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
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Detective’s report finds force justified
July 19, 2006 in City on Page B2 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
July 18, 2006 in City on Page A5 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
July 18, 2006 in City on Page A5 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 … 1
Mayor looks outside
July 18, 2006 in City on Page A1 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
Zehm case déja vu
July 15, 2006 in City on Page A6 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
July 15, 2006 in City on Page A7 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
July 15, 2006 in City on Page A1 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
Video shows Zehm backed away
July 14, 2006 in City on Page A1 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
Scandals discussed at forum
July 12, 2006 in City on Page B1 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
July 9, 2006 in City on Page A1 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
June 13, 2006 in City on Page B2 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
June 1, 2006 in City on Page A1 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
Friends remember ‘gentle lion’
May 9, 2006 in City on Page B2 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
April 17, 2006 in City on Page A1 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
April 15, 2006 in City on Page B4 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
April 7, 2006 in City on Page B1 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 …