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.
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.
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
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.