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Officers back on beat after fatal fight

Wed., March 22, 2006, midnight

Otto Zehm did what he did almost every night and stopped by a Zip Trip to pick up a Diet Pepsi and fast-food for dinner.

But Saturday, something went fatally wrong. Zehm’s stop at the convenience store on Division and Augusta ended in a violent scuffle with four to five Spokane police officers.

About 10 minutes after the 35-year-old mentally disabled man was subdued, he began having trouble breathing and was rushed to a hospital, police said.

“What happened was they used a stun gun on him and they beat him,” said his mother, Anna Zehm. “He was in a deep coma when he got to the hospital. (Doctors) declared him brain-dead.”

Zehm was pronounced dead Monday when he was taken off life support, his mother said.

“I’m numb,” she said.

Spokane police are investigating the death. The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office has been asked to do a companion investigation.

Three officers involved in the fight with Zehm were put on paid administrative leave for one day but have returned to duty, Deputy Chief Al Odenthal said. Police would not release the officers’ names until interviews with them have been completed, which are expected to be done today.

Zehm’s autopsy will be completed today, police said.

On Saturday night, police found Zehm at the Zip Trip after responding to a suspicious person call at a nearby bank. A woman at an ATM apparently thought Zehm looked suspicious when he passed by.

When approached in the store, Zehm refused to follow an officer’s directions and then lunged at the officer and began fighting, Cpl. Tom Lee said. The lone officer called for backup, and four or five officers soon arrived. Tasers were used in an effort to subdue Zehm. Police have not revealed what other tactics were used to subdue the man, saying only that they were “appropriate.”

Those who knew Zehm are baffled about his fight with police, saying it’s completely out of character.

“Otto wouldn’t hurt anybody,” said Bob Dexter, Zehm’s friend of 20 years. “I’m outraged. He probably wasn’t taking his medicine. When he does that, he laughs hysterically for no reason.”

Zehm’s mother also said he may not have been taking his medication.

Zehm had been an employee of Skils’kin, a nonprofit organization that has provided work opportunities for people with disabilities since 2000, said spokeswoman Julie Orchard.

He worked on a custodial contract at Fairchild Air Force Base.

“His co-workers were saddened at the news of his untimely passing,” Orchard said. “He was a wonderful friend and co-worker, and he will be missed.”

Zehm was a regular at Zip Trips near his home on North Center, his friend and mother said. He’d stop there after work at Fairchild and on his days off.

As with most everything in Zehm’s life, the convenience store was part of a routine, his mother said. Zehm also washed his clothes on the same day every week and called her every night at 9.

“He’d stop at the Zip Trip to pick up a burrito or something for dinner,” Dexter said. “He usually went to the Zip Trip on North Perry, though.”

Anna Zhem and Dexter both thought he’d been acting odd lately.

“He was suffering from some kind of disturbance, and he couldn’t figure out what was wrong,” his mother said. “They just assumed he was up to mischief or something.”

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