November 3, 2011 in City

Timeline since March 2006, when Zehm was beaten

 
File photo

July 13, 2006: With members of the media in attendance, deputy police Chief Al Odenthal narrates a security camera video from the Zip Trip store where Spokane police officers tried to subdue Otto Zehm.
(Full-size photo)

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Background and the latest updates

March 18, 2006: Otto Zehm, 36, a mentally ill janitor, is beaten, shocked with a Taser and hog-tied inside a North Side 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. 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: 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.

May 30, 2006: Spokane County Medical Examiner Sally Aiken lists “homicide” as the cause of Zehm’s death.

May 31, 2006: 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 Zehm held in concluding Thompson was justified in using his baton “to pre-empt an anticipated assault.” Ferguson doesn’t mention 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, Spokane County Prosecutor Steve 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.

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 says.

July 17, 2006: Mayor Dennis Hession announces that he’ll seek an outside agency to investigate the Zehm case. Hession also discloses that the FBI, despite its earlier denial, is in fact conducting a civil rights investigation into Zehm’s death.

Aug. 3, 2006: After learning that some Spokane media outlets are pursuing footage of additional security camera angles, Nicks instructs Ferguson to review the tapes again. Within the hour, Ferguson tells Nicks that a 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 Thompson’s blows.

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.

October 2008: Federal investigators inform Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick of their criminal investigation.

Oct. 20, 2008: The City Council votes 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.

March 1, 2009: Mayor Mary Verner and Kirkpatrick 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.

June 18, 2009: The city files its answer to the civil lawsuit, essentially blaming Zehm for his own death. “Any injury or damage suffered by Mr. Zehm was caused solely by reason of his conduct and willful resistance,” the response said.

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.

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, 2011: Documents are filed in U.S. District Court signed by now-Assistant Chief 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. 9: Verner announces that the city will review its legal strategy as a result of the declaration by Nicks.

Sept. 9: Verner announces a “thorough internal and external review” of Zehm’s death would start when the legal cases are finished.

Sept. 13: Nicks announces his retirement; it will coincide with Kirkpatrick’s previously announced departure at the beginning of the year.

Sept. 20: Officer Sandra McIntyre is identified as being under federal investigation and facing a potential charge of obstruction of justice in connection with the Zehm confrontation.

Oct. 4: A judge moves Thompson’s trial to Yakima because of “intense” media coverage.

Oct. 12: After jury selection, Thompson’s trial begins.

Nov. 2: A jury convicts Thompson of needlessly beating Otto Zehm and then lying about it to cover up his actions.

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