Thursday, December 22, 2011

Their Right to Kill, Our Duty To Die: The Murder of Otto Zehm

Otto Zehm, a mentally handicapped, 36-year-old unemployed janitor, was beaten to death in a Spokane convenience store in March 2006.

"All I wanted was a Snickers bar," pleaded the battered and bloody man before he was gagged by his assailant.

On November 4, Karl Thompson, the man convicted of killing Zehm, was taken to jail.  Several dozen members of Thompson’s gang were gathered outside the courtroom – most of them proudly wearing the colors – to “show their honor” by offering the murderer a public salute. Thompson – whose hands weren’t cuffed, in violation of long-established rules – smiled and returned the gesture.  Zehm’s still-grieving mother and several other relatives stood just a few feet away. 

The gang in question is the Spokane Police Department, which even now refuses to acknowledge that Thompson – who was a nominee to become Chief at the time he murdered Zehm – ever did anything wrong when he clubbed, tased, and suffocated a terrified, innocent man who did nothing to provoke the attack, and who put up no violent resistance to the assault. 

 Zehm had done custodial work at Fairchild Air Force Base and was well-known, and equally well-liked, by many people in his neighborhood, some of whom were aware that he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was in the daily habit of visiting a convenience store called Zip Trip to purchase junk food – usually Pepsi and a candy bar. 

On March 18, 2006, Zehm retrieved some money at an ATM near Zip Trip. Something in his behavior struck two girls as odd, so they called the police. Although there was no reason to believe that Zehm had committed a crime, Thompson entered the store as if he were pursuing a dangerous fugitive. Security video documents that Thompson approached Zehm from behind, while retrieving his custom-made, over-sized ironwood nightstick.

Thompson introduced himself to Zehm by shouting at him to drop the two-liter bottle of Pepsi. According to the officer, the startled and puzzled man responded by quite reasonably asking, “Why?” Thompson interpreted that Zehm’s fleeting non-compliance as an immediate and intolerable threat to officer safety. So he rushed at the terrified man and began to beat him with his nightstick – clubbing him first in the legs, then on the shoulders, neck, and head. Blows to the head are defined as lethal strikes under the Spokane PD’s use-of-force policy, justifiable only when a suspect threatens the life of a police officer or bystanders. 

As the security video demonstrates, Zehm never put up a fight. He retreated from Thompson, and then made a pitiable attempt to use his bottle of soda to deflect blows aimed at his face. Thompson escalated his assault by tasering him at least three times. Thompson was eventually joined by six other other police officers. Eventually, Thompson was actually sitting on Zehm, who was face-down on the floor.

The victim was hog-tied in a “four-point restraint,” meaning that his hands were shackled to his ankles. Department policy guidelines emphasize that suspects restrained in this fashion are never to be placed face-down, since this posture can result in “positional asphyxia.” Yet Zehm was left in that position for about seventeen minutes, and at one point an officer actually pulled his feet backwards – which increased the risk of suffocation by placing pressure on the victim’s diaphragm. 

After emergency personnel arrived, they were instructed to dig the Taser barbs out of Zehm’s flesh. They were also asked to provide a “non-rebreathing” oxygen mask; this was placed over the victim’s face, supposedly to prevent him from assaulting the officers by spitting on them. This mask was not designed or intended to be used without being attached to an oxygen supply. Once the mask was placed on Zehm’s face, the traumatized and panicking man – who was already at severe risk of hypoxia – was forced to breathe through an easily obstructed opening roughly the size of a quarter. 

Thomspon, immediately after assaulting Zehm.
 Did Thompson and his cohorts deliberately set out to suffocate Zehm? Every step they took led inexorably to that outcome, and incompetence can only explain so much. That was the outcome, whether it was the result of deliberate malice or depraved indifference. Zehm stopped breathing about seventeen minutes after Thompson’s initial assault, and died in a nearby hospital about two days later. But the police department’s assault on Zehm continued while he struggled for life in the hospital, and didn’t end with his death.

On the day of the beating, Police Chief Jim Nicks told the media that Zehm had “lunged” at Thompson, thereby threatening his life. Other officers claimed that Zhem had a prior arrest for assaulting an officer. Both claims were conscious, deliberate lies. 

About two weeks after Zehm’s death, Detective Terry Ferguson, who “investigated” the incident for the Spokane PD, filed a report claiming that none of the seven officers who assaulted Zehm committed a crime. Ferguson had little time to investigate what was done to Zehm, because she was too busy investigating the victim. The detective persuaded a judge to issue warrants to pry into every aspect of Zehm’s medical, employment, and personal history, on the pretext that the deceased was suspected of “assaulting a police officer.” This was actually an unsuccessful effort to exhume something – anything – that could be used to denigrate the victim.

After the pressure of a threatened lawsuit, Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker released the video recordings of the assault, which he and the police had diligently suppressed. The recordings contradicted every critical element of Thompson’s version of the event, beginning with the claim that Zehm had “lunged” at the officer. 

With no criminal charges filed against Thompson, Zehm’s family announced its intention to sue the City of Spokane, and the Justice Department began a civil rights inquiry. In March 2009 – three years after the killing – Chief Anne Kirkpatrick (who had replaced Chief Nicks) issued a public statement offering her “unequivocal support” to Thompson. “Based on all the information and evidence I have reviewed, I have determined that Officer Karl Thompson acted consistent with the law,” Kirkpatrick insisted. 

A few months later, Chief Kirkpatrick assigned Thompson – who was, recall, the subject of a federal civil rights investigation – to help train other Spokane police officers how to deal with “high-risk liability incidents,” which have been plentiful. 

Spokane’s municipal government, which paid out $2.5 million to resolve police-related lawsuits between 1996 and 2007, has a policy of filing counter-suits accusing citizens of “conspiracy to misuse the judicial process.” This is made possible by a state statute intended to protect police against supposedly frivolous lawsuits. Given all of this it’s not surprising that Chief Kirkpatrick’s unqualified endorsement of Thompson’s actions was coupled with an unyielding official line blaming the victim for his own death. “Any injury or damage suffered by Mr. Zehm was caused solely by reason of his conduct and willful resistance,” proclaimed the City of Spokane’s official response to the family’s civil lawsuit. 

Mr. Zehm’s “conduct” – which, according to Chief Kirkpatrick and Spokane’s municipal government, justified the use of lethal force -- consisted of doing exactly nothing. Then again, he was armed with a bottle of Pepsi, which apparently left the heroic Officer Thompson no choice but to stage a preemptive strike with his club and Taser. Perhaps if it had been Mt. Dew, the use of tactical nukes would have been appropriate. 

“If all [the victim] wanted to do was surrender, he could have done so,” insisted Officer Terry Preuninger, the Spokane PD’s SWAT Team Leader and patrol tactics instructor, during the trial. “[Officer Thompson’s] assessment was accurate. He continued to use force. It did allow him to keep that man from hurting him or anyone else.”

Thompson began his attack within seconds of arriving at the store – before Zehm had a chance to “surrender.” Furthermore, the victim was backing away from the officer. According to Preuninger – who, as SWAT leader, approaches such situations with a militarized close-and-kill mindset – this didn’t matter: “Picture wrestlers or boxers. It’s definitely not an indication that they don’t want to hurt or assault you because they move back.”

“A police officer becomes an expert in evaluation of behavior or picking out little things that are different,” Preuninger asserted on the stand. Victor Boutros, chief prosecutor during the trial, treated that claim with laudable contempt, mocking this supposed  preternatural gift of discernment as a “Spidey sense” that “can’t be impeached by citizen eye witnesses or video. Only [Thompson] could have seen those things.”

Furthermore, according to Preuninger, police have plenary authority to use lethal force even when their perceptions are in error: “A police officer can make a mistake. An officer could believe their [sic] life was in danger or they [sic] were in danger of being assaulted when in fact we could go back in hindsight and show that’s not true. But the force would be authorized.” 

This is to say: From the perspective of the individual who trains the Spokane PD regarding the use of force, Karl Thompson was completely right – but he could have been entirely wrong, and he would still have had the authority to kill Otto Zehm. This is because police officers, who face an all-encompassing threat from the public they supposedly protect, must be entitled to employ aggressive violence at all times, Preuninger maintains: “If you approach law enforcement situations the same way you would a neighborhood meeting … it will directly lead to you getting murdered on the job or getting hurt or assaulted.” 


Between 1867 and 2009, a total of 23 law Spokane County law enforcement officers – police, Sheriff’s deputies, and one member of the County Game Commission – died in the line of duty. Eleven of them – fewer than half that total – were killed by suspected criminals. Six died in traffic accidents. Two were struck and killed by drunk drivers. Two were fatally shot by fellow law enforcement personnel during training exercises (one of them was killed by a police officer showing off a quick-draw technique), and another was a game warden shot by a hunter who was reaching for a permit. One officer died from a heart attack during SWAT training. 

None of those line-of-duty deaths occurred because an officer was insufficiently aggressive during one of the perilous “law enforcement situations” that haunt Preuninger’s imagination. 

Interestingly, Spokane County – which maintains a police Honor Guard that attends police funerals throughout the Northwest – describes itself as “third in the state for line of duty deaths.” This illustrates – redundantly – that law enforcement is not a particularly hazardous occupation. In Spokane, as elsewhere, the citizen in a “law enforcement situation” is at far greater risk than the police officer. 

Yohe was asleep when the deputies invaded his home. The last words he heard before lapsing into an irreversible coma were orders from his assailants to stop resisting. 
Shortly after the incident, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich admitted in an official memo that at the time Yohe – a known meth addict subject to Grand Mal seizures – “was never under arrest.” The County eventually paid $50,000 stolen from local tax victims to settle a lawsuit filed by Yohe’s family. 

The deputies who murdered Yohe followed almost exactly the same protocols used by the murderers of Otto Zehm a year earlier. Sheriff Knezovich defiantly insisted that he saw no reason to change those procedures. 

This isn’t to say, however, that the Sheriff was categorically opposed to reform: In a joint press conference with Chief Kirkpatrick, Knezovich indignantly protested the use of the term “hog-tied” to describe the method used by officers to truss their prone and helpless victims; the appropriate term, he insisted, is “hobbled.” 

In keeping with Sheriff Knezovich’s delicate sensibilities, Clark suggested that language like the following would be suitable: “Trent Yohe, a methamphetamine addict, was holiday gift-wrapped after a spirited difference of opinion with sheriff’s deputies.” What about the eyewitness report that deputies had kicked out the victim’s false teeth? Easy: Yohe wasn’t brutalized – he “participated in a police-assisted dental plan.” And henceforth, a Taser will be called a “joy buzzer.”

Clark’s essay was aimed at the Spokane PD’s institutional vanity, a target that’s impossible to miss. This prompted Officer Preuninger – who wept openly when Thompson was taken away to jail -- to rebuke the impudent 

Mundane via a letter to the editor in which the decorated SWAT team leader struck the familiar pose of policeman-as-maligned savior.

 “Sleep well, Mr. Clark, because no matter how much you insult me, no matter how low you go to belittle my profession, if you find yourself in harm’s way, you need only call and one of us will come and risk our life to save yours: an irony I am quite sure you can never fathom,” whined Preuninger in a tone worthy of a passive-aggressive teenage girl. 

As is almost always the case in such matters, it is Officer Preuninger who suffers from a severe irony deficiency: None of the officers he trained intervened to save Otto Zehm when that innocent man was being beaten to death by Karl Thompson, who was a “mentor” to the entire force and their preferred candidate to be chief. 

Following Thompson’s guilty verdict, U.S. Attorney Mike Ormsby asserted that “This is not an indictment of our entire police force.” Oh, yes it is. 

Thank you, once again!

On behalf of the entire Grigg family, I want to tell you how much we appreciate your very generous donations. This means more than I can adequately express. Have a wonderful Christmas! 

Dum spiro, pugno!


Paul said...

" matter how low you go to belittle my profession, if you find yourself in harm’s way, you need only call and one of us will come and risk our life to save yours..."

I've heard this spiel from cops online before. It apparently never occurs to them that we are at a stage where calling a cop is about the last thing a lot of people want to do. It would be like a Jew needing help in Nazi Germany, deciding whether to call the Gestapo.

Doc Ellis 124 said...

no need to post

Greetings Will


Thank you for writing this essay

Doc Ellis 124

Blessed Holiday to you and yours.

no need to post

Chris Mallory said...

Government employee Preuninger also pulls out the old "Monday morning quarterbacking" canard. But since the police do not stop crime only show up afterwards, don't they "MMQ" every action taken by citizens?

Chris Sullivan said...

To steal a line from G. K. Chesterton, "In saner times they would be burned at the stake."

Anonymous said...

Note to self-never go anywhere near the people's republik of Spokane or the glorious socialist utopia known as Seattle.

Troy said...

"whined Preuninger in a tone worthy of a passive-aggressive teenage girl."

I can actually see him saying "YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND ME!!!" and running off to sob somewhere.

Anonymous said...

Great article! Minor quibble: you're missing a space in the quote in the final sentence: "This is notan indictment"

Bob Robertson said...

Nothing is more convincing that the so-called "civil" police are nothing more than an occupying army, than their own words.

Sure, 26 "died in the line of duty" in a century and a half. How many people has the police department killed?

This is the corruption of Sovereign Immunity, and no greater condemnation of the institution exists than their own actions. Abolish the police department now, before more die.

MamaLiberty said...

The police, and indeed NO government entity of any kind, has any legal obligation to "protect" or defend any individual under any circumstances, except when specifically contracted... as in a "witness protection" program. And I would certainly not put a lot of faith into that sort of protection in any case.

Just ask the next cop you dare talk to. I'm sure there are a few who don't really know (can they actually tie their shoes all by themselves?), but most will bluff or lie rather than tell the truth.

Their job... their ONLY real job, is to protect the government entity they work for and maintain suitable control for the convenience of themselves and their real employers... which isn't YOU.

You are on your own for self defense, like it or not. I wonder how long people will continue to tolerate any of this "only one" criminal behavior.

Anonymous said...

Pathetic, I feel only contempt for every law enforcement thug in this country today. Good ones?, good ones would be turning in and arresting their fellow felons.

Spook, RN said...

Dear Mr. Grigg,

I just have a disagreement with regards to the use of the NRB (Non-re-breather mask).

Typically speaking - anyone who is 'at risk for' or 'currently suffering from' "hypoxia" is placed on NRB. Hooked up to 100% oxygen (with regulated flow ofcourse).

You typically can't suffocate a person with a simple NRB (even if it's NOT hooked up to oxygen) - it doesn't seal the airway (i.e. outside air leaks in).

Personally - using a NRB because the patient was spitting is silly. I would've just used a simple mask (think the kind surgeons wear when operating to cover their mouth and nose).

Somehow, Mr. Grigg - I suspect that the EMTs placed a NRB on the patient because he was SOB/hypoxic/at-risk-for-hypoxia... with the added 'bonus' that someone forgot to hook up the O2 to the mask...

William N. Grigg said...

Mike, you're obviously better qualified than I am to address the use of the NRB mask. It is "silly" to use a mask of that type as a spit shield, but that's the official story here.

The criminal and civil complaints in this case said that the mask was used the shield the police, not to treat the victim, and emphasized that it wasn't used properly. Mention was also made of the fact that the small opening in that mask left Zehm particularly vulnerable to suffocation, given the face-down position in which he was restrained.

One point I neglected to mention was that the mask was not in the physical evidence provided to the ME after Zehm's death. I think that's a potentially significant detail.

Anonymous said...

I had to comment on this before I read the story, mostly because I spent about two weeks during the summer reading your entire archives and I am a big fan. I actually used a few of your quotes and people thought they were genius. I love the one where you call police a "thugscrum," and "write an extortion note euphemistically referred to as a traffic citation." Brilliant. Brilliant because it is true. I am just wondering why you have not yet delved into the Occupy Wallstreet movement. I am a grad student right now and just wanted to congratulate you for being an outstanding writer. (Even if I cannot support your writing by purchasing your books at the moment, I can at least offer you a loyal reader of your blog and check several times a week to see if you update.)

Bob said...

Perhaps the time has come to abolish all Federal (Nazional), state, county, and local "law enforcement."

Cederq said...

Mr Grigg,

Lately when I come across one of the "annoited" ones my default position is to place my hand above my head and lock my fingers together, I have had some strange looks my way when I do this, they don't see the sarcasm in this gesture, and they surely can't say I was reaching for a gun or hiding my hands...

Kevin Cederquist

Wandering Bear said...

It has become obvious that whenever you find yourself in the presence of a cop you must immediately assume that you are in a life-threatening situation, no matter where you are or what you happen to be doing.
Perhaps we should all begin to stand perfectly still and raise our hands, even if a cop is spotted 50 feet away, and maintain that pose until the threat passes from view. I wonder how the "police force" would handle an ongoing bad PR situation of that magnitude? They deserve to find out.

Anonymous said...

Most cops are substance abusers. Many have been prescribed some pretty heavy duty anti-psychotic drugs that would deem the average citizen unfit to peddle a trycycle, let alone drive a police car or carry a weapon. You never know what kind of anti-psychotic drugs they're taking. Along with that many are alocholics. Between alcholism, anti-psychotic drugs and other substance abuses many should be declared unfit for duty.

Dedicated_Dad said...

Tell me how these differ from the KGB/GRU/Gestapo?

What happened to "Serve and Protect"?

Such pigs should HANG!

We're going to need a lot of rope.

Anonymous said...

Indeed. They whine and cry about having their actions judged after the fact. Perhaps all criminals should adopt the police defense - you see, only a thief could tell that I faced a real threat...

Regarding a NRB - I worked in an EMS system that was more chummy than most with the police. Use of a NRB as a "spit guard" came up a lot, and yes, it's more than that, it's a means of compliance. Most come with only one flap, but if you take a second flap from another mask and put it on, and don't flow O2, it's frightening and easily blocked.

David McElroy said...

Hang these murderous thugs with badges. I am sick of seeing police officers kill people at the drop of a hat, and given a free pass just because "they were doing their job." If that's the job, I say eliminate the position!

Peter Courtenay Stephens said...

Thank You Mr. Grigg for your efforts in righting wrongs and bringing them to the attention of those who care about corruption and dishonesty.
Merry Christmas.

Anonymous said...

It's funny to hear a cop say something along the lines of "...if you find yourself in harm’s way, you need only call and one of us will come and risk our life to save yours..."

The majority of response are after the fact. My girlfriend was physically assaulted (knocked to the ground and kicked repeatedly) in Spokane, and the response was "stay there, an officer will be there in approximately 30 minutes." Needless to say, she walked home rather than staying in the area, and the only follow-up was a phone call two days later.

Rarely will a cop be in a situation to pro-actively and directly prevent harm to anyone. Their jobs mostly consist of cleaning up after the fact or providing revenue generation for the government that employs them.

You can't ever rely on the police to protect you from harm. You can only rely on yourself and those around you at the time of the incident.

willb said...

Another "heads up" from Grigg and the sad reminder
that while the police are not legally obligated to
protect, we on the other hand are legally obligated
to submit.

The most sickening aspect of all of this, other than
the death and injury to the victims, is the inevitable
perjury offered up by these honorable police depts.

Rather than correct the problem, they only offer
excuse and loophole for bludgeoning us into

It ain't gonna stop.

Anonymous said...

As I have often said, this kind of conduct only continues because we, the people, allow it to continue.

In any conflict, when only one side insists on restricting their actions with a code of ethical conduct, they will inevitably find themselves at the mercy of their adversary, who does not place such restrictions on their actions. And make no mistake - the people of the United States are now involved in a low-grade conflict with the federal government and all of its state and local auxiliaries.

We, the people, are not yet prepared for the moral and psychological cost of stooping to the same level of conduct frequently inflicted on us by those who would most accurately described as the American Ministerium für Staatssicherheit.

We are still human.
We still believe in Liberty and basic human rights.
We still choose to adhere to a basic code of moral conduct.
We still seek to serve and protect our fellow citizens.
We still love our nation and what it is supposed to stand for.
The Stasi serve only political masters.
The Stasi protect only themselves, and their power.

liberranter said...

Once again, as long as the vast majority of the Amoricon sheeple swallow the "cops as heroes in blue" BS (and it's obvious that most still do), incidents such as this will only grow more frequent in number and in intensity of violence. It saddens me to say it, but until more of you, your families, and your neighbors become victims of these thugscum pigs, NOTHING WILL EVER CHANGE and there will an endless number of Otto Zehms to mourn.

Mr. Mcgranor said...

I am surprised his head wasn't shaved.

Anonymous said...

Well, Holder is currently seeking to phalanx further federal deputization of local police owing to the huge spike in gun-related porcine demise.

I would like to know if Mr. Grigg or other informed readers know of any way to get stats on the number of civilians killed in the line of existing, whether criminal suspects or assailants or not. If so, I think it would be a good chart to have to compare against the minuscule numbers of deceased cops.

Anonymous said...

Thought you'd get a kick out of this piece of pro-police propaganda. Lot's of stuff about how we can't believe what we see on cell phone or surveillance video of police brutality.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone tried shunning the police? I don't mean just avoiding contact with them, which any aware person does these days, but actively refusing to interact with them at all even when they are "off duty."--to not speak to them, sell anything to them, buy anything from them, lend anything to them, socialize with them, etc. Perhaps this practice would inspire them to find honest work.

Unknown said...

This article is so sad to me, my heart dropped when I heard about Trent. See, Trent is my brother from my father before my father married my mother. Though I never met him, only talked to him and we wrote back and fourth, when I was younger. For many years after loosing contact with trent, I looked for him on internet, white pages, information and couldn't find him, last year I googled him again and found out he was murderd by the police. So, sad this happened to him and his daughter has to grow up with out him. I live in michigan and thought some cities here had b ad police but Spokane seems to take the cake. Vigilante police?

Unknown said...

This was so sad to read. TRENT Yohe, is actually my brother from my father before my father and mother met. MY FATHER WAS ESTRANGED FROM TRENT. When I was 15 my mother told me about trent, I looked him up and found him, we had a few phone conversations, and wrote each other a few times. We lost touch because he moved or something, many years I looked for him and found nothing. I hoped to one day meet him but now I know, that will never happen. The police are supposed to protect and save lives, not kill people. TRENT, very sad thing for his wife and especially his young daughter. God protect the people of Spokane from the crooked, forceful cops.