The lone civilian eyewitness to a deadly fight between sheriff’s deputies and a meth addict told investigators Thursday she was afraid of retaliation and initially didn’t tell them about seeing a deputy kick the man while he was on the ground outside a Spokane Valley trailer.
The latest report from those investigators was released at the end of a news conference Thursday where Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick initially intended only to release police reports taken from witness Cecile Jones on May 1 and 2.
In those statements, Jones made no reference to seeing the excessive force she later detailed in a story published Wednesday in The Spokesman-Review and in an interview with KREM-TV. She also expressed concern for the deputies involved in the altercation.
At the press conference, the chief and sheriff acknowledged their investigators only hours earlier had obtained the same statement from Jones about the possible excessive force by the deputy.
Contacted later, the police chief acknowledged that the latest interview Jones gave to detectives on Thursday was consistent with what she had told the newspaper. “I’m not saying she didn’t say that to you,” Kirkpatrick said. “I’m just saying that’s not what she (initially) said to us.”
Kirkpatrick said she learned for the first time Thursday that Spokane’s detectives aren’t taping witness interviews. In her last job, as police chief in Federal Way, all interviews were taped, she said. The chief said she decided to take the unusual step of speaking out in the middle of an open investigation because of the discrepancies in Jones’ statements.
“She’s not going to get the last word because she gave us a conflicting message to begin with,” Kirkpatrick said.
Jones was the only witness to a fight between deputies and Trent Yohe, who was living in a travel trailer on her property on East Fifth in Spokane Valley. Four deputies were attempting to arrest Yohe on a felony warrant.
Yohe died Saturday, one day after life support was removed in the hospital room where he never regained consciousness after the May 1 fight.
Yohe, 37, became combative and refused to follow orders after deputies saw him suffer what they described as a seizure. A deputy who hasn’t been publicly identified Tasered the suspect after he was dragged out of the travel trailer.
Jones was re-interviewed Thursday by Spokane Police Detective Mark Burbridge, with Spokane County Sheriff’s Detective Doug Marske watching. The interview occurred at Jones’ home, where a sign and flowers have become part of a makeshift memorial to Yohe.
“I asked Jones about comments I had read in the paper, specifically about her witnessing deputies kick or strike Yohe after he was handcuffed and leg restrained,” Burbridge said in the report released by the police chief. “Cecile Jones said she didn’t tell me about seeing that the first time I interviewed her because she was afraid,” Burbridge said in the report.
During her first interview with an unidentified sheriff’s deputy, Jones said she was told to only “answer his questions and not elaborate on anything he didn’t ask about,” Burbridge’s report said.
Jones said she “took that as a threat” and “only answered his questions and did not elaborate because she was afraid of losing her son” to Child Protective Services, the report said.
In the earlier reports, Jones makes no reference to excessive force and only describes the fierce fight Yohe waged with deputies. The May 2 report says Jones cried when Yohe kicked one of the deputies in the face.
The sheriff and police chief said they were calling the press conference to respond to what they believed were unfounded “allegations of misconduct” by officers reported by The Spokesman-Review. The top cops also lectured the media about using the term “hogtied” in describing how deputies used a strap to tie handcuffs behind Yohe’s back to ankle restraints.
The police chief read Jones’ first statement, which makes no reference to seeing one deputy kick the restrained suspect with his knee. In a private interview tape-recorded on May 2 by a friend, Jones, who is a single mother with a 12-year-old son, said she was afraid of telling investigators about seeing the kicking because investigators made reference to having her son taken away by CPS.
Jones also said an unidentified plain-clothes detective who initially interviewed her told her that in his view, the officers had done nothing wrong. She made those same allegations in a separate tape-recorded interview on Friday with a reporter for The Spokesman-Review after the newspaper reviewed the earlier, private recording.
Kirkpatrick distributed the report from Jones’ newest interview on Thursday after a reporter, who had just learned that Jones had been re-interviewed, asked to see it in addition to the two previous interviews.
Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi attended the press conference and appeared to be opposing the release of the newest report as he shook his head “no” to Kirkpatrick.
Kirkpatrick stepped out into the hall and consulted with Treppiedi and two detectives. “I said ‘Rocky, all I need to know is, is this going to jeopardize the integrity of the current investigation?’ All three of them said ‘no.’ So I said, ‘Redact it and give it out,’” she said.
Later, in an interview, the sheriff said he will order an internal affairs investigation into Jones’ allegations that she was intimidated by one of his deputies. “We’ll find out what happened,” Knezovich said.
The sheriff also said a separate question posed to him in a conversation Wednesday with Steven A. Smith, editor of The Spokesman-Review, also will be investigated.
The editor’s questions touched on unsubstantiated reports that unidentified law enforcement officers had interfered or argued with hospital or medical personnel at Sacred Heart Medical Center, where Yohe was taken after the incident. Those allegations couldn’t be confirmed by the newspaper and weren’t published.
Still, Knezovich said he was duty-bound to investigate any suggestion of misconduct.
Kirkpatrick chastised the newspaper and said an initial investigation, including an interview with Dr. Rocky Kerr, who supervises the emergency room at Sacred Heart, showed nothing improper had occurred between law enforcement officers and hospital personnel.
Carla Savalli, senior editor for local news at The Spokesman-Review, said, “Chief Kirkpatrick’s assertion that The Spokesman-Review discredited her department by asking about the allegation is absurd. Asking questions and publishing information is not the same thing. It seems clear the press conference was an attempt to undermine our journalism and discourage us from asking tough questions.”
Said Savalli, “if Kirkpatrick and Sheriff Knezovich are truly interested in transparency, they’d focus on all the unanswered questions in the Yohe case.”
Late Thursday, the sheriff said he had not yet read Jones’ newest interview, where she said she was threatened with losing her son to CPS if she didn’t cooperate with deputies.
It’s a standard approach for officers investigating reported crimes or looking for fugitives to seek cooperation from people by warning them about outstanding warrants or the seriousness they may find themselves in, Knezovich said.
“Quite frankly, that’s what they are trained to do,” he said. “That’s not a threat.” When officers get a call regarding drug activities, they are trained to run identities and any outstanding warrants of all the known people associated with the address.
“If outstanding warrants show up for a person who’s an innocent bystander, the officer says, ‘Look, I don’t want to take action on everybody here, I just want to get to the bottom of the problem. You’re a mom, you have kids, I don’t want to have to arrest you,’” Knezovich said.
The sheriff also said all deputies soon will be retrained in how to deal with suspects who may be combative due to substance abuse and underlying medical problems.
The training in so-called “excited delirium,” scheduled for June 1, was in the planning stages long before Yohe’s death, Knezovich said in an interview Wednesday.
The media and other groups, including his own citizens advisory board and local civil rights attorneys, will be invited to the one-day training, Knezovich said.
Knezovich said he’s also overseeing a major overhaul of his office’s policies and procedures manual, including the controversial use of Tasers and leg restraints to control suspects.
Knezovich also said he “wouldn’t be adverse” to a new ombudsman for the county to review officer misconduct and other law enforcement controversies – an oversight system that Spokane Mayor Dennis Hession and the police chief recently said they’ll establish by ordinance in the city after community outrage after the death last year of Otto Zehm.
Zehm, a mentally disabled man, died after he was Tasered and beaten by city police. Seattle consultant Sam Pailca recommended the ombudsman’s office in a report made public on April 23.