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911 call perplexes Zehm attorney

Fri., Oct. 9, 2009

Call came from his empty house after he filed suit

Among the details, court filings, and other developments surrounding the high-profile Otto Zehm case is a loosely related mystery that’s been downplayed by attorneys on opposing sides of the legal fight.

The conundrum: How did the Spokane Police Department receive a 911 phone call from the home of Jeffry Finer, lead attorney in a civil suit alleging police misconduct in Zehm’s death, at a time when apparently no one was at Finer’s home?

That March 22 phone call, which city documents describe as a 911 hang-up, authorized Spokane police to enter the South Hill home without Finer’s permission to determine whether someone might need emergency assistance. Police found the home unoccupied.

The Zehm lawsuit against the city had been filed by Finer just nine days earlier, and he and his wife were out of town at the time.

But while the timing is curious, no one has suggested anything improper occurred.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Spokane has asked the FBI to review the incident. Finer has met with city officials and says he’s satisfied that all procedures were properly followed. He still wonders, though, how a call could have been made from an apparently unoccupied house.

“It is possible it was someone’s way of sending a message,” said Finer, who stressed that he has no problem with how the responding officers handled the call. “I am perplexed, but I am moving forward.”

Finer is the lead attorney for the Center for Justice in a case representing the estate of Zehm, a Spokane resident diagnosed with schizophrenia who was mistakenly identified as a robbery suspect and died following a confrontation with Spokane police in 2006. Frank Harrill, the FBI’s supervisory senior resident in Spokane, said the FBI is aware of the incident, but rules forbid the agency from confirming if an investigation is under way or if one has taken place.

City Attorney Howard Delaney said last month that his office responded to a request for information about the call from Finer’s home and provided Finer with a police log related to the call and a recording. Delaney said he’s heard nothing further since that information was given to Finer on April 15. He said as far as he knows no one from his office has been contacted by federal investigators.

Delaney noted that 911 receives several hang-up calls each day.

“It’s so vanilla, frankly, we would not have done an inquiry,” Delaney said.

Finer said a Gonzaga University law student was watching his home, which is near Manito Park, while he was gone for the weekend, but that the student left to go to a study session at the university about an hour before the 911 call was made and was not at the residence when police were on scene. The home was unlocked, but Finer said it is unlikely someone could have entered the home on a Sunday afternoon because his two large dogs were inside and neighbors were around.

Finer said the student has been interviewed by the FBI. He declined to provide her name to The Spokesman-Review.

Lorlee Mizell, director of Spokane County 911, said in a recent interview that she had not heard about the call from Finer’s home.

Mizell said 911 hang-ups are common and usually occur from misdials, children playing with phones, or when callers hang up after getting a prerecorded message when lines are busy.

Of the nearly 200,000 calls made to Spokane’s 911 system through late September, about 9 percent were hang-ups, she said. Emergency protocol is for police to respond if a 911 operator doesn’t get an answer on a call back, Mizell said.

When police arrived at Finer’s home, they talked to neighbors, who informed officers that Finer’s wife, Dr. Stacie Bering, has multiple sclerosis and they were unsure if she was inside.

Police notes taken about the response say they decided to enter the home, at least in part, to make sure Bering hadn’t made the call as the result of a medical problem. Records show the call was made at 2:57 p.m. Police were dispatched at 2:58 and were on scene at 3:07 p.m. Officers left at 3:25 p.m.

One neighbor, who knows the Finers’ dogs, led officers into the unlocked home, Finer said. One officer stayed with the neighbor on the first floor of the home while two other officers searched the upstairs.

Finer said that he had a lot of information about the Zehm case in view when police were on scene but that he found no signs it was disturbed. None of the officers who entered is named in the Zehm lawsuit. Finer said police did not leave any information behind to let him and his wife know they had been in his home. He found out that officers had been inside the residence because a neighbor asked him about it the next day.

Center for Justice Executive Director Breean Beggs said he’s “puzzled” by the call.

“The timing was particularly strange, but without anything new to go on, we can’t reach any conclusions,” Beggs said.

Reporters Thomas Clouse and Meghann M. Cuniff contributed to this report.

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