March 20, 2012 in City

Doug Clark: Justice for Otto Zehm is close at hand

By The Spokesman-Review
File photo

Snickers candy bars, flowers and 2-liter bottles of Pepsi Cola were left curbside in November in front of the Zip Trip on Division Street at Augusta Avenue, where Otto Zehm was fatally injured in a struggle with police officers in 2006.
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Four or five other customers were ahead of me when I sauntered into the convenience store on Sunday’s sunny afternoon.

No worries. Despite the Zip Trip name on the signage, I hadn’t come here on a speed run.

After scanning the aisles a moment, I grabbed what I had come for. Then I took my place at the end of the checkout line with goods in tow:

One 2-liter plastic bottle of Diet Pepsi.


One Snickers candy bar.


Hardly the breakfast of champions. But it seemed like the right way to mark the sixth anniversary of Otto Zehm’s final and ultimately fatal visit to this small Spokane trading post at 1712 N. Division.

March 18, 2006.

Never forget.

The pop and candy bar were all Otto was after when he entered the Zip Trip on that fated date. The likable, although mentally ill, janitor had no inkling about the dark storm that was about to descend and crush the life out of him.

Two young women had mistakenly (hysterically?) reported Otto as an odd, suspicious character who just might have stolen some money at a nearby cash machine.

Hell was about to come charging through the Zip Trip doors in the form of the cop who took the call: club-swinging, badge-wearing Karl Thompson Jr.

It was a wondrous moment when federal jurors found the truth in Yakima last November.

Thompson was found guilty not only of mercilessly beating and shocking Otto with a Taser. He was also guilty of lying to investigators afterward to justify the violence he had unleashed on the unarmed man who was pronounced dead two days later.

(Six years ago today, as a matter of fact.)

I plunked down my purchases and commented that this was the Otto Zehm store. I could tell the young clerk knew little about the chaos that had occurred in her cramped workplace.

You can’t blame her for not knowing. She was just 17 when it happened, she told me.

I introduced myself and handed the cheerful young woman a couple of “Otto” buttons. Maybe they will inspire her to do a little research on the events of March 18, 2006, and the corruption that followed in the form of deceptive police administrators, cowardly city officials and a do-nothing county prosecutor.

Spokane owes a great debt to the U.S. attorney’s office for having the will to see this case through from grand jury to convictions.

And now we wait with our fingers crossed for the Thompson appeal machine to wind its way through the system.

I hear regularly from residents who are galled that this brute can remain essentially free on a $25,000 signature bond (that’s no cash required, folks) until a decision is reached.

Six years later, however, I choose to remain optimistic.

I want to believe in my heart of hearts that the day is coming when Karl Thompson Jr. must give up his life of relative comfort and head into that cold, cruel world of confinement.

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

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