Friends of Otto Zehm wore small blue buttons that read “Otto” in support of the mentally ill janitor, after he died in 2006 following a struggle with Spokane police.
Now friends of Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. are rallying with $10 blue wristbands to raise money for Thompson’s “out-of- pocket” expenses as he awaits trial in federal court on charges of using unreasonable force against Zehm and lying to detectives who investigated the incident. Thompson has been transferred to desk duty and is still collecting his salary of about $73,000 a year, not including overtime. The city of Spokane and the federal government are paying his defense costs in the civil and criminal cases against him.
Thompson was the first officer to encounter Zehm in a convenience store on March 18, 2006, responding to what later turned out to be an erroneous robbery call made by two young women at a nearby ATM. Thompson struck Zehm with a police baton and repeatedly used his Taser on him.
As of Monday, more than 200 Facebook users were fans of the “We Support Karl Thompson” page.
The page reads: “This page, administered by a co-worker of Karl’s, is to show our support for Officer Karl Thompson, who has become a media scapegoat, wrongly accused, and wrongly charged.”
Police spokeswoman Officer Jennifer DeRuwe said Officer Kevin King created the page. King could not be reached for comment.
DeRuwe, who is listed on Facebook as a supporter of the campaign, said she paid $10 for a wristband. The money is being deposited into an account at the Spokane Law Enforcement Credit Union.
“I was going to give money whether I had a bracelet or not,” she said. “It’s just one more way to show support and raise money so that as a collective group we are visibly showing our support.”
Thompson could face up to 20 years in federal prison and a maximum $250,000 fine if convicted of lying to investigators and up to 10 years and the same maximum fine for the unreasonable-force charge.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Durkin said he could not comment about the fundraising effort for Thompson, who was originally scheduled to go to trial next month. That trial date most likely will be changed to April or May, Durkin said.
Jeffry Finer, one of two attorneys representing Zehm’s mother in a civil case against the city, said he understands why other officers support Thompson.
“But their support is not the same thing as exoneration,” said Finer, of the public-interest law firm Center for Justice. “It’s not surprising that Officer Thompson would be a symbol for his supporters just the way Otto was a symbol of the community he represented.”
Thompson’s attorney, Carl Oreskovich, said any money raised by the campaign for the officer’s defense will be disclosed to the court.
In July, U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia Imbrogno agreed with a defense request to declare Thompson indigent despite his salary and ownership interest in the $675,000 home in Hayden where he lives. Prior to his indictment, Thompson divorced his wife and put the house in her name.
As a result, the federal government will pay for Oreskovich’s defense on the criminal charges.
“The case is going to be a long case, a long trial with a significant amount of experts. Although the court has appointed me, the funds are not unlimited,” Oreskovich said. “Anything raised by fellow police officers is greatly appreciated.”
A Spokane County sheriff’s corrections deputy sent a message to all 2,000 county employees seeking support for the “Band of Blue” campaign, an action Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said wasn’t “an appropriate use of county communications.”
The deputy has been told not to do it again, Knezovich said.Breean Beggs, who is co-counsel in the civil suit against the city, said Zehm’s mother does not begrudge the support other officers are giving Thompson.
“Ann Zehm realizes that Officer Thompson’s involvement in the homicide of Otto Zehm will cause him distress for the rest of his life,” Beggs said in a written comment.
“As for financial support, local and federal taxpayers are already financing lawyers for his civil defense and criminal defense. The fact that taxpayer support is rarely offered to victims of police homicides is why Otto’s mother has committed to using the recovery in her civil suit to create a fund for families of victims killed by law enforcement.”