Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Video shows Zehm backed away

Staff writer

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, a day after The Spokesman-Review threatened a lawsuit and after Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker agreed to its release.

The 35-minute video shows Zehm entering the Zip Trip at 1712 N. Division at 6:26 p.m. on the evening of March 18 and strolling down an aisle. He’s wearing a black leather jacket, and there’s nothing in his hands. The 36-year-old janitor is notable mostly by his mane of blond hair that hangs below his shoulders.

Nine seconds later, Spokane police Officer Karl Thompson enters the store. He’s been told that Zehm may have robbed two women in a car using a nearby ATM – information that later proves to be false.

Five seconds later, Zehm turns his head as Thompson runs up behind him, brandishing a baton. Zehm backs up fast in a narrow aisle, but their confrontation is partially obscured by a tall counter.

Only four seconds elapse before Zehm is knocked to the floor by Thompson, who has his baton in his hand. The video captures a blue flash 13 seconds later as the police officer stuns the prone Zehm with his Taser – the first of several 50,000-volt stun gun jolts he’s subjected to, Deputy Chief Al Odenthal said in a press briefing Thursday.

A small girl on the silent video clutches her ears as she witnesses the Tasering and is pulled behind a counter by an older companion.

A second policeman, Officer Steven Braun Jr., enters the store 13 seconds after the Tasering, responding to a “Code 6” call for backup. Braun later applies a touch stun Taser to Zehm.

At 6:27 p.m., Zehm is dragged to the center aisle, where Thompson strikes him six times with his baton. More police officers arrive, clogging the narrow aisle where Zehm, who is mentally ill, lay thrashing on the floor. Seven officers struggle to control him.

At 6:33 p.m., the surveillance video shows him tightly hogtied, lying on his stomach with his hands and feet bound together. Some of the officers stand close to his feet in an effort to keep him still; three others lean on his upper body.

At 6:36, Zehm, still hogtied, rocks back and forth on his stomach. The police shift his position, turning him on his side about three minutes later. But by 6:43 p.m., he’s back on his stomach. Although his position on the floor of the Zip Trip aisle isn’t always visible because he’s obscured by the crowd of police officers, it appears that Zehm may have been tightly hobbled while on his stomach for up to 13 minutes – a violation of department procedures.

Officers are trained to place people on their sides so they won’t have difficulty breathing while restrained, said Acting Police Chief Jim Nicks.

While the struggle at Zip Trip continues, customers continue to gawk at the scene while buying candy and soft drinks. Others appear to be oblivious while paying for gas and snacks.

At 6:40 p.m., Fire Department paramedics arrive. The police asked the paramedics for a mask to prevent Zehm from spitting on officers, Odenthal said

Lawyers for Zehm’s family at the Center for Justice reviewed the videotape again on Thursday and concluded that Zehm stopped breathing about three minutes after the mask was strapped to his face by a police officer.

The paramedics put Zehm on his back and remove his shirt. At 6:51 p.m., after Zehm has apparently stopped breathing, they start CPR and listen to his heart through a stethoscope.

As a paramedic pumps Zehm’s chest more and more frantically, the crowd of policemen retreat farther back in the aisle. At 6:58, the paramedic crew stands up. At 7 p.m., they carry Zehm out of the store, covered by a blue sheet. The last of the police officers file out.

Zehm is taken by ambulance to the hospital. He never regains consciousness and dies two days later, on March 20.

On May 30, the Spokane County medical examiner ruled that Zehm died as a result of homicide. The cause: lack of oxygen to the brain due to heart failure while being restrained on his stomach. He had no illegal or prescription drugs in his system.