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Police officer gets prison time for beating death, cover up

Six years ago Otto Zehm, a 36-year-old developmentally delayed janitor, was beaten by a Spokane Police officer. After years of a cover up and court proceedings, Officer Karl Thompson was finally sentenced to more than four years in prison. (AP Photo)

“All I wanted was a Snickers.”

Those were the last words of a developmentally delayed man who was beaten to death by a Spokane Police Officer six years ago.

Officer Karl Thompson Jr. has now been sentenced to more than four years in prison for civil rights and obstruction violations stemming from his March 18, 2006 beating of Otto Zehm.

This is a story of lies, none of them told by Zehm.

Zehm was a 36-year-old janitor with developmental disabilities. Almost every night he went to a north Spokane convenience store to get snacks.

Zehm didn’t own a car, so one night he walked to a bank ATM to withdraw money from his account.

He approached a drive-up ATM on foot as teenagers in a car were getting some cash. After two young women pulled away from the ATM, they were unsure whether they had ended their transaction.

The teens thought the man with long blonde hair might be taking their money. They panicked, called 9-1-1, told an emergency operator a “suspicious” man was attempting to steal money from the ATM.

The women in the car then followed Zehm and told police information about where he was heading.

He ended up in the Zip Trip to buy a soda and candy bar, as he usually did.

Surveillance video shows a typical store scene, with Zehm walking over to the refrigerated soda section and a few other people at the counter.

A police officer bursts in. Within sixteen seconds of the officer entering the store, the cop encountered Zehm, whose back was initially turned to him. Twice the officer ordered Zehm to “drop the pop” and struck him with his police baton.

The officer never asked Zehm any questions. Never mentioned the ATM. He just started attacking, according to witnesses.

Zehm had no weapons and customers testified that he didn’t appear to understand why the cop was attacking him, soon to be joined by several other officers.

Officer Thompson delivered a second baton blow, knocking Zehm to the floor. He then stood over Zehm and fired a Taser into him. He continued delivering overhand baton blows, including a final flurry of seven baton strikes in eight seconds.

In addition to the multiple beatings and taserings, police hog-tied Zehm and placed him on his stomach for more than sixteen minutes.

Police weren’t finished with him. They strapped a plastic mask over Zehm’s face, who stopped breathing within three minutes.

Ruled a homicide by the county coroner on May 30, 2006, the cause of death was reported as “lack of oxygen to the brain due to heart failure while being restrained on his stomach.” No illegal drugs or alcohol were found in Zehm’s system.

The lies the teenagers told when they called 9-1-1 were compounded when the first officer to encounter Zehm gave his report of the incident.

Thompson denied hitting Zehm in the head with his baton because that would have constituted deadly force, which he admitted was not justified in this case.

Witnesses contradicted the officer, and medical testimony confirmed that the cop had delivered baton blows to Zehm’s head and neck.

More lies.

Police alleged that Zehm had “lunged” at Thompson with a plastic soft drink bottle. However, the silent surveillance video of the incident, which police withheld for three months, contradicted this police claim also.

Then-acting police chief Jim Nicks subsequently stated that he misspoke in alleging Zehm “lunged” at the officer.

The video also did not provide support for the officer’s claim that he paused and gave verbal orders to Zehm.

Each frame showed the officer advancing at a brisk rate while Zehm, after seeing the officer with his baton raised, only backs away slowly.

In all, seven officers were involved in detaining Zehm. Three of the cops received one day of paid administrative leave.

Thompson didn’t escape punishment.

On June 22, 2009, a federal Grand Jury handed down an indictment on Spokane Police Officer Karl Thompson. A veteran of the force, he was indicted on two counts: unreasonable use of force and making a false entry into a record being investigated by a federal agency.

The Federal trial against Thompson began in Yakima in October of 2011. The case was moved out of Spokane so the officer could get a fair trial. About a month after it started, the jury found Officer Thompson guilty on both counts; excessive use of force and lying to investigators about the confrontation.

When Thompson was taken into custody, 50 fellow officers who were at the courthouse gave Thompson a formal “salute” – a clear sign of their loyalty to someone who had just been convicted of two felony crimes.

Zehm’s family sued. The Spokane Police Department and city finally agreed to an out-of-court settlement which included a $1.67 million payment to the family and specialized training for all of the city’s cops.

Thompson was sentenced Friday, prompting Spokane Police Chief to issue a brief statement on November 16, 2012.

“The people of Spokane and its Police Department have learned much from this tragic incident. It is now time for all of us to heal, to move forward, and commit to working together,” says Chief Frank Straub

The Justice Department’s statement was more stern.

“The defendant was given considerable power to enforce the law,” says Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, “but instead he abused his authority when he brutally beat an innocent man.”

Victor Boutros, a Justice Department attorney who helped prosecute the case, adds, “A badge cannot equate to a free pass.”


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