U.S. Attorney James McDevitt announced Monday that a federal grand jury handed down two indictments against veteran Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr., who was the first of several officers to confront Zehm, a 36-year-old Spokane man who had schizophrenia.
Zehm died March 20, 2006, two days after he was beaten with a baton, shocked multiple times with a Taser and hogtied. The case sparked a cry for more citizen oversight of law enforcement.
Police officials initially said Zehm attacked Thompson, but they recanted that claim months later when surveillance video clearly showed Zehm retreating, holding a 2-liter plastic soda bottle in front of his face while Thompson struck him with a baton.
McDevitt said he could not talk about the evidence that produced the charges, saying only that Thompson "used unreasonable force in violation of federal law. "
"We are very disappointed in the fact that an indictment was returned, " Oreskovich said. "Karl Thompson is a really kind, decent, reasoned man. We are confident, when Karl is ultimately given his day in court and the full story comes out, that he will be exonerated. Frankly, the community ought to be proud in terms of his service to the community. "
"The medical examiner ruled that the police killed Otto, " Beggs said. "To blame him, it is remarkable that anyone would even make that allegation. "
The incident began March 18, 2006, when two young women erroneously reported to police that Zehm had stolen their money out of an ATM near Ruby Street and Indiana Avenue, according to police reports.
Zehm, who did his banking at that branch, was acting erratically as he approached the ATM, according to surveillance tapes.
The women called 911, following Zehm, and gave updates as he walked toward the Zip Trip, according to police records.
Thompson was the first to respond and found Zehm in the store. Surveillance video shows that Thompson immediately engaged Zehm from behind.
Thompson began striking Zehm with his police baton and shocked him with his Taser as Zehm held the soda bottle in front of his face. The struggle continued and eventually included six more officers who arrived to help Thompson restrain Zehm.
After Zehm stopped breathing, paramedics rushed him to Deaconess Medical Center. He never regained consciousness, and he died two days later.
On May 30, 2006, Medical Examiner Dr. Sally Aiken ruled that Zehm died as a result of homicide.
She listed the official cause of death as "hypoxic encephalopathy due to cardiopulmonary arrest while restrained in a prone position for excited delirium. " Zehm died from lack of oxygen to the brain caused by heart failure while being restrained on his stomach.
Tucker said he did inquire Monday about what evidence the Federal Bureau of Investigation had used to gain the indictments against Thompson.
"They said the information was sealed, " Tucker said.
June 23, 2009 -- Spokesman-Review (WA)
Officials Defend Police Response
But Verner, Others Note They Haven't Seen Evidence
By Jonathan Brunt
Spokane leaders Monday continued to defend police actions during the 2006 confrontation with Otto Zehm, despite a federal indictment of one of the officers involved in the incident.
They qualifed their support by noting that they aren't privy to the evidence shared with a federal grand jury.
"Based on the information we have, we've been supportive of not only police officers but the firefighters and the other city employees involved in that incident," City Administrator Ted Danek said Monday afternoon.
At a news conference Monday, U.S. Attorney James McDevitt announced that a grand jury indicted Karl Thompson, the officer who first responded to a complaint about Zehm.
"I don't believe that Karl acted to willingly deprive Mr. Zehm of his constitutional rights," City Attorney Howard Delaney said. He added, "I have not necessarily seen everything that the grand jury has."
While calling the incident "a tragedy," Spokane Mayor Mary Verner has defended police actions.
"In my personal opinion I just don't think that the behavior of the officer rose to criminal behavior," Verner said in February.
On Monday, she noted that she wasn't briefed by federal authorities on their evidence.
"Like the rest of the public, I'll be watching the evidence unfold in the court system," Verner said.
City Councilman Richard Rush attended McDevitt's news conference. He declined to comment on the indictment, but he said he went to get a firsthand account of the charges "sans any filters" from city officials.
The city faces a lawsuit from the Center for Justice on behalf of Zehm's family. Last week, the city sent its response to the suit to media; it says Zehm was at fault for the confrontation with police.
Councilman Bob Apple criticized the city's defense posture, which he described as an "attitude of basically, 'We're not responsible and this life isn't worth anything.'"
June 23, 2009 -- Spokesman-Review (WA)
Column: Glimpse Of Justice Rises From Great Travesty
By Doug Clark, The Spokesman-Review
Turns out a brute with a badge can't just get away with thumping and shocking the hell out of an innocent, mentally ill janitor in this town.
I know. Suspects are innocent until proven guilty.
Let Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. have his day in court for his violent encounter with Otto Zehm.
For the moment, however, I'm savoring the sweet sounds of U.S. Attorney James McDevitt handing down two indictments against Thompson.
Count One: Thompson "struck and repeatedly struck Otto Zehm with a baton and tasered him?"
Count Two: Thompson knowingly lied to investigators.
Monday's trip to the federal building made me proud I'm still a journalist.
Thompson faces up to 30 years in the joint, although we all know that sort of sentence will never happen.
I don't want to jinx things. But given the fickle nature of juries, Thompson might very well skate out of this SPDisaster just like ol' Shonto-shooting Jay Olsen.
But seeing anything come Otto's way at this point is powerful medicine.
McDevitt's words put a lump in my throat while I sat taking notes in a drab conference room.
What happened to this 36-year-old special-needs citizen on March 18, 2006, is such a stain on our community.
By now you all know the story -- how Otto went into a North Side Zip Trip to buy a plastic jug of Diet Pepsi and a Snickers bar.
What he didn't know was that some nitwit had previously dialed 911. She reported that Otto had been behaving suspiciously while near an ATM.
That set the wheels in motion.
Along came Thompson. The mayhem soon followed. Otto was beaten, shocked with a Taser and hogtied. A plastic oxygen mask was placed on his face yet never hooked up to oxygen.
No wonder the man suffered a heart attack and died en route to the hospital.
Speaking of travesties, did you see that front-page headline in Saturday's newspaper?
"Zehm to blame for fight with officers, city says."
I about spit up my coffee. My mood got worse reading the adjoining story.
"Otto Zehm knew or should have known that he was being detained by a peace officer and had the duty to refrain from force to resist such detention," stated part of the city's 56-page response to a civil rights lawsuit filed by Otto's mom, Ann.
It must be liberating to work in the city attorney's office and not be encumbered by trivialities like, oh, shame.
Yes, I'm thrilled about Monday's indictments. But this should never have reached the federal stage.
Charges should have been filed against Thompson long ago. They would have, too, if our county prosecutor, Steve Tucker, was packing anything besides golf balls.
Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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