Arrow-right Camera

Center for Justice sues over Yohe’s death

Trent Yohe (The Spokesman-Review)
Trent Yohe (The Spokesman-Review)

Federal lawsuit filed against Spokane County

A federal civil rights lawsuit has been filed against Spokane County over deputies’ actions in a struggle with an epileptic man in 2007 that resulted in his death.

The suit was filed this week on behalf of Trent Yohe by his former wife, Serrina Francis, who had a child with Yohe and was appointed to administer Yohe’s estate. She’s being represented by the public interest law firm Center for Justice, which is also representing the mother of Otto Zehm in a similar lawsuit against the Spokane Police Department.

The Yohe suit alleges that deputies Scott Bonney, Mike Wall and John Cook - who were all under contract to provide police services to Spokane Valley - conducted an unreasonable search and used unreasonable force during the struggle on May 1, 2007, with Yohe, who was a 37-year-old drug addict.

Yohe, who had methamphetamine in his blood at the time, stopped breathing after he received several Taser shocks and while he was hogtied. He was transported to Sacred Heart Medical Center where he was pronounced brain-dead and died 12 days later.

The deputies committed “assault, battery and false imprisonment on Trent Yohe, when they seized him and repeatedly struck him with their bodies and a tasers (sic) without consent or legal authority in a manner that was offensive, injurious and proximately caused his death,” the suit states in part.

Jim Emacio, the county’s Chief Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney, and Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich could not immediately be reached for comment. But in the past, Knezovich has said that his deputies acted within department policies.

The incident was investigated by Spokane Police detectives and the case was forwarded to Prosecutor Steve Tucker without recommending charges against the deputies.

The case also was reviewed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but Frank Harrill, the supervisory agent in charge of the FBI’s Spokane office, said that investigation has ended without a request to file federal charges.

The incident began May 1, 2007, when Spokane Valley police responded to an anonymous call about drug activity inside a travel trailer parked in the backyard of 6811 E. Fifth Ave.

According to the suit, Yohe had been living in the trailer with the permission of its owner, Billy Ashton. Deputy Bonney - who had a felony arrest warrant for Yohe - arrived at Jones’ residence and asked her for information about Yohe.

“Ms. Jones reports that she was threatened by Deputy Bonney with a warrant for her arrest and thus agreed to assist him,” the suit states.

Bonney and Deputy Wall then approached the travel trailer. Jones had given them consent to search her home and property but not the travel trailer where Yohe was residing, according to the suit.

The deputies knocked on the trailer several times and Jones also called out to Yohe with no response.

Someone inside the trailer escaped out a hatch in the roof at the same time that officers saw a small fire inside the trailer, according to court records. The officers forced their way inside and found a man, later identified as Yohe, who appeared to be having a seizure.

“When this male was contacted, he immediately became combative and struck SCSO Deputy (Scott) Bonney with a closed fist,” Spokane police Detective Marty Hill wrote in a search warrant seeking to search Yohe’s trailer.

The officers were able to get Yohe – who had a felony forgery warrant – out of the smoky trailer, but he continued to struggle.

“Once outside the trailer, deputies deployed a Taser in an attempt to stop the combative behavior of Yohe,” Hill wrote. “Yohe was subsequently restrained and handcuffed. Yohe continued to kick and thrash and deputies requested the use of leg restraints.

“When these were applied to Yohe, deputies described Yohe as becoming unresponsive and not breathing,” Hill wrote.