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

  • Judge postpones Thompson’s criminal trial by a few days

    U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle today postponed a few days the criminal trial of Karl F. Thompson Jr. It is now scheduled to start with jury selection on …

  • No conflict in Otto Zehm case

    A federal judge decided Tuesday there’s no conflict of interest in how private attorney Carl Oreskovich has defended Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. in civil and criminal cases …

  • Judge finds no conflict in Thompson defense

    A federal judge has ruled that he did not find a conflict of interest in how private attorney Carl Oreskovich has defended Spokane Police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr., and …

  • Lawyer defends roles in Zehm cases

    The attorney defending Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. spent a good portion of a hearing Monday defending the city of Spokane’s legal strategy. The attorney, Carl Oreskovich, told …

  • Spokane’s legal strategy in Zehm case defended

    The attorney trying to defend Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. spent a good portion of a hearing today defending the City of Spokane’s legal strategy for how it gathered information …

  • Council to consider plan for stronger ombudsman

    An effort to expand the powers of the city of Spokane’s police ombudsman may go before the City Council on Monday night. The proposed ordinance would allow Ombudsman Tim Burns …

  • Second officer faces charges in Zehm case

    A second Spokane police officer has received a letter indicating that federal prosecutors intend to seek further charges in connection with the Otto Zehm investigation. Spokane attorney Rob Cossey said …

  • For limited judgment, for a limited time

    Sample radio/TV infomercial, take one. (Deep-voiced announcer)

  • Officer accused of using divorce to hide assets

    Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. divorced his wife to shield his assets and force taxpayers to foot the bill for his criminal defense, the federal prosecutor in the …

  • Prosecutor alleges police officer’s divorce was fraudulent

    Spokane Police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. divorced his wife to shield his assets and force taxpayers to foot the bill for his criminal defense, the federal prosecutor in the …

  • Spokane officer won’t have city attorneys in Zehm case

    Attorneys employed by the city of Spokane will no longer represent Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. in the legal battles stemming from the 2006 death of Otto Zehm, …

  • Judge to rule on request to bar evidence

    The attorney representing police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. has asked a federal judge to exclude any evidence that Otto Zehm had not committed a crime on the night of …

  • City attorneys no longer will represent Thompson

    Attorneys employed by the city of Spokane no longer will represent Spokane Police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. in the legal battles stemming from the 2006 death of Otto Zehm, …

  • When it comes to cop shenanigans, answers often lacking

    There’s been so much crazy cop news around here lately that it’s hard to keep track of the mayhem. So I designed today’s helpful quiz as a way to test …

  • Charge stands in Zehm case

    Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr., accused of lying to investigators over the fatal confrontation with Otto Zehm, unsuccessfully sought to get the charge dismissed Tuesday, arguing that he …

  • Judge refuses to dismiss lying charge against Thompson

    Otto Zehm, U.S. District Judge Fred Van Sickle, Karl F. Thompson Jr., Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Durkin, Carl Oreskovich, Mayor Mary Verner; Terry Ferguson; Mark Burbridge; Victor Boutros; U.S. Department …

  • Zehm grand jury to hear evidence police changed testimony

    Allegations of a cover-up by Spokane police officers over their handling of the fatal Otto Zehm confrontation and the department’s 2006 investigation of the case are being presented to a …

  • Defense can see Zehm’s mental health file

    A federal judge ruled Thursday in favor of the city of Spokane and granted a motion brought by the attorneys for Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. to obtain Otto Zehm’s …

  • Judge allows access to Zehm’s mental health records

    A federal judge today ruled in favor of the city of Spokane and granted a motion brought by the attorneys for Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. to obtain Otto Zehm’s …

  • Everything slips past city’s finest

    Cpl. Clark returns to address your concerns about cops, courts and crime. Q: Every time I pick up the newspaper I see something about excited delirium. What the heck is …

  • Lawyer defends Zehm handling

    A lawyer representing the city of Spokane argued for the first time Friday that Otto Zehm was suffering from “excited delirium” before his 2006 confrontation with police, making it a …

  • Lawyer: Zehm in ‘excited delirium’ before police arrived

    A lawyer for the City of Spokane argued today that Otto Zehm was suffering from “excited delirium” before the 2006 encounter with Spokane police that led to his death, causing …

  • Rally marks anniversary of Zehm altercation

    About 40 people chanted and held signs Thursday to remember the fourth anniversary of the confrontation with Spokane police that left unarmed shopper Otto Zehm fatally injured. The gathering was …

  • Rally marks 4th anniversary of Zehm confrontation

    About 40 people chanted and held signs Thursday to remember the fourth anniversary of the confrontation with Spokane police that left unarmed shopper Otto Zehm fatally injured.

  • Four years later, let’s not forget Otto Zehm

    Today is the fourth anniversary of that sad and violent encounter between Otto Zehm and the Spokane cops. Hard to believe, huh?

  • Center for Justice loses lawyer

    Breean Beggs, the self-described chief catalyst for the public interest law firm Center for Justice, announced his resignation Monday, citing both fewer financial resources at the firm and aspirations for …

  • City says Zehm 911 recording was mislabeled

    A woman describing Otto Zehm as “on something” to an emergency dispatcher can be heard on a video compilation released by police in October 2006, but not on an audio …

  • When official voices obfuscate, a little translation clarifies

    Once again, doubt is being raised about the “official” facts regarding Otto Zehm, the mentally ill janitor who died following a violent 2006 encounter with cops in a Spokane convenience …

  • Work on federal suit must wait, judge rules

    Most of the legal preparations for a federal lawsuit against the city over the death of Otto Zehm will be put on hold until the criminal trial against a Spokane …

  • Taser issues advisory on use of stun guns

    Taser International is advising police agencies across the nation not to shoot its stun guns at a suspect’s chest. The Arizona-based company says such action poses a risk — albeit …

  • 911 call perplexes Zehm attorney

    Among the details, court filings, and other developments surrounding the high-profile Otto Zehm case is a loosely related mystery that’s been downplayed by attorneys on opposing sides of the legal …

  • Zehm’s mother can give statement, judge rules

    The ailing mother of a man who died after being struck, Tasered and hogtied by Spokane police officers should have a chance to have her statement preserved for a civil …




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