Otto Zehm


Otto Zehm, 36, died March 20, 2006.

A jury convicted Spokane Police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. of needlessly beating Otto Zehm and then lying about it to cover up his actions. The verdict was delivered in federal court in Yakima on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011 – five years and seven months since Zehm’s life ended and questions of police accountability began.

Thompson ultimately was sentenced to 51 months in federal prison, although he promptly filed his plan to appeal. Thompson was transferred to a federal detention center in Seattle.

On March 18, 2006, Otto Zehm was beaten, shocked and hog-tied by police officers in a north Spokane Zip Trip, after he was accused erroneously of theft. He died two days later at a Spokane hospital. Thompson was the first responding officer.

On May 21, 2012, the Spokane City Council closed one chapter of the excessive force case by finalizing the $1.67 million settlement with the family of Otto Zehm. The deal was reached in mediation between city representatives, including Mayor David Condon, and Zehm family attorneys.

Condon has issued a handwritten apology to Zehm’s mother, Anna, and recently, the Spokane Park Board placed a memorial plaque for Zehm in Mission Park. Also, the police department must provide crisis-intervention training for all Spokane police officers who aren’t scheduled to retire within a year and provide $50,000 for a consultant to help the city implement changes to its use-of-force policy.

At the Zip Trip convenience store, officers confronted Zehm, 36, who was holding a pop bottle. Zehm was beaten with a baton, shocked with a Taser and left “hogtied” on the floor.

In May 2006, Spokane County Medical Examiner Sally Aiken ruled that Zehm died as a result of homicide, with lack of oxygen to the brain as the official cause.

Public outcry over Zehm’s death and others prompted outside review of the Police Department, changes to protocol and the creation of a police ombudsman position. The latter has drawn criticism.

In March 2009, the Center for Justice filed a federal civil rights suit against the city of Spokane and nine of its police officers on behalf of Zehm’s family. The lawsuit alleged that officers used excessive force and that the police department and its former acting chief, Jim Nicks, engaged in a conspiracy to portray Zehm as the aggressor.

In June 2009, a federal grand jury handed down two indictments against Thompson, accusing him of violating Zehm’s civil rights.

Documents filed in April 2010 raised serious new allegations in the case. In them, federal prosecutors suggest members of the Spokane Police Department tried to cover up their handling of the confrontation with Zehm and that the agency’s investigation clearing officers of wrongdoing was incomplete and inaccurate.

A timeline of the case shows five years of complex legal wrangling involving the criminal case against Thompson and a $2.9 million civil claim by Zehm’s mother and estate against the city of Spokane.

Recently unsealed federal court files show that the lead investigator within the police department, detective Terry Ferguson, knew that if the video of Zehm’s death became public, the results would be ‘inflammatory.’ Thompson also sent emails to police union officials requesting that they research deaths caused by a condition known as ‘excited delirium.’

Thompson’s sentencing on Nov. 15, 2012 followed a complex legal process that included a rare re-examination of jurors. Federal authorities also have questioned the legitimacy of Thompson’s divorce, which was used as a basis for a judge to declare him indigent, allowing Thompson to use more than half a million dollars in taxpayer money for his defense.

Updated Nov. 28, 2012 by Riley Jessett, intern

Key people

  • Otto Zehm

    Otto Zehm, a 36-year-old, recently out-of-work janitor who had schizophrenia, 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.

    Read our 2006 profile: Otto Zehm: a life on the margins

  • Karl Thompson

    Karl Thompson was a police officer in Los Angeles before moving to Kootenai County in 1979, where he resided until he began serving his prison term. 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. 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.

    Read our 2009 profile: Officer has lengthy, varied police career

  • Jim Nicks

    Assistant police Chief Jim 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. Nicks retired in 2012 after 30 years on the force.

  • Rocky Treppiedi

    Then-Spokane Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi, the Police Department’s legal adviser, responded to the scene the night of the Zehm confrontation. Since then, his defense of the city and its officers in the civil case were 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’s work on the Zehm case became an issue in the 2011 mayoral campaign and when Mayor David Condon took office, Treppiedi was fired. Treppiedi, who is a member of the Spokane School Board, had 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.

  • Timothy Durkin

    Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy 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.

  • Carl Oreskovich

    Defense attorney Carl Oreskovich, 56, the lead defense attorney for Thompson, grew up in Butte, Mont., 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.

  • Fred Van Sickle

    U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle 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.

Key places

  • Zip Trip

    Otto Zehm was visiting the Zip Trip convenience store at Division and Augusta streets in North Spokane when police confronted him inside the store on March 18, 2006. An erroneous accusation that Zehm stole money from an ATM lead police to respond to the Zip Trip that night. After entering the store and approaching Zehm, Officer Karl Thompson struck him with a baton (shown in the image at right, taken from security camera footage) and shocked him with a Taser. Multiple officers responded to the call, hog-tie Zehm and place a plastic mask over his face. Zehm stopped breathing and died two days later.

Latest updates in this topic

  • Expert quits police probes

    The outside investigation into the Spokane Police Department’s controversial handling of two high-profile cases will be conducted by a law enforcement service group from Olympia and a Kentucky-based consulting firm. …

  • Zehm’s prints not on bottle

    Otto Zehm’s fingerprints are not on the plastic soda bottle that police say he used to threaten an officer during the fatal March 18 struggle inside a Spokane convenience store, …

  • Detective’s report finds force justified

    The lead detective investigating the fatal encounter between seven police officers and mentally ill janitor Otto Zehm concluded that the first officer on the scene was justified in striking Zehm …

  • Unfazed Sheriff’s Office stands by investigation

    The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office apparently couldn’t provide the “independent” review that Mayor Dennis Hession now believes is necessary to oversee the investigation into the death of Otto Zehm. The …

  • Timeline recounts statements by police officials in Zehm case

    A look at the statements Acting Spokane Police Chief Jim Nicks and department spokesman Cpl. Tom Lee made to The Spokesman-Review regarding the March 18 encounter with 36-year-old Otto Zehm …

  • Mayor looks outside

    Bowing to public pressure, Spokane Mayor Dennis Hession said Monday he will hire an outside expert to examine the Police Department’s handling of two recent scandals that have sparked outrage …

  • Doug Clark: Acting chief failed to act responsibly

    I have no control over what happens once I turn in my column and it heads off to the press room. So there’s a chance that by the time you …

  • Zehm case déja vu

    A mentally ill man ends up dead after being suddenly approached by Spokane police officers who wrestle him to the ground, apply handcuffs and leave him on his stomach for …

  • Past Taser use recorded

    The Spokane police officers who used their stun guns three times in a fatal confrontation with Otto Zehm on March 18 have used their Tasers 10 other times since 2003, …

  • Chief still backs force

    Even though police have backed away from their earlier version of how the fatal struggle with a mentally ill janitor began, acting Chief Jim Nicks said Friday he still believes …

  • Transcript of 911 call on Zehm released

    Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of a 911 call by a young-sounding woman who reported a suspicious man as she and a female friend used a drive-up ATM …

  • Video shows Zehm backed away

    Otto Zehm’s life played out violently in a grainy convenience store surveillance video kept from the public for months. The city of Spokane released copies to the media on Thursday, …

  • Police were initially told Zehm had stolen money

    The following is a time-compressed account of the police radio traffic on the Otto Zehm response:

  • Scandals discussed at forum

    The three out-of-town candidates for police chief all knew about the sex scandal in which two Spokane police officers, investigating an alleged rape, ordered the deletion of explicit photos of …

  • Oversight of police an issue

    Four finalists who want to be Spokane’s next police chief currently work at departments where civilian oversight is either defunct, under challenge or doesn’t exist at all. All four candidates …

  • Police clarify use of nonlethal force

    Spokane police unveiled on Monday a half-hour public presentation explaining the Police Department’s policy on use of nonlethal force, including the controversial Taser stun gun. Deputy Police Chief Al Odenthal …

  • Zehm files under gag order

    Hours before Acting Police Chief Jim Nicks held a press conference Tuesday to defend his officers by talking about portions of the investigation into the death of Otto Zehm, a …

  • Otto Zehm’s death ruled a homicide

    The Spokane County medical examiner ruled Tuesday that Otto Zehm died as a result of homicide following his March 18 confrontation with Spokane police officers.

  • Friends remember ‘gentle lion’

    About two dozen friends and co-workers of Otto Zehm, who died after struggling with police March 18, remembered him Monday as a “gentle lion.” Spokane police say officers shocked the …

  • Deaths raise Taser questions

    The cause of Otto Zehm’s death is still being investigated. But because the mentally disabled janitor died after a scuffle with Spokane police, the city has been thrust into an …

  • ‘Upset’ chief blocks records

    The Spokane Police Department is withholding public records requested by The Spokesman-Review because acting Police Chief Jim Nicks is angry with the newspaper’s recent coverage of two high-profile cases. The …

  • FBI not studying Zehm case

    The FBI announced Thursday it erred this week when a spokeswoman disclosed that agents were looking into the death of Otto Zehm, who died following a March 18 scuffle with …

  • Only two officers used Tasers on Zehm

    The Spokane Police Department for the first time Wednesday said that only two of seven responding police officers used their Tasers against 36-year-old Otto Zehm during a March 18 scuffle. …

  • Questions linger at memorial service

    For a man who lived quietly on the margins of this city, Otto Zehm drew a surprisingly large crowd to his memorial on Tuesday. More than 100 mourners – including …

  • Police seek man’s medical records

    Nine days after Otto Zehm died after a scuffle with Spokane police, detectives told a judge they needed to seize the mentally ill man’s medical records because he was under …

  • Video of scuffle kept secret

    Security camera footage of a scuffle between police and a developmentally disabled janitor who died two days later will remain hidden from the public under orders from Spokane County Prosecutor …

  • Officers in fight defended

    No one knows yet what killed Otto Zehm, but acting Spokane Police Chief Jim Nicks insisted Thursday it wasn’t his officers. “We cannot speculate on the actual cause of death; …

  • Officers back on beat after fatal fight

    Otto Zehm did what he did almost every night and stopped by a Zip Trip to pick up a Diet Pepsi and fast-food for dinner. But Saturday, something went fatally …

  • Man who fought police dies in hospital

    A 35-year-old man who was hospitalized Saturday after fighting with police died about 3:30 p.m. Monday at Deaconess Medical Center. An autopsy is planned to determine the cause of death …

  • Fight with police injures man

    A Spokane man was in critical condition late Saturday after a “very horrific fight” with several police officers in a Division Street convenience store, said Jim Nicks, acting Spokane police …





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