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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Former sheriff’s sergeant files $12.5 million defamation claim after allegations of sexual harassment and violent, racist remark

Jeff Thurman of the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office plays with his police dog, Laslo, on Feb. 24, 2017. He was fired on June 13, 2019, after an internal investigation found he allegedly spoke of killing black people and sexually harassed a female deputy on his helicopter crew. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

A former Spokane County sheriff’s sergeant denies he spoke of killing black people and claims Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich misrepresented the findings of an internal investigation during a news conference last month.

Spokane attorney Mary Schultz, representing former sergeant Jeff Thurman, filed a tort claim Monday seeking nearly $12.5 million in damages from the county, saying Knezovich’s statements about Thurman were defamatory. A tort claim is a precursor to a lawsuit against a government body.

Thurman – an 18-year veteran of the sheriff’s office who served on the helicopter crew and worked as a police dog handler in Spokane Valley – was fired on June 13 after skipping a disciplinary hearing. He was accused of starting a phone conversation with another deputy by asking: “You ready to kill some (N-word) tonight or what?”

According to Knezovich, who spoke to reporters during a news conference hours after Thurman’s termination, Thurman was off duty in December 2016 when he placed the phone call to the other deputy, who answered using a Bluetooth speaker while parked beside a third deputy in a separate patrol car.

The third deputy, who is African American, raised concerns about Thurman’s remark with three supervisors but always sought confidentiality and not a formal investigation, Knezovich said. The complaint wasn’t formalized until the president of the deputies union heard about it and contacted another sergeant, who alerted Knezovich.

While looking into the racist remark, internal investigators interviewed a female deputy who was recently selected for the flight crew, Knezovich said. During that interview, she said that Thurman had sexually harassed her.

According to Knezovich, the crew was making plans for an out-of-town training, and Thurman told the woman: “Hey, you’re going to be rooming with me.” He also “made the statement that she would be coming back pregnant,” according to Knezovich.

Knezovich’s account and Thurman’s tort claim are both based on an investigative report by Sgt. Tim Hines, which has not yet been released in response to public disclosure requests. Told of the tort claim by a reporter Monday afternoon, Knezovich said he would check on the status of the report’s disclosure.

Schultz declined to share a copy of Hines’ report, saying in an email: “The county will need to make that decision when they review the claim.”

According to the claim, the African American deputy could not name the date on which Thurman allegedly made the racist remark, but the deputy estimated it was months, not years, before the internal investigation began. During the inquiry, the sheriff’s office “triangulated” the only time the alleged circumstances might have taken place, according to the claim.

Schultz contended there is no evidence that Thurman made the racist remark “in the call records or elsewhere.”

The claim goes on to say that Thurman had an “exceptional” reputation among his peers in law enforcement and suggests the African American deputy was retaliating against Thurman because he hadn’t received a promotion.

“As to the alleged statement about hunting and killing black suspects, Sheriff Knezovich knew or reasonably should have known that no competent evidence supported Jeffrey Thurman’s having ever made such a statement,” Schultz wrote.

Likewise, she wrote: “The statements that Jeffrey Thurman told or implied to a female deputy that he intended to impregnate her are patently false.”

On Monday afternoon, Knezovich said the tort claim is “not an accurate depiction” of Hines’ report. He said he could not immediately discuss details because he didn’t have the report in front of him.

“It’s just a typical claimant statement that’s made to sound the worst possible way,” Knezovich said.

The county has 60 days to respond to the claim. Afterward, Thurman can file a lawsuit.