Tapes, Witnesses Contradict Police Accounts Of Zehm's
By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
July 17, 2006
SPOKANE, WASHINGTON--Police records and a videotape of the fatal struggle Otto Zehm had with police on March 18 -- evidence that the Spokane Police Department held onto until threatened with a lawsuit -- contradict the official account the department had told the public for months.
The first officer on the scene, Karl Thompson, had said that Zehm, who had a mental disability and mental illness, tried to hit him with a 2-liter soda pop bottle. When Thompson told Zehm to put the bottle down, Thompson said, Zehm told him "no".
However, the silent video, taken from a convenience store surveillance camera, shows Zehm backing away from Thompson, who almost immediately began striking him with a nightstick, then zapping him with a Taser stun gun. Zehm's fingerprints were not found on the bottle.
The video reveals that up to seven officers kept Zehm hogtied on his stomach, with his feet and wrists bound behind his back for about thirteen minutes -- in violation of police procedures. Acting Police chief James Nicks had maintained that the restraint could not have been a factor in Zehm's death because he was on his stomach for less than 10 minutes before officers noticed he was having trouble breathing.
Police reports also reportedly show that officers had placed a plastic oxygen mask over Zehm's face to keep him from spitting, but likely kept him from breathing properly as well.
Zehm, who worked as a janitor at Fairchild Air Force Base through the employment agency Skils'kin, died two days later at a Spokane hospital. A medical examiner ruled his death a homicide, the result of a heart attack "while restrained in a prone position for excited delirium".
The officers were responding to a 9-1-1 call in which female callers said a man fitting Zehm's description had stolen money from an ATM machine outside a bank. The investigation later found no money was missing.
Nicks said Thursday that, while the information he gave was not accurate, he had not tried to mislead anybody.
Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker is investigating the officers' conduct in the case, as are the FBI and the Spokane Fire Department.
The differences in the accounts of officers and witnesses have added to the criticism against the department over how the case was handled. So, too, has the department's request made nine days after Zehm's death for a warrant for his medical, mental health, and employment records. Some legal experts said it was highly unusual for investigators to probe the past of a dead person who cannot be charged with a crime.
On Monday, Mayor Dennis Hession announced that he has ordered an independent review of the Otto Zehm case along with a separate high-profile sex scandal.
"Newly released documents shed more light on Zehm death" with links to video and audio tapes (KXLY-TV)
"Contradictions: What does tape say?" with links to video and audio tapes (KREM-TV)
"Spokane police acknowledge inaccurate report on fatal struggle" (Associated Press)
"Otto Zehm's Deadly Struggle With Cops" (Inclusion Daily Express Archives)