The family of a Spokane Valley pastor shot to death after a confrontation with a deputy sheriff in 2010 will receive $2 million.
The settlement was reached Friday after U.S. District Judge Rosanna Peterson dismissed Spokane County and Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich from the family’s civil lawsuit. That left as the lone defendant in the case Deputy Brian Hirzel, who shot the Rev. Wayne Scott Creach in the parking lot of the pastor’s nursery and greenhouse business on Aug. 25, 2010. Although the county had been dismissed from the federal lawsuit, it still was providing Hirzel’s legal defense.
“It’s a good result for the Creach family, and it goes to show that there are problems in Spokane Valley and with the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office,” Creach family attorney Simeon Osborn said.
Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, however, bristled at the suggestion that the settlement represents any acknowledgment of wrongdoing, noting that the judge specifically cleared the county and his office by dropping them from the family’s lawsuit. Knezovich criticized the county’s insurance carrier for agreeing to such a large settlement instead of taking the case to trial as he and the county’s lawyers wanted, saying it sends the wrong message.
“It says, ‘If you sue the county, they’ll pay,’ ” Knezovich said.
Creach, 74, was armed with a handgun at the time of the confrontation and had gone to investigate a dark sedan parked on his property in the middle of the night. It was an unmarked patrol car being used by Hirzel, who was in uniform and in the neighborhood watching for prowlers.
There are conflicting reports about what happened during the confrontation between Creach and Hirzel, but the deputy eventually fired one shot into the chest of the shirtless pastor, killing him.
The Creaches’ lawyer acknowledged the dismissal of the county and Knezovich from the suit but still called it a victory for his clients.
“You don’t pay $2 million if you didn’t do something wrong,” Osborn said.
Spokane County spokeswoman Martha Lou Wheatley-Billeter said the county’s insurance deductible is $500,000, which has been satisfied because invoices for attorney fees had already been filed.
She said the county is part of the Washington Counties Risk Pool and that a third-party insurer through that group made the call to settle the case. The insurer had recently lost a costly case and, with that in mind, was eager to settle the Creach case rather than risk a jury verdict, Wheatley-Billeter said.
“The reinsurance companies were really pushing to settle this, even though the county pushed back and said, ‘Let’s wait and see what the judge rules,’ ” she said.
The insurance company put a time limit of 5 p.m. Friday on the $2 million deal. The settlement offer was not taken off the table when the judge ruled the county and the sheriff were not at fault in the case. The $2 million is considered a global settlement, which means it includes coverage for expenses.
The settlement amount is more than the city of Spokane paid relatives of Otto Zehm, the mentally ill janitor who died after a confrontation with Spokane police in 2006 when he was mistakenly implicated in a possible theft. The city paid Zehm’s mother $1.67 million after six years of litigation and a federal excessive force conviction against former Officer Karl Thompson, who was the first officer to confront Zehm in a north Spokane convenience store.
Knezovich said Hirzel is still a deputy with the department and works the graveyard shift in Spokane Valley.
Wheatley-Billeter said even though the county had already paid out its deductible and wouldn’t be on the hook for more money no matter the outcome of a settlement or trial, the county is concerned about the result painting an unfair picture.
“We didn’t want this to be seen as an admission of guilt, because it’s not,” she said. “We do care about it very much.”