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Shawn Vestal: Video expert from Zehm case was wrong pick for review of bike incident
Fri., Aug. 7, 2015
When police officers investigating the death of a teenager killed in an encounter with a speeding Spokane County deputy needed an expert to analyze video footage, they made an unusual choice: the guy accused of whitewashing the infamous Otto Zehm videos.
That’s the bad news. The good news, so far as it goes, is that once concerns were raised about “credibility problems” with the work of Grant Fredericks, the owner of Spokane-based Forensic Video Solutions, the brass ordered a separate review, according to investigative files released last week.
Spokane police Chief Frank Straub said this week that he had no questions about the quality of the evaluation Fredericks provided, but that – given his role in the Zehm case – it was cleaner and more transparent to have an additional review.
“I thought, because this was the death of a young man and a deputy was involved, I wanted to make sure our investigation was conducted at the highest level possible,” Straub said. “I didn’t want anything to cloud the investigation.”
The involvement of Fredericks, who did not respond to a request for comment, may be little more than a side note in the investigation of the May 23, 2014, accident that left Ryan Holyk, 15, dead at East Sprague Avenue and Vista Road in Spokane Valley. Holyk was biking with a friend when he ran a red light onto Sprague; initial reports concluded that he had been struck by Deputy Joe Bodman’s patrol car. Even Bodman believed he had hit Holyk.
Three analyses concluded that Bodman’s car didn’t strike Holyk, who appears to have jerked his handlebars sideways and crashed onto the pavement head-first before Bodman sped past at roughly twice the speed limit, with no lights or sirens on. These analyses have been unpersuasive to Holyk’s family, and the revelation that some of the boy’s DNA was on the deputy’s bumper renewed the criticisms.
The family is suing, and their attorney, Mike Maurer, said he believes Fredericks “simply parroted” the conclusions of the initial investigation, and that the DNA evidence should have caused police to re-examine their conclusions. He said he believes Bodman hit Holyk, but that even if he didn’t, “There is no doubt in my mind that the deputy caused this accident.”
Straub said he believes the investigation was thorough and honest, and that seeking an extra review beyond Fredericks’ work was an indication of that.
Officials released 600-plus pages of investigative files in the case last week. One fascinating tangent tucked inside was how long it took for Bodman to meet with investigators. On May 27, notes from the investigation show that officers wondered “when and if” he would meet with them. Bodman lawyered up and extracted an agreement that he could review accident videos before making a statement.
He provided a two-page written statement several days afterward. It said he had “accelerated (his) speed slightly” on his way to back up another officer involved in a traffic stop. Investigators would put his speed at an estimated 74 mph. Bodman was later reprimanded by Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich for driving that speed without lights or siren, in violation of department policy.
Fredericks came into the case because of the videos. After the accident, the Spokane Investigative Regional Response team, comprised of officers from area law enforcement agencies, took over the investigation, with the police department leading. Straub said the SIRR team wanted a review of its conclusions, and that Fredericks was recommended from within his detectives division.
After his review was complete, a federal prosecutor reached out to the department and alerted them to issues in Fredericks’ past – including his role in the Otto Zehm case. Straub said that for appearance’s sake, he sought an additional review from the Washington State Patrol. The SIRR review, Fredericks’ work and the WSP are in agreement about the major aspects of the incident.
“I was very confident, and still am, in his analysis,” Straub said.
But he recognized that Fredericks’ involvement could be a problem. He said he wasn’t aware of any other instances in which the department had employed Fredericks since the Zehm case, where a man died after being shocked and beaten by police.
“We live in the shadow of that 2006 incident, and I want to make sure the public has confidence in everything we do,” he said.
Fredericks’ role in that shadow was significant. Federal prosecutors alleged that he essentially helped to construct the false narrative Karl Thompson – and the police department – built around the Otto Zehm incident: that Zehm was using a 2-liter bottle of pop as a weapon.
In fact, federal filings from 2012 argue that Fredericks came to that conclusion rather quickly, calling police unsolicited after he saw excerpts of the videos in the media to offer his opinion that Zehm had weaponized the pop bottle. Fredericks was hired – in a joint sort of way by the department and by the city’s risk management division – to review the videotapes, and he was reassuring the police department before he even finished his review.
In some particulars, Fredericks’ analysis contradicted what could be seen with the naked eye. He seemed, for example, unable to see several baton strikes that were clearly visible to others – asserting that Thompson struggled with Zehm for more than a minute before he used his baton, when the video shows that the officer struck Zehm with a baton several times during that time period.
After Thompson was convicted, Fredericks was looped into an appeal on his behalf, arguing unsuccessfully that the video specialist’s findings had been misrepresented by prosecutors. Prosecutors offered a scathing assessment of his work and credibility in response, accusing him of lying to them, painting a picture of him as biased in favor of the police even before he’d seen any evidence, and accused him of a “patent history of inaccurate representations and inconsistent statements.”
In a notorious Canadian case from 2007, for example, Fredericks was brought in to support the assertions of four police officers that they had been threatened by a man advancing toward them with a stapler before an encounter that left him dead. Fredericks testified that the video showed the man taking steps toward the officers, but the judge in the case was utterly dismissive.
“I have watched this segment … many dozens of times and I have been unable to detect the three methodical step forward movements Mr. Fredericks described (in his testimony),” the judge wrote.
There are still questions and areas of dispute in the Holyk case, which brought such a tragic end to a teen’s life. But when it comes to evaluating video, Fredericks was not the guy the department needed to provide a credible second opinion. It’s a good thing they got a third one.