Details emerge on deadly Spokane altercation

SPOKANE — Spokane police officers involved in the deadly altercation with a mentally disabled janitor were given three days before writing reports detailing the 2006 encounter, and when they were asked to file reports, did so in a group with the aid of an attorney hired by their union, according to newly released transcripts of grand jury testimony.

The documents show at least four of the officers who helped subdue Otto Zehm were taken into a room together away from the police department and were able to consult with an attorney as they wrote out their incident reports, the Spokesman-Review reported Sunday.

In 2006, Zehm was beaten by police who suspected him of stealing money at a convenience store ATM. He died two days later. Last year, Officer Karl F. Thompson was convicted of violating Zehm’s civil rights by using excessive force and then lying about it to investigators.

Attorneys for Zehm’s mother and his estate questioned why the information wasn’t previously disclosed.

“The appearance of malfeasance is so strong. Why did no one in the government say this is wrong, that this is not proper investigation?” asked Spokane attorney, Jeffry Finer, who with Breean Beggs represents the mother and estate of Otto Zehm in a pending lawsuit against the city.

Interim Police Chief Scott Stephens could not be reached for comment by the newspaper on Friday.

Spokane Mayor David Condon said last week that he remains troubled by new developments in the Zehm investigation and said new City Attorney Nancy Isserlis has already spent hours reviewing the city’s legal cases and how it has defended itself. “The whole thing is on the table,” Condon told the Spokesman-Review.

Information about the officers’ report-writing was revealed in grand jury testimony by Spokane police Officer Jason Uberuaga in 2009.

Under questioning, Uberuaga told Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Durkin how he and other officers were called to the Monroe Court building and were asked to write out their reports several days after their encounter with Zehm. Police officers typically file incident reports at their earliest opportunity, the newspaper said.

The officer said he got a phone call the night before he filed his investigative report saying the guild’s attorney would be with them.

Uberuaga said he consulted the attorney as he wrote his report, but she did not suggest any changes after he finished and allowed her to read it. He explained that only the officers who refused to give oral interviews on the night of the incident were called in after three days to write their reports.

“We didn’t like — personally we didn’t really like the way we were maybe treated by the detectives initially reviewing the case,” he said, according to the transcript. “It was my gut feeling that we were almost suspects in this incident right away.”

The newly released documents also reveal more about a video expert who has become a key figure in the case.

Earlier this year, U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle Van Sickle indefinitely postponed Thompson’s Jan. 27 sentencing after the judge was contacted in December by forensic video expert Grant Fredericks, who claimed federal prosecutors misrepresented the conclusions he would have expressed had he been called to testify at Thompson’s trial.

In response, Assistant U.S. Attorney Aine Ahmed has filed documents and grand jury transcripts that refute Fredericks’ claims. The documents also show Fredericks wasn’t truthful about how he was brought into the investigation, the newspaper reported.

As late as last month, Fredericks said under oath he was first contacted by a county prosecutor to analyze the convenience store’s surveillance video. But emails from 2006 show Fredericks first contacted a Spokane police officer and offered his services in “helping” show that Zehm was using a 2-liter Diet Pepsi bottle as a weapon.

Fredericks did not immediately return a phone call by the newspaper seeking comment.

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