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

Otto Zehm: a life on the margins

Growing up: Otto Zehm in a class picture at Stevens Elementary during the 1977-78 school year. 
 (Zehm family / The Spokesman-Review)
Benjamin Shors Staff writer

Before the release of the convenience store surveillance tape, before the federal investigation and the bold headlines, before the debate over a pop bottle and missing fingerprints, Otto Zehm liked to play his guitar.

In his small apartment, in a low-rent neighborhood in north Spokane, Zehm’s fingers danced across the six-string as he and his band mates played Van Halen.

“Otto could play a mean guitar,” said a friend, 56-year-old Ted Rondena.

While the death of Zehm has been minutely detailed in police and media reports, his life remains enigmatic. Diagnosed with a mental illness during his teenage years, the 36-year-old drifted along the fringes of life in Spokane, working days as a janitor, eating his dinner at convenience stores.

At a Zip Trip in north Spokane on March 18, Zehm went into cardiopulmonary arrest after being beaten with a baton by a policeman, repeatedly Tasered, and then hogtied while under suspicion for a crime he didn’t commit. Zehm, who did not have a criminal record, never regained consciousness and died on March 20.

At the Center for Justice, a public-interest law firm, attorneys for the Zehm family said his mother was not available to comment. Though Zehm’s diagnosis has not been released, he was treated with a powerful antipsychotic, according to a police report.

In interviews with friends and co-workers, as well as a review of hundreds of pages of police reports, the final days of Otto Zehm show a man battling to control his mental illness.

Just months before, Zehm seemed to be headed in the right direction: He held a steady job as a janitor, where he was both respected and dependable. He called his mother each night before he went to bed, and at work he mentored a young man with Down syndrome.

“Otto was just a real easygoing, likable person,” said Roy Barron, operations manager for Skils’kin, a Spokane nonprofit that helps people with disabilities find work. “He was just one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. I guess that’s the thing that’s so puzzling about all this.”

Zehm finds his place

The son of a farmer, Zehm grew up in Spokane and attended Stevens Elementary School in northeast Spokane.

In four years at North Central High School, he never posed for a school portrait. He appears only in a group photo of the intermediate choir in the school’s 1988 yearbook. His mane of long red hair is easily distinguishable in the photo.

After high school, Zehm worked as a seamster at a shop on North Monroe Street where he mended blue jeans and jackets, according to co-workers. At times he struggled to control his mental illness, and at one point he was temporarily hospitalized at Eastern State Hospital, the state’s psychiatric hospital in Medical Lake, according to sources close to the family, who asked not to be identified.

In 2000, he joined Skils’kin and began working as a janitor. Zehm was rarely seen without a drink – usually a bottle of soda or a gallon of milk. Constant thirst can be a side effect of Zyprexa, the powerful antipsychotic prescribed to Zehm, according to police records.

He regularly brought snacks and treats for co-workers, and though he was quiet and shy, he quickly made friends.

“He’d always bring me something – a bottle of pop, a bottle of water, a bag of potato chips,” said Rita Pate, a quality assurance worker at Skils’kin. “I said, ‘Otto, this has got to get expensive.’ He said, ‘No, I put it in my budget. I planned for this.’ “

At 5-foot-9 and approximately 175 pounds, Zehm was not a large man, but he was strong, said Barron, who oversaw Zehm’s crew, as well as several others.

“He was the teacher and the protector of the guys who were maybe more disabled than he was,” Barron said. “He was very patient.”

Zehm remained close to his mother, Ann, visiting her regularly and playing her guitar songs over the phone. Zehm’s father, Otto Sr., died in 1999.

A music aficionado, Zehm peddled tapes of his jam sessions for $2 apiece. After work, he and his friends gathered at his apartment to practice, taking care to ask his neighbors if they minded the music.

“We planned on getting on stage some day,” said Tim Byrne, 46, a guitar player who has battled schizophrenia since his teenage years. “Otto could play the six-string like he was ringing a bell.”

Last winter, apparently concerned about his weight and smoking, Zehm attempted to “wean himself from (his medication),” according to a police report filed 11 days after his death.

The results were disastrous.

A spiral downward

If the manner of his death is singularly shocking, Zehm’s gradual downward spiral into mental illness seems to highlight broader systemic problems.

According to Detective Terry Ferguson’s review of his death, Zehm lost his eligibility to receive services at Spokane Mental Health in 2003.

Though Zehm’s complete health history has not been publicly released, his change in eligibility status coincided with tougher new federal standards. Those standards forced Spokane County to drop mental health coverage for 900 people in the fall of 2003.

Zehm joined hundreds of other people with serious mental illness who flowed into waiting rooms at Spokane’s community health clinics.

At clinics run by the Community Health Association of Spokane, 600 new patients with serious mental illness arrived in 90 days, said Peg Hopkins, CHAS director.

“We just don’t have the capacity for any case management,” Hopkins said. “We’re still really struggling with the lack of resources in this community for people with serious mental illness.”

CHAS has two psychiatrists who work once a week, Hopkins said. Rather than being regularly treated by a psychiatrist, Zehm was seen by a nurse practitioner on Feb. 13, 2006, according to a police report.

Although Zehm wanted to stop the medication, the nurse practitioner got him to sign an agreement promising to consistently take the pills, according to the report.

But in the weeks that followed, Zehm’s behavior changed, according to interviews and the police report.

At work his supervisors noted “increased confusion, distraction, disorientation … and verbal aggression,” the police report says. In March, in the days before Zehm went to the Zip Trip, Skils’kin temporarily discharged Zehm and staff persuaded him to seek a medical evaluation.

He stopped calling his mother each night. He missed his March 13 appointment at CHAS, the report says, and a phone call went unanswered.

Zehm began missing band practices, and frequently broke down crying, according to friends. Byrne thought it might have something to do with a girl named Amber. He wasn’t sure.

“I went to the bus stop and I waited for him,” Byrne said. “He got off the bus and walked right by me. He said, ‘I can’t do it anymore.’ He took off like he was really scared and upset. That was the last time I saw him.”

Final visit to the Zip Trip

911 call: Um, there’s some guy and he came up to us when we were at the ATM and he, like, was trying to get in our car and stuff so we drove off … he’s walking down Division and he walked off with, like, stuff, like he got money out of her ATM and then when we started coming at him he ran and now he’s walking down Division, and I think he took a ton of money out of her ATM. As veteran Spokane police officer Karl Thompson responded to a dispatch call on the night of March 18, a dispatcher advised officers that the suspect “appears to be high.”

In fact, as toxicology reports later showed, Zehm had no illegal substances in his system. Nor did he have any “prescribed, controlled substances in his system,” according to Ferguson’s report. Police also would later learn that no money was taken from the ATM. Near the ATM, police found a self-help book and a Queensryche CD.

At 6:26 p.m., Zehm walked into the Zip Trip at 1712 N. Division, his long, red hair cascading onto the shoulders of his black leather jacket. Seconds later, Thompson rushed into the store, unsheathed his baton, confronted Zehm and knocked him to the floor.

On the grainy surveillance tape, the blue flash of a Taser is visible, but the aisles obscure much of the confrontation. Thompson and other witnesses say that Zehm held a pop bottle, which the officer reportedly feared could be used as a “significant weapon.” The bottle is not clearly evident in the video, and a subsequent test found no fingerprints from Zehm on it.

Responding officers described Zehm as a swinging, growling suspect who fought ferociously. Eventually seven officers responded – about half the patrol that night.

Officer Ron Voeller said Zehm appeared incoherent but paused once to say, “All I wanted was a Snickers.”

Zehm was hogtied, and an officer placed a modified breathing mask on his face to prevent him from spitting. Lawyers for Zehm’s family contend he stopped breathing about three minutes after the officer applied the mask, which was never attached to an oxygen tank.

Zehm died two days later.

Friends try to understand

As many questions as have been raised by the public, even more linger among the group homes on 9th Avenue West, where two of Zehm’s friends lived.

Rondena and Byrne, who played keyboard and guitar with Zehm, stopped to talk with a reporter in front of the homes.

“I spent about half a day crying,” Byrne said, alternately smoking a hand-rolled cigarette and taking gulps from a 64-ounce cup of Diet Coke. “I just pray that he went to heaven.”

Byrne and Rondena began to reminisce about their weekly rock sessions at Otto’s apartment. That’s how they like to remember him: red hair flying, fingers plucking the strings of his guitar.

“Oh, he could really play,” Rondena said.

Four months after Zehm’s death, Rondena appeared genuinely confused by the circumstances surrounding his friend’s death.

“What happened to Otto?” he asked. “Did the cops kill him?”

At Fairchild Air Force Base, where Otto emptied the garbage cans and cleaned the floors, photos of him are posted on a board of Skils’kin employees.

“It’s just a complete tragedy,” said Ray Lancaster, the nonprofit’s assistant program director. “We’re all horribly dismayed by it. I think we’re all diminished by him not being around.”