle of Diet Pepsi.
Two teenagers had just called 911. Zehm, they said, was acting “creepy” at a nearby ATM. Maybe he stole money. They weren’t sure.
The officer, Karl Thompson, rushed into the Zip Trip store, pulled out his ironwood baton and advanced. Zehm backpedaled and tried to shield himself with the soda bottle.
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Thompson didn’t say a word before he raised his baton, witnesses said.
Twenty-two minutes later, Zehm had a fatal heart attack after a struggle with police. By then, Thompson had hit him 13 times in the head, neck and legs. Zehm had been tased four times, muffled with a plastic mask and hogtied facedown while officers leaned on him.
As Seattle begins to confront U.S. Justice Department findings that its officers use excessive force, Zehm’s death in March 2006 is a chilling case study on the civic toll of a mishandled response.
Spokane police and city leaders resolutely backed Thompson despite incriminating evidence unearthed by the Justice Department, which labeled the city’s response “an extensive cover-up.”
By the time a federal jury convicted Thompson last month, many in Spokane had lost faith in the city’s ability to police its police.
Thompson, convicted of using excessive force and lying to investigators, awaits sentencing in January. The city’s mayor was voted out, and top police brass retired under a cloud. At least one other officer is under federal investigation for allegedly obstructing Thompson’s prosecution.
In Seattle, the Justice Department found last week that officers routinely use excessive force, and it is pursuing a criminal investigation of the officer who shot woodcarver John T. Williams in 2010. After initially standing with his police chief when the findings were issued, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn this week ordered the Police Department to begin carrying out the reforms urged by the Justice Department.
In Spokane, federal prosecutors began with a criminal investigation and only this year began a systemic review.
Mayor Mary Verner, who lost her re-election campaign in part because of Zehm’s death, said she often wonders what would have happened if city leaders, instead of deciding “to hunker down, to be afraid of the consequences, to go into self-protection mode,” had “erred on the side of accountability, transparency and apology.”
“Now, five years later, the tragedy is still an open wound that is unresolved and has tarnished the reputation of many people involved and has fostered an atmosphere of mistrust,” she said.
Video contradicts officer
From the first moment, the Spokane Police Department, per its policy, took charge of investigating its officers’ roles in Zehm’s death. Errors that followed spotlighted the perceived conflict of interest.
Zehm, 36, struggled with schizophrenia but lived on his own and worked as a janitor at a nonprofit. He once tried to change his name to “Barry Johnson” because he viewed his name as “too uncommon.”
Thompson, now 64, began his four-decade career in law enforcement with the Los Angeles police in 1969. At the time of Zehm’s death, he was a favorite among some fellow officers to become Spokane’s next police chief.
He gave two different accounts of the incident. First, Thompson said Zehm “lunged” at him, provoking a confrontation. In an official statement four days later, Thompson described Zehm wielding the 2-liter bottle as a weapon and swinging his fists.
Store video contradicted both accounts. But the acting chief, Jim Nicks, did not acknowledge that until four years later, in a sworn statement to federal prosecutors.
Early in the investigation, two of the four surveillance-camera angles, which undercut Thompson’s version, were spliced off and not shown to Nicks or reporters. It’s unclear who decided to do so — a now-retired deputy chief or the lead detective — but the video wasn’t released until reporters asked questions.
As doubts about Thompson’s story rose, the city’s legal strategy was to back Thompson and focus on Zehm’s struggle with police after being hit.
A longtime assistant city attorney, Rocco Treppiedi, acted at times as the city’s risk manager, in-house counsel to police and Thompson’s criminal and civil defense lawyer. His muddled role so frustrated federal prosecutors that, in a 74-page brief, they accused Treppiedi of slipping “sensitive” information from the federal inquiry to Thompson.
Breean Beggs, a progressive-activist attorney who represents the Zehm family in a pending lawsuit, said the city lost sight of its civil responsibility to hold police accountable.
“They essentially turned over city policy to defense litigators,” said Beggs.
Spokane City Attorney Howard Delaney said, in response to written questions, that his office’s duty is to its clients and to rules of professional conduct.
“It cannot be dictated by often shifting opinions on what is, or what is not, one’s civil responsibility,” Delaney wrote.
‘Difficult road back’
Spokane’s U.S. Attorney’s Office was monitoring troubling deaths involving law enforcement even before Zehm died.
Months earlier, a 39-year-old jail inmate died with internal bleeding after being tased, hit with a “donkey kick” and beaten unconscious. Other cases followed, including the shooting of an unarmed man by a drunken off-duty officer.
When Spokane police cleared Thompson of misconduct and Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker, a former state trooper, declined to file charges, the local U.S. Attorney’s Office opened its investigation, with approval from Justice Department headquarters.Federal agents quickly found police uncooperative, in part because the Spokane Police Guild told its members they weren’t required to help, according to two sources familiar with the case. Instead, federal prosecutors in 2008 convened a grand jury with subpoena power, leading to a 2009 two-count federal indictment against Thompson.
As the investigation ground on, a public outcry led the City Council to create a new police ombudsman, but that position’s powers were watered down after the union appealed.
Boise police ombudsman Pierce Murphy, who urged the Spokane City Council to hire an ombudsman, says weaker oversight won’t restore trust.
“It’s extremely difficult for a community to have the type of partnership they need with their police when there’s at least credible allegations of a cover-up,” Murphy said. “It’s a really difficult road to come back from.”
Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, who arrived six months after Zehm’s death, agreed. “Spokane is a city that uniquely wants to love its Police Department,” said Kirkpatrick, who is leaving next month, earlier than planned. “I don’t think the officers got that. I think they get it now.”
A verdict and a salute
Thompson’s trial began in Yakima in October, more than 5 ½ years after Zehm’s death. Thompson’s attorney, Carl Oreskovich, told jurors his client “got some things out of order” in his interview with detectives. “Now he gets called a liar.”
“In the end, the evidence will show that this police officer was acting not with bad purpose, but with the purpose he was charged with: to investigate and protect citizens,” said Oreskovich. “This honorable man, veteran police officer, is innocent of these crimes.”
The most surprising testimony came from two Spokane officers who recanted previous statements that incriminated Thompson, saying on the stand in Yakima that federal agents coerced them into giving damning evidence. One officer, a former police spokesman, agreed to testify only after being granted immunity.
In the midst of the trial, Tom Clouse, a Spokesman-Review reporter who’d aggressively covered the case for years, learned his house back in Spokane had been stripped clean by thieves. A newspaper displaying his article on Thompson had been left on the back porch.
“Someone sent me a message,” Clouse said.
The Zehm family’s two civil attorneys also had experienced suspicious incidents at their homes. The FBI investigated both, but they remain unresolved.
The jury’s verdict — guilty on both counts — stunned Thompson’s fellow officers. Days later, when Thompson returned to court to be taken into custody, a call of “Present arms!” rang out. About 50 officers in the courtroom gallery snapped to a salute.
Verner and Kirkpatrick later apologized, saying the salute was disrespectful to members of Zehm’s family, who were in the courtroom.
On the “We Support Karl Thompson” Facebook page — “liked” more than 680 times — a Spokane police major who participated in the salute said the “show of respect was for the officer that we all knew and were friends with.”
The verdict and the salute roiled city politics, starting with Verner’s defeat in November to an opponent she’d trounced in the August primary.
Costs are still being counted. The jury verdict damaged the city’s defense in a pending lawsuit filed by Zehm’s family. Thompson’s legal defense — paid for by federal public-defense funds because he was declared indigent after a mid-case divorce — recently billed for $354,904, not including the cost of expert witnesses.
Don Brockett, who served as Spokane County prosecutor for 25 years, said Zehm’s death was a symptom of a “military” mindset of policing and a focus on pre-emptive force.
Recalling Zehm, hogtied and stifled with a mask, Brockett said, “Those officers all stood there and watched a man die.”
Zehm’s last words in the store that night, according to witnesses: “I just wanted a Snickers.”
News researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report. Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jmartin206.