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 co-workers, family and friends, some with developmental disabilities – gathered at Mission Park in north Spokane to remember the 36-year-old janitor who died after a scuffle with police officers last month.
“There was not an unkind bone in his body,” said Spike Cunningham, a former pastor who led the memorial service. “He was a peacemaker.”
The tone at the memorial fluctuated from mourning to anger, and several friends and family members expressed frustration about the Spokane Police Department’s refusal to turn over a videotape of the encounter.
Others questioned whether Zehm’s death could be objectively investigated by a department whose own officers were involved in the altercation.
“I feel sad, and I feel mad,” said Carrie Webb, Zehm’s sister. “There should be justice. If this was a cop, wouldn’t the cops want justice?”
For friends and family, the investigation has moved painfully slow.
Terri Sloyer, a staff attorney at the Center for Justice, questions how a “shadow” investigation by the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office can truly be an independent review when both agencies work in the same building and often work cases together.
“I would like to see the department call upon an independent agency to investigate,” said Sloyer, who is representing Zehm’s mother. “That’s the only way to determine as objectively as we can what happened that night.”
Sloyer may be getting her wish. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has reviewed the Zehm investigation and will be forwarding information to the U.S. Department of Justice to determine whether a full federal investigation is warranted, said Robbie Burroughs, an FBI spokeswoman in Seattle.
“This is what’s called a preliminary inquiry,” Burroughs said. “We just look at what has been done and forward it to the DOJ.”
At Tuesday’s service, Zehm’s family held hands as strains of “Amazing Grace” drifted through the park. A developmentally disabled friend paced several hundred yards away, overcome with emotion.
Zehm, a powerfully built man with long red hair, was playful and fun at work, singing songs as he mopped and vacuumed the floors at Fairchild Air Force Base, a co-worker said Tuesday. When he disagreed with his mother, Ann, they would say, “Ha,” to each other until both began laughing, Cunningham said.
Zehm lived in an apartment house several blocks from Mission Park.
A neighbor said Zehm was so courteous that he knocked on the doors of adjoining apartments to ask permission before playing his drums or his guitar.
“To be blunt, I don’t see him doing anything to cause a fight with anyone,” said Donald Bailey, 39, who met Zehm in elementary school. “He was a big guy, but he wasn’t harmful at all.”
Amanda Welsh, a former neighbor, said she had difficulty understanding how or why Zehm – who was unarmed and had a history of mental illness – had “lunged” at an officer, as police have stated.
“They won’t release anything, so I have no idea what happened,” Welsh said. “I just think it was so unnecessary.”
Last week, Spokane police Detective Terry Ferguson obtained four search warrants seeking Zehm’s mental health, medical and employment records.
The warrants were based on Ferguson’s statements that Zehm was still being investigated for assaulting a police officer, even though he was dead.
District Court Commissioner Brad Chinn, who approved the police request to seize Zehm’s otherwise private records, said Tuesday he felt the warrants were proper even though Zehm could never face a criminal charge.
“Is it an issue? It might be,” Chinn said. “But that’s what was relayed to me, that it was an ongoing investigation.”
He noted that the court rules and laws governing search warrants are quite broad.
“We review search warrants. It’s not our job to make judgments beyond that,” he said. “They either have probable cause, or they don’t. That’s essentially as far as it goes.”
Asked if he had previously approved warrants seeking to charge dead people, Chinn declined to comment.
Bob Dexter, 40, described Zehm as his best friend, someone he’d known for 20 years.
“He had the biggest heart I have ever seen on anybody,” Dexter said.
“I’m outraged. I don’t know how anybody could beat him like they did and then put a search warrant on his background. I have lost total respect for authority.”
At the hospital in the hours before his death, Webb visited her brother.
His ribs were bruised, and he had a cut on his chin and an abrasion on his ear, she said.
When a police car drove past the park Tuesday, Webb blinked back tears and said accusingly, “Them. That car.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.