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FBI not studying Zehm case

 (The Spokesman-Review)
Zehm (The Spokesman-Review)

The FBI announced Thursday it erred this week when a spokeswoman disclosed that agents were looking into the death of Otto Zehm, who died following a March 18 scuffle with Spokane Police.

Spokane-based FBI agent Andy Caster said spokeswoman Robbie Burroughs, who works in the agency’s Seattle office, had confused the Zehm investigation with an earlier inquiry into the death of an inmate in the Spokane County Jail.

“The media person in Seattle didn’t know there were two incidents” in which suspects died following scuffles with Spokane-area law enforcement, Caster said. “In this particular case, we did not ask ourselves enough questions to make sure we were talking about the same inquiry.

“I hope we don’t make too many more errors like this.”

But the Seattle-based FBI spokeswoman wasn’t the only person confused.

At least two Spokane police detectives also thought earlier this week that the FBI had opened a preliminary inquiry into the case, one of whom told Zehm’s mother and a lawyer from the Center for Justice that federal agents had shown an interest in the case.

A detective supervisor, contacted Monday by The Spokesman-Review, confirmed that Zehm’s mother and a lawyer had been told that the FBI had stopped by to look at the case.

The lawyer, Terri Sloyer, said learning of the FBI involvement pleased her because it meant that an outside agency already was reviewing the case in which Zehm, an unarmed mentally ill janitor, was jolted twice with Tasers and struck with a police baton during a struggle to restrain him.

Now, she’s back to continuing her push for bringing another agency other than the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office into the investigation of Zehm’s death.

“I’m not saying this with malice,” Sloyer explained.

“I’m just saying as a human being that it’s difficult if not impossible for those with long-standing relationships with their colleagues to do independent investigation.”

Her concerns were prompted by the refusal of authorities to release confiscated security camera footage of the scuffle with up to seven Spokane officers, and the department’s decision to seize Zehm’s private medical, mental and employment records by claiming he remains under investigation for assaulting a police officer.

“The framing of the investigation concerns me,” Sloyer said. “You can see there is a rising concern that the community has a lack of confidence in law enforcement. I think it’s a rational response.”

Sloyer mentioned Benites Saimon Sichiro, 39, who died Jan. 29 after scuffling with jailers; the investigation into the Spokane firefighter who admitted having sex with a 16-year-old girl at a fire station before police detectives directed the firefighter to delete digital photos of the encounter; and the Zehm investigation.

“I think (asking an outside agency to investigate) would go a long way to assuage the fears of the community,” Sloyer said.

As for the FBI, it still could get involved if potential violations of federal law are discovered, Caster said.

“We are going to wait for the internal investigation to be complete,” Caster said.