August 21, 2011 in City

Timeline of events in Otto Zehm case

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Background and the latest updates

• March 18, 2006: Otto Zehm, 36, a mentally ill and unemployed janitor, is beaten, Tasered and hogtied inside a Zip Trip convenience store by seven Spokane police officers after being wrongly identified as a suspect in a possible theft. Acting police Chief Jim Nicks says Zehm was combative and “lunged” at the first officer on the scene, Karl Thompson, forcing the use of defensive tactics. Officers say Zehm has a prior arrest for assaulting a police officer.

• March 20, 2006: Zehm dies at Deaconess Medical Center. Police acknowledge that the potential theft report that led to the confrontation was unfounded.

• March 22, 2006: Thompson gives a two-hour, off-the-record interview to Detective Terry Ferguson. They return, after lunch, for a taped interview in which Thompson describes Zehm as having refused orders to drop a plastic soda bottle, prompting the use of a police baton to ward off an expected assault.

• March 23, 2006: Nicks reviews security video from the Zip Trip with detectives. He cites the ongoing investigation in refusing requests to make copies of the video footage publicly available.

• March 24, 2006: Police acknowledge that earlier statements about Zehm having a history of assaulting law enforcement officers were incorrect.

• March 29, 2006: Detective Ferguson obtains a statement from an ambulance technician who wrote that Thompson told Officer Tim Moses he’d hit Zehm in the head and neck with his baton. That report – which indicates Thompson may have used unjustified lethal force – was never turned over to county prosecutors.

• March 30, 2006: Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker orders that security footage of the Zehm confrontation remain sealed for investigative purposes.

• April 6, 2006: The FBI, without explanation, retracts a statement from two days earlier that agents have begun a preliminary inquiry into Zehm’s death.

• April 14, 2006: The City of Spokane blocks access to public records surrounding the Zehm case, with Nicks explaining he’s angry about The Spokesman-Review’s coverage of Zehm and an earlier case involving a Spokane firefighter having sex with a 16-year-old girl.

• May 30, 2006: Spokane County Medical Examiner Sally Aiken lists “homicide” as the cause of Zehm’s death. Nicks says in response, “I’m very comfortable that the officers confronted a hostile individual, somebody who wasn’t listening for whatever reason.”

• May 31, 2006: Detective Ferguson finishes her investigation into the fatality, concluding that none of the seven officers who struggled with Zehm committed a crime. Ferguson determines the use of force was appropriate, citing the plastic soda bottle held by Zehm in concluding Thompson was justified in using his baton “to pre-empt an anticipated assault.” Ferguson never mentions in her report the plastic mask that an officer placed over Zehm’s mouth and nose.

• June 7, 2006: Attorneys representing Zehm’s family, after a private viewing of the still-sealed security video, demand an official retraction of the city’s description of events. “It is clear from the Zip Trip video that Mr. Zehm never made any movements towards the officer, and only retreated from the officer’s advances,” the attorneys write.

• June 21, 2006: Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi disputes the Zehm family’s assertions, writing, in part: “What you have characterized as misrepresentations appear to be your own subjective view of the video and facts.”

• July 10, 2006: Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor Jack Driscoll directs police to check the plastic Pepsi bottle that police said Zehm was wielding for fingerprints. Zehm’s fingerprints were not found.

• July 13, 2006: Under threat of lawsuit, Tucker authorizes public release of the security video, which shows no “lunge” and appears to contradict other key assertions in the city’s official version of events.

In a personal notebook, now on file in U.S. District Court, Nicks writes that he learns for the first time that officers had placed a mask on Zehm’s face while hogtied. “This was a surprise to me,” he writes, later directing officers to send it to the medical examiner.

• July 14, 2006: Nicks publicly backs Thompson’s actions despite acknowledging his previous incorrect descriptions of the events. “As time goes on, and we talk to more and more people, it supports Karl’s account of the incident,” Nicks said. “The only thing that matters is what was in Karl Thompson’s mind at the moment.”

• July 17, 2006: Mayor Dennis Hession announces that he’ll seek an outside agency to investigate the Zehm case. Hession says the Police Department has lost the trust of the community because of credibility and integrity issues. Hession also discloses that the FBI, despite its earlier denial, is in fact conducting a civil rights investigation into Zehm’s death.

• July 25, 2006: Tucker says he rejected requests from “others” to allow a prosecutor from another jurisdiction work on the Zehm case. “I said, ‘No. I can do it,’ ” explained Tucker, a former Washington State Patrol trooper. “It’s my job to make the decision.”

• July 27, 2006: Don Pierce, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, is hired by the city to review the Spokane Police Department’s policies and procedures. Pierce pulls out less than an hour later after questions arise over his controversial departure in 2004 from his job as chief of the Boise Police Department following a mayoral corruption scandal.

Hession also announces that he has hired a consultant from Louisville, Ky., to review both the Zehm and the firehouse sex cases.

• Aug. 2, 2006: Nicks writes in his notebook that Rocky Treppiedi, the assistant city attorney who had been called to the Zip Trip by Nicks the night of the confrontation, tells him detectives obtained third and fourth camera angles from the Zip Trip. “According to Rocky, the video cameras showed nothing of value,” Nicks writes.

• Aug. 3, 2006: After learning that some Spokane media outlets are pursing footage of the additional security camera angles, Nicks instructs Ferguson to review the tapes again. Within the hour, Ferguson tells Nicks that the fourth camera angle shows Zehm holding a Pepsi bottle, which did not appear in any other camera angle.

The video shows Zehm on his back and using the bottle to protect his face from Officer Thompson’s blows. Police Cpl. Tom Lee acknowledges that earlier descriptions of Zehm “swinging” the bottle at Thompson probably used too strong a word.

• Aug. 29, 2006: Tucker announces he will wait to decide whether criminal charges should be filed in the Zehm case until after Sept. 11, when new police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick takes over. Tucker also says Aiken had not yet finished her second review of the cause of death. She had been asked to consider what role the mask may have played.

• Oct. 4, 2006: Tucker puts his review of the case on hold, explaining that the FBI found a witness who had not been interviewed by Spokane police, and that federal agents had obtained different stories than those detailed in Spokane police reports.

• July 23, 2007: Attorneys from the Center for Justice file a $2.9 million claim against the city, alleging officers used excessive force and caused Zehm’s death.

October 2008: Federal investigators inform Chief Kirkpatrick of their criminal investigation. Kirkpatrick volunteers to impose a department-wide gag order preventing officers from talking to other officers before their grand jury testimony to help maintain the integrity of the federal investigation.

• October 2008 to June 2009: Treppiedi, according to court records, begins preparing “the majority” of Spokane police officers for testimony before the federal grand jury and debriefs them afterward about what they said. This also includes non-police witnesses.

• Oct. 20, 2008: The City Council votes to spend as much as $45,000 to pay attorney Carl Oreskovich to represent the city and its officers in the claim filed by the attorneys for Zehm’s mother and estate. At about the same time, Oreskovich says Thompson hired him to represent him in the criminal matter.

• Nov. 21, 2008: Nicks testifies under oath to the grand jury. He refuses to answer a question by Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Durkin about conversations with Treppiedi prior to his testimony.

• March 1, 2009: Mayor Mary Verner and Chief Kirkpatrick publicly declare their support for Officer Thompson. “I’ve looked into the details surrounding this incident,” Verner says in an interview with The Spokesman-Review, “and I just don’t think the behavior of the officer rose to a criminal behavior.” Says Kirkpatrick: Thompson “has my unequivocal support. Based on all the information and evidence I have reviewed, I have determined that Officer Karl Thompson acted consistent with the law.”

• March 14, 2009: Attorneys representing Zehm’s estate and mother file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city, Nicks, Thompson and Officers Steven Braun, Zack Dahle, Erin Raleigh, Dan Torok, Ron Voeller and Jason Uberuaga and Detective Terry Ferguson.

• May 26, 2009: The Spokane City Council increases to $200,000 the amount it’s willing to pay Oreskovich to represent the city and its officers.

June 18, 2009: The city files its answer to the civil lawsuit, essentially blaming Zehm for his own death.

June 19, 2009: A federal grand jury meeting in Spokane indicts Thompson on charges of using unreasonable force and lying to investigators.

• June 22, 2009: City Attorney Howard Delaney says he doesn’t believe that Thompson “acted to willingly deprive Mr. Zehm of his constitutional rights.” He adds, “I have not necessarily seen everything that the grand jury has.”

• July 9, 2009: U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia Imbrogno declares Thompson indigent and appoints Oreskovich to represent him in the criminal case, despite Thompson’s $73,000 annual salary and interest in a $675,000 home in Hayden.

• Oct. 21, 2009: U.S. District Judge Lonny Suko puts the civil case on hold pending the outcome of the criminal case against Thompson.

• March 25, 2010: Nicks is identified in court documents as a potential prosecution witness, the first indication that a high-ranking city official was prepared to contradict at least portions of the city’s official version of events.

April 13, 2010: Court documents filed by federal prosecutors indicate Detective Terry Ferguson is expected to testify “that there were many glaring missteps and omissions during the course of the SPD’s ‘independent investigation.’ ” Prosecutors also note that Spokane detectives tried to discredit a witness to the Zehm confrontation who they considered to have “an anti-law enforcement bias,” and that other witnesses who reviewed the way Spokane police summarized their statements said incriminating information was left out.

• June 4, 2010: Thompson’s defense lawyers, after interviewing Nicks about his grand jury testimony, ask the judge to prohibit Nicks from testifying in the Oct. 11 trial.

• Aug. 5: Documents are filed in U.S. District Court signed by Nicks indicating that Thompson violated several use-of-force policies in his initial contact with Zehm and that the department’s investigation into the fatality was poorly done.

• Aug. 8: Mayor Mary Verner says she is aware of the new filing describing Nicks’ testimony and will read it to see out how it “affects the city’s position in the civil and criminal case.”

• Aug. 9: Verner announces that the city will review its legal strategy as a result of the declaration by Nicks.

Aug. 12: Attorney Courtney Garcea, who works with attorneys representing Thompson, files the declaration of Dr. Daniel Davis, who lists Zehm’s “proximate cause of death” as compression asphyxia caused by officers pressing down on him while he was hogtied on his stomach. “After pressure was removed, it was noticed almost immediately that (Zehm) was unresponsive.”

• Aug. 15: The City Council is briefed on a proposal to spend as much as $75,000 on a Seattle-based attorney to represent Jim Nicks.

Compiled by Thomas Clouse


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