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Four years later, let’s not forget Otto Zehm

Today is the fourth anniversary of that sad and violent encounter between Otto Zehm and the Spokane cops.

Hard to believe, huh?

Another year passes and this disgrace still hangs over Spokane like rot from a rendering plant.

The unarmed and innocent mentally ill janitor paid the ultimate price after being wrongly identified as a crazed thief. And we should never forget what took place inside the Zip Trip at Division and Augusta on March 18, 2006.

Otto was clubbed, shocked and trussed up like an animal.

A plastic oxygen mask was placed over his face to keep Otto from spitting.

Unfortunately no one had the good sense or humanity to hook that mask to a supply of oxygen.

So this hogtied, confused and bludgeoned 36-year-old man was forced to lie on his stomach and suck what air he could through a dime-size hole in the plastic.

Any wonder why Otto lost consciousness and died later at local hospital?

I didn’t think so.

A noon vigil in remembrance of Otto has been planned today near the Zip Trip.

At 11 a.m., however, I’ll be at Auntie’s Bookstore, 402 W. Main St. I’ll give away black-and-white Otto buttons while they last.

Plus Joe Brasch, my buddy and guitar-slinging bandmate, will join me. We’ll play “The Ballad of Otto Zehm,” the song I wrote to keep Otto’s memory alive.

“You can’t stop a cop with a bottle of pop.

“You can’t outrun a badge and a gun.

“When the law’s on your side, you can do homicide.

“And not worry, cuz nothin’ gets done.”

Remember that bottle of pop?

According to some of Spokane’s “not-so” Finest, the 2-liter bottle of Diet Pepsi Otto was carrying on that fateful day was a potential weapon.

Jim Nicks was the acting police chief back then – with emphasis on the word “acting.” After the death he claimed Otto “lunged” at Officer Karl Thompson, the first officer on the scene.

It was either fantasy or outright fabrication.

The store videotape shows that Otto was on his heels when the beat down began.

I don’t know how anyone pegs a plastic Diet Pepsi bottle as a weapon. You could shake it up and spray soda in your victim’s face, I suppose. But I think the only thing Otto was going to use that pop for was to wash down the Snickers bar he also wanted to buy.

I don’t think Otto lunged at anyone. I think he was confused and scared spitless and just wanted to get away.

Last fall my suspicions about Nicks were confirmed when he couldn’t recall where he got his information about that so-called lunge.

How has that guy kept his job?

Maybe the truth will come out in May. That’s when Thompson is scheduled to be tried in a federal court for allegedly violating Otto’s civil rights and lying to officials who were investigating what happened.

Will justice finally arrive to blow away some of that stench?

I’m hoping for the best.

In the meantime, come down to Auntie’s and get a free button. Then wear it proudly and remember Otto.

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by e-mail at