May 16, 2007 in City

Questions follow suspect’s death

Staff writers
 
Holly Pickett photo

Cecile Jones, left, hugs Billy Ashton last Friday where Trent Yohe was restrained and Tasered during an arrest by Spokane County sheriff’s deputies and Spokane Valley police. Jones says officers kicked Yohe while he was restrained; Ashton fled when deputies arrived.
(Full-size photo)

As Trent Yohe lay unconscious, hooked to life-support equipment last week in a Spokane hospital, a friend had an idea.

Billy Ashton thought if he put a set of headphones on his comatose friend and played his favorite Pantera disc, it might just trigger a response.

The heavy-metal music played. For a moment, Ashton thought there seemed to be a twitch, a response from his bruised and battered friend.

But nurses said the 37-year-old patient, thought to be brain dead, probably didn’t hear the tunes from his favorite group, including “Cemetery Gates.”

The last thing Yohe apparently heard in life were orders being screamed by Spokane County sheriff’s deputies: “Please lie still.”

Those repeated commands, described by an eyewitness, came on the evening of May 1 outside a small travel trailer parked in a yard on East Fifth Avenue in Spokane Valley where deputies, working as Spokane Valley police officers, fought and arrested Yohe.

The incident raises questions about excessive force and a lengthy delay in getting medical help for a man deputies saw having a seizure.

When they pounded on his trailer door, Yohe, a meth addict, coming down from a two- or three-day binge, probably knew he was heading back to prison.

The day before, a Superior Court bench warrant was issued for Yohe’s arrest after he failed to show up for arraignment on five counts of check forgery. He found out about those charges after spending a month in the Kootenai County Jail on similar charges.

When deputies entered the trailer where Yohe had been sleeping, they said, he appeared to suffer a seizure and was combative. He was dragged outside by his feet before an officer fired a 50,000-volt Taser at him.

The first Taser probe missed and hit a deputy in the leg before Yohe was touched with the stun gun, dropping him to the ground, according to eyewitness Cecile A. Jones.

Surrounded by at least three deputies, Yohe was put in handcuffs and leg restraints, his limbs hogtied behind his back in a “hobbling technique,” as deputies prefer to call it. Even in those restraints, Yohe continued to flail.

Jones, standing about 12 feet away, said Yohe was kicked repeatedly in the midsection as he lay on the ground outside the trailer.

“They kept telling him, ‘Please don’t resist, please lie still, please don’t move,’ ” Jones said in recounting the “needless beating” she witnessed.

“He was still asking what was going on, why they were arresting him,” she said.

“There was one deputy at his head, another on his feet and a third kicking him in the midsection,” Jones said.

“The third time he kicked him in the ribs so hard that Trent’s false teeth flew out of his mouth – literally flew out across the gravel,” Jones said.

“A couple more kicks by the officer and Trent went still, his eyes closed,” she said. “I was screaming for the other officers who were there to come and help Trent.”

Deputies involved in the incident were later identified as Michael Wall, Scott Bonney, Griffen Criswell and K-9 officer John Cook.

Other deputies or Spokane Valley police officers also apparently responded to the scene but weren’t involved. Their identities haven’t been released.

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said Tuesday that he’s awaiting the Spokane Police Department investigation but believes his deputies used a “reasonable amount of force.” Authorities say it will be mid-June before they release the use-of-force report, which will identify the officer who used the Taser.

With Yohe hobbled on the ground, the deputies soon realized the hogtied suspect wasn’t breathing, and they checked for a pulse.

“When they didn’t get one, they flipped him over and started doing CPR, beating on his chest, pumping it, blowing in his mouth,” Jones said.

Instead of reporting a medical emergency, deputies called District 1 firefighters to respond to a small fire in the travel trailer. Investigators contend Yohe may have been using a small candle to destroy checks he intended to forge.

“We got a call at 9:40 p.m. It came in as a fire,” said Randy Olson, division chief for emergency services.

“The sheriff’s deputies had reported it as a structure fire, but nothing was showing when Valley Engine 8 and Medic 9 showed up,” Olson said.

Ashton, who was living in the travel trailer with Yohe, fled through a ceiling skylight after deputies began pounding on the door.

Yohe remained lifeless and unresponsive after the CPR attempts by deputies and additional efforts by paramedics.

A retired Valley firefighter who has spoken with some of the paramedics on the scene that night said they were upset to discover Yohe’s condition.

“From what I’ve heard, the medics got there and he was in bad shape,” said the former firefighter, who asked not to be identified.

Yohe was taken by ambulance to Sacred Heart Medical Center, where he died Saturday, about 18 hours after life support equipment and a feeding tube were removed.

Shades of Otto Zehm

Knezovich said his deputies appeared to follow correct procedures. Department policies allow leg restraints to be used with a person who has displayed “unusually violent behavior.”

“The ankles of the person are wrapped together and his/her legs are positioned so that the leg restraint can be attached to the handcuffs,” the policy says.

Knezovich asked Spokane police detectives to investigate the “critical incident” under a reciprocal agreement between the two departments.

While the official investigation is still weeks away from completion and review by the prosecutor’s office, some observers are already drawing comparisons between Yohe’s death and the March 2006 incident involving Otto Zehm and Spokane Police Department officers.

“It’s very similar to Otto Zehm. Here’s a law enforcement response that uses restraint instead of medical care. Hogtying is the last thing you should do in that situation,” said Breean Beggs, a Center for Justice lawyer involved in the Zehm case.

“Trent Yohe had some problems, but he didn’t deserve to die,” Beggs said.

An examination of the incident by The Spokesman-Review leaves these questions unanswered:

“Why did deputies use a Taser on a man they had just seen suffer some kind of seizure?

“Why was the incident reported as a fire instead of a medical emergency?

“Why weren’t sheriff’s deputies given the same kind of “excited delirium” training now being completed by Spokane police officers? The training teaches officers to calm suspects and call immediately for medical assistance.

Jones, who is single with a 12-year-old son, said she allowed Yohe and Ashton to live in the travel trailer adjoining her mobile home “because they had no other place to go.”

She frequently takes in “street kids” and young people, some of them drug addicts who “need to wash their clothes and take a shower and are tired of living in a Dumpster.”

When deputies arrived at her home about 8:30 p.m. on May 1, she told them she hadn’t seen Yohe. Officers then talked to Ashton, who was working on his vehicle in a nearby garage.

Ashton said he lied to the officer, claiming not to know Yohe’s whereabouts. “I knew he was sleeping back in the travel trailer.”

When the officers left to question a carload of other people parked out front, Ashton said he walked back to the trailer and tried to wake Yohe.

“He was sleeping, and I told him the cops were there,” Ashton said. “He said, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ He thought it was a joke.”

Moments later, with deputies pounding on the door of the travel trailer, Ashton climbed out a skylight. He jumped onto the roof of a van, then onto the roof of Jones’ mobile home. Deputies with flashlights in their hands yelled at him, but Ashton jumped to the ground and fled as officers were pulling Yohe out of the trailer.

Ashton related that version of events in an interview with The Spokesman-Review and in an earlier interview with a Spokane police detective, whose interview was monitored by a sheriff’s detective.

He met Yohe last year on a construction project, Ashton said, acknowledging the two had done meth together. In late April, Yohe learned his girlfriend was pregnant, and Ashton said he agreed to provide them with temporary housing.

When Jones was interviewed by sheriff’s deputies the night of the incident and later by Spokane police detectives, she said she was warned not to talk with the media.

“They said, ‘Don’t be surprised if you get a visit from CPS,’ which I took as a threat to keep my mouth shut about the officer kicking Trent in the ribs,” Jones said.

She also said the police detective investigating the actions of the deputies “only asked me if the deputies used profanity and if they were polite.”

“Yes, they didn’t use profanity and, yes, they were polite,” she said. “They said, ‘Please don’t move,’ and then, blam, they’d kick him again.”

Jones said she wasn’t asked in the follow-up investigation if she witnessed what she views as excessive force by deputies. She said she took the detective’s question “Where’s your son?” to be another suggestion about CPS if she spoke out about what she saw.

She was adamant that it was the beating by the deputies that caused Yohe to lapse into a coma.

“He didn’t pass out,” she said. “He was knocked out.”

Ashton, questioned later by the detectives, said he couldn’t believe the extent of Yohe’s injuries when he visited him in the hospital.

“I grew up in Los Angeles, and I’ve seen people hit by cars and beaten up by gangs,” Ashton said. “Trent was way worse. It looked like a gangland beating of a tied-up human being.”

Police detectives photographed Yohe’s body after he was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit at Sacred Heart and placed on a ventilator.

“Numerous abrasions were observed all over his body,” according to the search warrant affidavit.

An autopsy was conducted Monday, but Spokane County Medical Examiner Sally Aiken said state law prohibits her from releasing the cause of death.

Spokane police major crimes detectives continue their investigation, “but they aren’t going to be able to make any comment at this point,” said police spokeswoman Jennifer DeRuwe.

Officers searched the East Fifth travel trailer on May 2 for drugs, but found only a glass pipe with suspected drug residue, pieces of burned paper and portions of the deployed Tasers.

Family not notified

Trent Alan Yohe was born in Chambersburg, Pa., not far from Gettysburg, on Feb. 24, 1970. He was raised in Chambersburg by his grandparents and his single mother, Bonnie Yohe, before she and her son moved to Florida around 1977.

She married at least twice before dying in 1988 of a heart attack.

Her sister and brother-in-law, Norma and Gerald Hacker, of Waynesboro, Pa., first learned of Trent Yohe’s death when contacted Monday by The Spokesman-Review.

“This is news to us,” said Gerald Hacker, a retired Navy veteran.

Hacker questioned why authorities didn’t notify him and his wife, Yohe’s aunt, and Yohe’s half-sister, who all live in Pennsylvania, before deciding to remove him from life-support.

“You found me,” Hacker told a newspaper reporter. “It doesn’t look like they tried too hard.”

Hacker said his late nephew “has been trouble since he was a teenager.”

“He’d steal from his mother, take money from her purse to go play those video games in the arcades when he was a teenager. Then we heard he got into drugs after moving out there.”

“As much as I disliked the kid, there’s no excuse for what happened to him,” Hacker said. “It sounds like they got a tied-up man on the ground and kicked him to death.”

Hacker later contacted Yohe’s half-sister, Brandy Suders, 34, who lives in Chambersburg. She had not been contacted by Spokane law enforcement either, and first learned about her brother’s death from Hacker.

“She was pretty upset when she found out he was gone,” Hacker said, explaining Yohe and his half-sister had been estranged for years.

It’s not clear why Yohe moved to Spokane around the time he turned 20.

It didn’t take him long to get into trouble with the law.

“He’s been in and out of prison since he was 17,” said Patti Brown, a self-described mother to Spokane street kids who first met Yohe when she lived in the West Central neighborhood.

Yohe had eaten and stayed at her house off and on as a young man, along with another 100 or so street kids she helped at various times over the past three decades.

Brown has been honored by former Spokane Rep. Tom Foley, former Sen. Slade Gorton and former Mayor Sheri Barnard for her work helping street kids.

Yohe suffered from grand mal seizures caused by epilepsy, Brown said. Once while having a seizure, he involuntarily smashed his arm through a plate glass window, causing a laceration requiring treatment at a Spokane hospital, Brown said.

“They’ve got to have hospital records and jail medical records showing he was on medication for these seizures,” said Brown, who was paralyzed by polio and uses a wheelchair.

“He was having a grand mal seizure and they Taser him? Come on!” she said disgustedly. “First Otto Zehm, now Trent,” Brown said.

“When’s it going to end with these cops? I just want Spokane to be angry enough to put an end to the use of these Tasers,” she said.

Brown took a paratransit disability van to Sacred Heart to see Yohe the day after hearing news reports of the incident.

“I was ‘Mom’ as far as he knew,” Brown said of her friend. She produced letters from Yohe calling her “Mom,” but then was ordered out of the hospital by nurses who said she couldn’t see him because “I wasn’t next of kin.”

For that, hospital authorities apparently turned to Yohe’s ex-wife, Serrina Yohe, whom Brown also knows. The Yohes, who had a 7-year-old daughter, were divorced last July. Serrina Yohe has three other children from prior relationships.

“The father’s history of illegal drug abuse and criminal history causes great concern for the safety and well-being of the children, as well as the children’s emotional well-being,” Serrina Yohe said in a July 22, 2006, court affidavit.

She has now retained an attorney and declined interview requests.

Yohe’s girlfriend, Dawn Thompson, said in an interview Tuesday that she believes “they killed him.”

She showed up at the hospital on May 2 and stayed at his bedside almost nonstop. She said Yohe had twin Taser probe burns on his temple, a broken toe and ankles, and bruises and abrasions all over his body.

“He’d told me he had seizures, and I saw him have them, usually when he was sleeping,” Thompson said.

“He usually has no idea what’s going on when he has one.”

The 33-year-old woman, who has lived in the Spokane area for 22 years, said detectives have not interviewed her about her late boyfriend, his drug usage or medical history.

“The deputies should have helped him, not Tasered him,” she said.

“Even though Trent was a criminal and an addict, they should have treated him as a human being, not a monster.”

Thompson and Yohe had lived together five months, and she was three months pregnant with his child when the incident occurred, she said.

“He was not a violent person,” Thompson said. “They didn’t know his heart, and I did, and he was a good man.”

After life support was unplugged, Thompson and Yohe’s ex-wife put the headphones back on his ears, and Pantera blared on as he died Saturday morning.

Thompson wiped away a tear, explaining what happened after she left the hospital at the end of her 11-day marathon.

At a friend’s home, she miscarried.

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