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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.

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

  • Thompson released pending sentencing

    A judge ruled late Monday to release convicted Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. and could rule as early as this morning whether to bring in jurors for questioning …

  • Clark: To those who disgraced the law they swore to uphold

    “Members of the Spokane Police Department will so conduct their public and private lives that they exemplify the high standards of integrity, trust, and morality demanded of a member of …

  • U.S. marshals take convicted Thompson into custody

    Nearly 50 Spokane police officers saluted convicted Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. in federal court as U.S. marshals led him away Friday, prompting Mayor Mary Verner and police Chief Anne …

  • Karl Thompson taken into custody

    U.S. Marshals took convicted Spokane Police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. into custody today after a federal judge ruled that his detention is appropriate pending sentencing for using excessive force …

  • Defense to seek new trial

    A federal judge delayed a decision whether to take convicted Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. into custody after his defense attorney said Thursday that he will seek a …

  • Thompson lawyer alleges jury misconduct

    A federal judge today put off the decision to detain Spokane Police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. after his defense attorney said he will seek a new tria.

  • Clark: This time, the jury got it exactly right

    It takes a lot to get to a guy like me. Many journalists hide behind a shield of cynicism, and I’ve had 37 years of practice.

  • Spokane police officer convicted of excessive force, lying

    YAKIMA – His jaw quivering at times, Karl F. Thompson Jr. stared straight ahead Wednesday, showing nothing but a stern look as juror after juror confirmed the guilty verdicts they’d …

  • Timeline since March 2006, when Zehm was beaten

    • 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 …

  • Quotes regarding the Thompson verdict

    U.S. Attorney Mike Ormsby: “This is not an indictment of our entire Police Department and it should not be an excuse for any of us to ignore the good work …

  • Conviction likely to bring changes at department

    The conviction of Officer Karl Thompson could mean a significant shift in the running and politics of the Spokane Police Department, some city officials and police accountability advocates said after …

  • Thompson convicted on both counts

    A jury today convicted Spokane Police Offier Karl F. Thompson Jr. of needlessly beating Otto Zehm and then lying about it to cover up his actions.

  • Otto Zehm case timeline

    Otto Zehm timeline

  • Deliberations in excessive force trial to continue

    The jury deciding the excessive force trial of Spokane Police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. deliberated has completed about seven hours of deliberations without rendering a verdict.

  • Thompson case goes to jurors

    YAKIMA – Jurors were asked Monday to decide whether Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. is a “rogue cop” and liar who hid behind a departmental coverup, or a …

  • Prosecutors ask jury to convict Thompson for ‘brutal’ attack

    On the day Otto Zehm would have turned 42, a federal prosecutor asked a jury today to convict Spokane Police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. of using excessive force and …

  • Doug Clark: There’s a stink in the courtroom and the hotel room

    Karl Thompson’s version of what happened when he took down Otto Zehm sounds like one of those melees that are staple to TV cop shows. Barking orders. Officer-and-suspect squaring off. …

  • Thompson admits ‘errors’ in statement to investigators

    YAKIMA – Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. finished his second day of testimony Friday, acknowledging again that he made some errors in his taped statement describing the 2006 …

  • Thompson admits errors in Zehm report

    YAKIMA – Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. finished his second day of testimony Friday, acknowledging again that he made some errors in his taped statement describing the 2006 …

  • Thompson describes fatal confrontation

    Spokane P\police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. told jurors today that the death of Otto Zehm will be something he carries with him the rest of his life.

  • Police training expert defends use of force

    YAKIMA – One of the Spokane Police Department’s top trainers told a jury Wednesday that any situation could justify an officer’s use of force, even taking a burglary report in …

  • Officers say Thomspon followed his training

    YAKIMA – One of the Spokane Police Department’s top trainers told a jury today that any situation could justify an officer’s use of force, even taking a burglary report in …

  • Zehm update: Police training, response explained

    Jurors got a taste today of the unpredictability that officers face through the testimony of the defensive tactics trainer who instructed Spokane Police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. how to …

  • Backup officer takes stand

    YAKIMA – Spokane police Officer Steven Braun Jr. gave the jury an image of Otto Zehm as someone who probably had committed a robbery, was trying to flee and then …

  • Another defense expert disputes Zehm head strikes

    A second defense expert has testified that head injuries suffered by Otto Zehm didn’t come from a police baton. The Tuesday morning testimony by Dr. Dan Davis, a forensic pathologist, …

  • Defense launches its case

    YAKIMA – After nearly two weeks of critical prosecution testimony, defense attorneys for Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. opened their case Monday with a medical doctor who told …

  • Zehm update: Judge declines to dismiss force charge

    Enough evidence of excessive force against Otto Zehm has been presented to let the case proceed, Judge Fred Van Sickle ruled today, rejecting defense arguments that one of the charges …

  • Condon to open coffers for TV ad blitz

    Spokane voters likely will have plenty of chances in the next few weeks to see David Condon on TV. The candidate who is challenging Spokane Mayor Mary Verner has spent …

  • Shawn Vestal: Bottle report a lot of fizz but little pop

    The Otto Zehm case produced its first moment of comedy this week, though it’s not funny-ha-ha. It’s funny-stupid.

  • Thompson colleague: Feds manipulated him

    YAKIMA – After obtaining an immunity letter from the U.S. Department of Justice, Spokane police Officer Tim Moses testified he could not remember or disputed any incriminating things he previously …

  • Thompson trial: Officer disputes own grand jury testimony

    YAKIMA – After obtaining an immunity letter from the U.S. Department of Justice, Spokane police Officer Tim Moses testified he could not remember or disputed any incriminating things he previously …

  • EMT, medical examiner testify about baton injuries to Zehm

    YAKIMA – For the first time since the trial of Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. began last week, federal prosecutors walked out of the William O. Douglas federal …