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Doug Clark: There’s a stink in the courtroom and the hotel room

Karl Thompson’s version of what happened when he took down Otto Zehm sounds like one of those melees that are staple to TV cop shows.

Barking orders. Officer-and-suspect squaring off. Glaring defiance to authority. Punches thrown …

Book ’em, Danno.

No doubt about it. The Spokane police officer was fully justified to pound and ground and shoot electrified Taser darts into Zehm, who, oh yeah, happened to expire two days after the donnybrook.

It’s a cinematic plotline, all right.

Just don’t try to match the jigsaw pieces of Thompson’s narrative with what the Zip Trip video cameras coldly recorded on March 18, 2006.

Do that and Thompson’s yarn unravels like a Kmart cardigan.

At least that’s what I took away from my Thursday visit to the Yakima courtroom where Thompson is being tried on federal charges of excessive force and lying to investigators about what he did to Zehm.

Yakima. Hadn’t laid eyes on it in eons, but what’s a muckraker to do?

The Thompson trial was moved from Spokane to Yakima thanks to U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle, who – in a burst of judicial pusillanimity – decided the hubbub over one of our citizens being offed by cops may or may not prevent Thompson from receiving a fair trial.

Who knows? Let’s move it just to be safe.

So Thursday morning found me traveling I-90 in a westerly way. Yakima, I’m delighted to report, exceeded my expectations, which, admittedly, weren’t all that high to begin with.

But the downtown is clean and inviting. And they have these automated kiosks that’ll give you the first two hours of parking free.

Free parking? What a concept.

My hotel room was not only clean and spacious, but offered a scenic view of the Yakima River.

It would have been a home run had it not been haunted.

(More on that in a moment.)

I nearly swerved off the road into a ditch while entering the town. To my right a sign declared: “Welcome to Yakima, the Palm Springs of Washington.”

Calling Yakima the Palm Springs of Washington is like calling Joe Shogan the Kissinger of City Hall.

A stop at the visitors information center cleared the air.

The ludicrous civic greeting, I learned, was put up years ago. The author is a character who sells wine with the aforementioned sign on the label. I bought a bottle.

Despite this diversion, I still made the courthouse in time for the Thursday afternoon session. After a bit, Timothy Durkin, an assistant U.S. attorney, attempted to harpoon Thompson’s whale of a tale by applying logic and direct video comparisons.

Timing. This case has always been about timing.

Watch the store tape. You see Thompson beating cheeks through the Zip Trip door and making a beeline to Zehm, who is some distance away and completely unaware that he has been wrongly reported as a possible thief.

In the bat of an eyelash, Thompson goes to work with his baton, clubbing the mentally ill man backward, backward until he goes down with his soda bottle upheld like a pathetic shield.

Thompson straddles Zehm. He pulls his Taser. Fires.

Wait a minute.

Where’s the look back from Zehm when Thompson enters the store?

Where’s the “drop the pop” exchange?

Where’s the Zehm aggression, the punches?

Thompson’s official statement strikes me as a CYA load of hooey.

Even the officer now concedes that parts of his original summation might suffer from “time distortion errors.”

What’s that, the H.G. Wells defense?

Carl Oreskovich, Thompson’s legal mouthpiece, will soon put Morlocks on the stand as corroborative time-travel witnesses.

Will the jury see it my way?

Don’t bet on it.

Nailing a cop, even a baton-happy one, is a tough sell.

The odds of conviction grow even longer when jurors are kept from knowing all the facts. You know, like Zehm not being high on drugs or guilty of any crime.

Thank Van Sickle for that one, too.

Trials are long, tedious affairs. There are constant pauses, interruptions, objections and opposing experts.

While I was there I caught two jurors with their eyes closed.

I wasn’t about to blame them. I almost dozed off a couple times myself.

A quick nap would have been advisable considering the ragged night’s sleep I got.

I have nothing but positive things to say about the Oxford Suites, where I stayed. Lovely place. I’d stay there again.

But about 3 a.m. Friday, I opened the bathroom door to smell the overpowering stink of stale cigarette smoke.

I’ve played my guitar in a fair number of saloons. This smelled just like the inside of a well-used venue before the anti-smoking fanatics got their way.

I sprayed in half a can of air freshener, shut the door and went back to the rack. A half-hour later I woke up to discover Joe Camel had invaded the entire room.

Whew. Keeping my head under the covers, I grabbed the can off the nightstand and fired random bursts of Citrus Magic into the air.

Woke up about 7:30 a.m. The air in my “non-smoking” room smelled as fresh as when I checked in.

Weird, huh? It gets better.

While turning in my key I started telling my aromatic story to two women behind the front desk. One of them, Caitlin, interrupted me before I could get all the words out.

Cigarette smell?

“Every guest who stays in room 404” says the same thing, she said. And the smell “always comes between 3 and 4 in the morning.”

Yet when housekeepers are sent up the next day to investigate – you guessed it – no cigarette smell can be detected.

Cue the creepy organ music.

A few hours later, I was putting Yakima in my rearview mirror and wondering about this pungent pre-Halloween story.

I’m sure there’s a logical explanation.

Or …

Was I visited by the spirit of the Marlboro Man?

Either way I’m not bothered. Compared to what Thompson did to Otto, what I smelled in the dead of night was a field of daisies.

Doug Clark can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by email at

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