Arrow-right Camera

Spokane

The Thompson trial: Key players

Tue., Oct. 11, 2011, midnight

Otto Zehm: A 36-year-old, recently out-of-work janitor who had schizophrenia, Zehm mostly kept to himself. The exception was a small group of friends he would invite over for late-night guitar jam sessions. On most nights, he ate his dinners at convenience stores. On March 18, 2006, Zehm was in a Zip Trip in north Spokane when he was confronted by Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr., who was responding to an erroneous report that Zehm had stolen money from the ATM where he cashed his checks. After a struggle that included police baton strikes, Taser jolts and the arrival of six other officers, Zehm was hog-tied and a medical mask intended only for use with a dedicated oxygen supply strapped over his nose and mouth. He stopped breathing and died two days later.

Thomas Clouse

Karl F. Thompson Jr.: He was a police officer in Los Angeles before moving to Kootenai County in 1979, where he still resides. He and his co-workers were watching the Gonzaga Bulldogs men’s basketball team play an NCAA tournament game when the call came in about Zehm. Thompson responded because he “is originally from Los Angeles, lives in North Idaho, and had no interest in the GU game,” according to court documents.

Thompson divorced his wife of nearly 40 years after a $2.9 million civil rights lawsuit was filed in 2009 on behalf of Zehm, but the couple continues to reside together in Hayden. He has been off patrol since a grand jury indicted him in 2009 on criminal charges of using unreasonable force and lying to investigators, but he continues to work desk assignments.

Thompson began his career in the U.S. Army in 1965. He ran unsuccessfully for sheriff as a Democrat in Kootenai County in 1996. He joined the Spokane Police Department in 1997 after graduating at the top of his basic training academy class.

Meghann M. Cuniff

Assistant police Chief Jim Nicks: Nicks was acting police chief at the time of the confrontation. He spoke with the news media just after the incident on March 18, 2006, and said Zehm had lunged at Thompson with a plastic soda bottle and a “very horrific” fight ensued.

He said officers used the lowest level of force possible and complied with policy. But in 2008, Nicks told a grand jury that Zehm was retreating “the entire time” that Thompson was charging and attacking with his baton, according to court documents. He said Thompson’s use of the baton was “objectively unreasonable and violated Spokane Police Department use of force policies.”

The testimony was detailed in documents filed in U.S. District Court in August.

Nicks, 53, has since announced he will retire early next year when Chief Anne Kirkpatrick steps down. He’s been on the force for 30 years.

Meghann M. Cuniff

Spokane Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi: The Police Department’s legal adviser, Treppiedi responded to the scene the night of the Zehm confrontation. Since then, his defense of the city and its officers in the civil case has been criticized by the U.S. Justice Department, which argued that Treppiedi had placed his interests in the civil case above the “search for the truth.” The city responded that federal authorities inappropriately tried to manage the civil case.

Treppiedi, who is a member of the Spokane School Board, has a reputation as a hard worker and fierce advocate for City Hall. His supporters say he’s likely saved the city large amounts of money with his aggressive style.

But he’s been involved in other controversies, most notably in 1994, when he authorized police to search the hotel room of a national CBS news crew in town to do a story about a well-known Gypsy family.

Jonathan Brunt

Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Durkin: Durkin has overseen the federal case that led to criminal charges against Thompson and the ongoing investigation that authorities say could lead to charges against at least one more officer.

A veteran prosecutor with a knack for complex legal cases, he grew up in Anaconda, Mont., and attended Pacific University before earning his law degree from the University of Idaho law school. He worked in private practice before going to work as a Spokane County deputy prosecutor in the civil division in 1996. The 49-year-old married father of three left the county in 2004 to work for the U.S. Justice Department, first under U.S. Attorney Jim McDevitt and now under U.S. Attorney Mike Ormsby.

Thomas Clouse

Defense attorney Carl Oreskovich: Oreskovich, 56, the lead defense attorney for Thompson, grew up in Butte and attended Seattle University before earning his law degree from the University of Montana law school. He is considered one of the premier defense attorneys in the Spokane area.

Among his high-profile cases is the 2007 plea agreement for Carole DeLeon, who had been accused of starving her foster son to death in a rural Stevens County home. Oreskovich also helped in 2008 exonerate Clifford Helm, who was charged with killing five members of the same family in a horrific crash. Most recently, he won the exoneration of Spokane firefighter Todd Chism on charges that he assaulted two Washington State Patrol troopers.

Thomas Clouse

U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle: He has presided over the case since Thompson was indicted in 2009.

The senior judge moved the trial to Yakima after Oreskovich said pre-trial publicity could bias a Spokane jury. He also has prohibited any testimony about Zehm’s innocence, which prompted a delay in the trial last March as prosecutors appealed the ruling.

Van Sickle, 68, was appointed to the bench in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush after serving as a Superior Court judge in Grant and Douglas counties and practicing law in Eastern Washington. He served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate Corps from 1968 to 1970 after graduating from the University of Washington law school.

Meghann M. Cuniff



There are six comments on this story »