Spokane’s most famous cop is a living reminder of the city’s penchant for denial, cover-up and self-delusion. In the deepening vortex of the Otto Zehm case, he’s now taking aim at Spokane’s top leaders.
By Tim Connor (September 19, 2011)
As the protagonist in Timothy Egan’s 1992 real-life crime story Breaking Blue, former Spokane policeman Tony Bamonte emerges as a tough, plain-spoken sheriff intent on solving a fifty year-old murder mystery. Undaunted by his critics and the resistance of the Spokane Police Department’s top brass, Bamonte tracks down the murderer and finds what remains of the murder weapon in the Spokane River. The killer happens to be a former Spokane police detective who, at the time of the slaying, was supplementing his depression-era salary as a thief.
Egan’s book, and a t.v. show based on the case, made Bamonte nationally famous. The law man turned publisher, now in his late-sixties, is still passionate about justice and deeply troubled by the City of Spokane’s handling of the Otto Zehm case. Last month, Bamonte wrote to Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Durkin registering a formal complaint against Mayor Mary Verner, Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, City Attorney Howard Delaney and Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi.
Bamonte alleges all four city officials have long known the truth about what caused Zehm’s death in a north Spokane convenience store and have either been directly involved in, or have tolerated, the City’s efforts to cover its tracks and deny culpability.
“I believe you already have strong evidence to prove that, in harmony with each other, the above community leaders have conspired to mislead and have deceived the public for over five years,” Bamonte wrote to Durkin in the first of two letters last month. “This concerns what appears to be the brutal killing of an innocent citizen by a police officer. The evidence of this has been overwhelming and exceptionally clear.”
Egan’s portrait of Bamonte and of Spokane in Breaking Blue may be the truest and most unsettling work of non-fiction written about Spokane. The murder victim is a town marshal in Newport, gunned down during the robbery of a creamery. Death for butter. And yet the identity of the thief and the murderer, Clyde Ralstin, is known and covered up by the Spokane police for a half century, only because the rogue detective was one of their own.
Part of the narrative richness of Breaking Blue is the way in which Bamonte’s pursuit takes him deeply into a social and political mine shaft, and the tunnels start collapsing behind him. Egan (who grew up in Spokane) describes the powerful undercurrent of sentiment both in Spokane and Pend Oreille County that Bamonte should have let the past alone, the murder unsolved, the evidence still at the bottom of the Spokane River. The then-Spokane Police Chief, Terry Mangan, goes on a public campaign against the crusading sheriff who, in 1990, was trying to win a fourth term as Pend Oreille County Sheriff. Bamonte loses his next election by 34 votes, ending his career in law enforcement.
At the risk of overstating the obvious, Breaking Blue is not a novel and Tony Bamonte didn’t die at the end of the book. He’s not only become a successful local publisher (of local history books and Nostalgia Magazine, sold on local newsstands) but a successful litigant. He was one of four named plaintiffs in the over-billing lawsuit against the AMR ambulance company, a class action claim that was settled last year at a cost of nearly $2 million to AMR.
“When I was in the police department I was proud of what I did. When we got bad apples, I wanted them gone.”–Tony Bamonte.
There are at least a couple good reasons to make note of Bamonte’s brimming interest, now, in the Otto Zehm saga.
The first is that, for all the apple-cheeked flag waving in the Lilac City, Bamonte is an auspicious living reminder of our local penchant for burying hard truths and ostracizing, or exiling, those who would try to exhume them. In hindsight, his story helps explains how Spokane could settle on a county prosecutor, now in his fourth term, who is best known for his decisions not to prosecute people in high profile cases, including the Zehm case. From day-to-day it may seem like this voter-ratified lassitude costs us nothing. Bamonte is closer to the view that it costs us everything, or at least our communal soul.
The second is, the Otto Zehm tragedy continues to deepen and one of the people now trapped in the middle it, by her own mistakes and hubris, is our winsome, highly intelligent, and popular mayor, Mary Verner.
It was in the run-up to her election as Mayor in November 2007, that Bamonte says Verner asked to meet with him at his home near Lincoln Heights in south Spokane.
“Everybody has their own little sphere of influence,” Bamonte says, surmising that Verner was interested in securing his support among his acquaintances for her mayoral pursuit.
Bamonte had his own agenda for the councilwoman running for mayor. As my former reporting partner Larry Shook wrote about in his 2009 on-line report, Deathtrap, Bamonte had, by then, taken a keen interest in the facts and circumstances around the 2006 death of Jo Ellen Savage. The 62 year-old Pullman woman perished when her Subaru Outback fell from the fourth floor of the River Park Square parking garage.
Bamonte, like Shook and former Riverside, California, police detective Ron Wright, wanted law enforcement to investigate the circumstances behind the Savage tragedy. They suspected (and still do) that there’s a connection between the financial shenanigans at the River Park Square garage that led to a successful securities fraud lawsuit and the slipshod design and maintenance issues that contributed to Jo Savage’s car being flung out of the garage by a barrier that behaved like a catapult.
So it was that Bamonte took advantage of Verner’s overture to try to enlist her support for a new River Park Square investigation. On November 2, 2007, five days before the election Verner would win, Bamonte sent her an email lamenting that he’d not heard back from her. Her response provides some eye-opening insight into Mary Verner, the politician.
It is Friday evening and I finally have my e-mail back up after ISP has been out of service for a while.
I do appreciate your correspondence and hope you will give me just a bit of wiggle room on these important issues because I am spread way too thin right now – full time job plus demanding City Council job plus family plus campaign.
These are not excuses; just telling you why it has not been possible for me to devote more time to RPS. It is a VERY important topic. Unfortunately, it is one that requires a lot of focused time and attention, which I have not been able to give to any one topic during the last few months.
I recognize the huge issues of morality, courage, and strength of character involved in taking on the RPS issue. I also know that if I make RPS a cornerstone of my campaign platform, the “powers that be” will ensure that I do not get elected … period. This has been a real David v. Goliath battle all the way. Hession has hired the region’s best smear campaign strategists, and they have been firing with both barrels. Every day, I have had to steel myself against some new onslaught … and meanwhile, I’ve had to perform my duties to earn my paycheck, serve my Council constituents, and meet my family’s basic needs. The bright side is that these experiences have tempered my steel to a finer finish, making me more qualified each day to accept the responsibilities that are waiting for me!
I am eager to be on the other side of election day, visiting with you again
about the specific points I must pursue to effect meaningful change for Spokane.
PLEASE KEEP THIS CORRESPONDENCE CONFIDENTIAL. I have to get into the office to be able to make changes from within. If I don’t win the election, there is no hope that I can change “the system” as a mere Council Member.
For the record, Bamonte says did not agree to receive Verner’s message in confidence and was unaware until he received it that confidentiality was being requested.
Most people in Spokane, to this day, have only the foggiest idea of how the complex River Park Square fraud was put together. The Zehm case is not nearly so complicated. You can just watch the Zip Trip security video and see for yourself. All it takes is an internet connection and a mouse click.
I covered River Park Square as an investigative reporter for Camas Magazine, Washington Law & Politics, and KXLY-TV. Verner’s email (which Larry Shook first reported on two years ago) is consistent with the position she’d carved out during the RPS political imbroglio, that she was on the side of the critics and was eager to cast herself as a reformer. Yet, if one actually looked at her positions and listened to what she was saying publicly, she really had no desire to help sate the public appetite for the truth about the depth of the City’s involvement in the scandal. So it was surprising to me when I first read this email a couple years ago to see Verner leading Bamonte on about her willingness to be a fearless inquisitor—after she was elected.
In any event, after she took office as Mayor, Bamonte quickly became disillusioned by Verner’s unwillingness to pursue an investigation of Savage’s death and/or the underlying RPS financial questions. His disappointment has only deepened as a result of how she, Chief Kirkpatrick and the City Attorney’s office have handled the Zehm case.
From Bamonte’s perspective, the Zehm saga is on the same ground as the murder he is famous for solving. Simply put, the former cop and sheriff has a visceral contempt for law-breaking by persons wearing police badges.
“When I was in the police department I was proud of what I did,” he says. “When we got bad apples, I wanted them gone.”
His unconcealed contempt for Verner and Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick stems from their unwillingness to publicly acknowledge what the Zip Trip store security video shows: an unarmed suspect who was backing up when he was swiftly taken down by a charging officer wielding a baton. Instead, both the Mayor and the Police Chief have gone on record in support of Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi’s defense of Officer Thompson and the other police officers’ conduct. (Treppiedi represents the City in defending the civil suit filed by the Center for Justice in March 2009. At the city’s expense, Thompson is now being separately represented in the criminal case by Spokane attorney Carl Oreskovich.)
Treppiedi’s view of Zehm’s arrest, relayed in a June 21, 2006 letter to the Center for Justice, is that the Zip Trip video “utterly fails” to account for “the totality of the circumstances known by Office Thompson at the time he entered the store.” As for the victim: “While we have all heard about Mr. Zehm’s normally pleasant personality, at the time Office Thompson dealt with him he was non-compliant and physically combative.”
In 2009, as the third anniversary of Otto Zehm’s death approached, here’s what the Police Chief and the Mayor had to say about it.
“Based on all the information and evidence I have reviewed, I have determined that Officer Karl Thompson acted consistent with the law,” the Chief said.
“I’ve looked into the details surrounding this incident,” the Mayor said, “and I just don’t think the behavior of the officer rose to a criminal behavior.”
Anne Kirkpatrick confirmed earlier this month that she would be leaving her post.
Verner, on the other hand, plans to stay in office, and the results from the August primary election indicate she will easily win re-election.
But that hardly means all is well. There is, for starters, a bright common thread in the City’s handling of the River Park Square and Otto Zehm scandals. That unmistakable connection is in a morally-sapping legal posture that steadfastly denies City officials are to blame. It was clearly the case at RPS that City officials were at fault, otherwise the City would not have settled, at great expense, with bondholders on the eve of a federal trial in 2004. Likewise, the latest big headline in the Zehm case—the stunning defection from the party line by Assistant Police Chief Jim Nicks—is a reliable signal that the City’s legal arguments are suspect, to say the least.
Bamonte uses stronger language. He says he is sickened by what he has learned about the City’s handling of the Zehm case.
At her “no questions” press conference outside City Hall on September 9th, Mary Verner looked like she had something to hide, and that’s not a good look for someone who’s promoted herself to voters as “the people’s mayor” but is increasingly becoming identified as Rocky Treppiedi’s mayor.
The problem in both scandals is that as the truth stumbles into the light through discovery and journalism it provokes public outrage and further demands for accountability. (As it should.) This, in turn, only increases the pressure on city officials to choose between actual accountability, and a legal posture that pretends city officials are blameless. If you have any questions about the tension this creates, ask former councilwoman Cherie Rodgers about the pressure she faced to fall in line with the city’s dishonest River Park Square legal posturing from 2001 onward.
One difference between the two scandals is that, early in the RPS days of reckoning, the runaway city council of 2000 (Talbott, Corker, Rodgers, Eugster) hired their own city manager and brought in an outside special counsel. His name was O. Yale Lewis, a Seattle lawyer with expertise in public/private partnerships. Lewis put Spokane on its ear in the summer of 2000 by filing a lawsuit, on the city’s behalf, that alleged a conspiracy between unnamed city officials and the Cowles real estate companies that owned River Park Square.
Lewis’s fate is eerily similar to Bamonte’s. In Spokaneland it didn’t help Bamonte to be right about Clyde Ralstin and the cover-up by the Spokane Police Department. Neither did it help Yale Lewis that his theory of the RPS scandal was validated in 2004 both by an IRS investigation and in the successful bondholder action. Lewis was long gone by then, his lawsuit gutted and replaced by one that argued officials were not guilty of fraud because they’d all been duped by Betsy Cowles, rather than having acted as knowing and willing partners.
As a journalist, it has occurred to me that Spokane may be the sister city to the Savannah, Georgia, that John Berendt captured so vividly in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, his gripping account of a 1981 murder committed by one of the city’s leading socialites. Perhaps what we lack in a Victorian district, the Oglethorpe Club, and live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, we make up for in the haunting laments registered by Sherman Alexie in his poem “The Place where the Ghosts of Salmon Jump,” a stone copy of which you can find not far from where Bamonte found the murder weapon in Breaking Blue.
True story. After I politely disrupted a “press luncheon” at City Hall in April 2004, then-Mayor Jim West invited me into his office where he frankly admitted, with exasperation, that the City’s legal strategy in the River Park Square litigation was a sham. It relied on a legal and public relations strategy that protested the city’s innocence when, in fact, it was common knowledge inside City Hall that top officials were complicit.
“You’ve read the depositions and the other documents,” West told me once the other journalists had left. “You can see that the city was hand-in-hand in this.” “They [city officials] knew exactly what they were doing.”
And, yet, because the City had still not withdrawn its legal arguments to the contrary, West declined my invitation to repeat what he said into my tape recorder.
“I don’t want to face a subpoena,” he explained. “And have to repeat something I say here.”
It ultimately cost the city tens of millions of dollars, at least, to settle with bondholders and pay all the lawyers. Most people in Spokane, to this day, have only the foggiest idea of how the complex fraud was put together.
The Zehm case is not nearly so complicated. It’s not an elaborate money-laundering scheme. You don’t even have to be able to read. You can just watch the Zip Trip video of Zehm’s take down and see for yourself. All it takes is an internet connection and a mouseclick.
In one sense, Verner played River Park Square very skillfully for a Spokane electorate that wanted some acknowledgement from elected officials that this was a horrific screw-up, but didn’t want to keep fighting over RPS for another eight years. Unlike Cherie Rodgers, Verner didn’t publicly challenge the City’s legal posture that its officials were not complicit in the fraud. Rather, she wearily accepted the dishonest premises of the post-Lewis litigation strategy and, with lawyerly erudition, dryly noted that calls for full disclosure would not be helpful to resolving the litigation on terms favorable to the Spokane taxpayer. By which she meant that taxpayers would wind up footing the bill for a guilty verdict.
That all seemed reasonable enough, I suppose, except her stance comported with a morally bankrupt litigation strategy that purposefully misled everybody, taxpayers included, about what actually happened. I should add that, as Verner herself bitterly concluded in December 2004, the taxpayers still wound up getting a raw deal.
The Zehm Case raises similarly deep questions. Only this time around, Verner is not a “mere Council Member” as she put it in the email to Bamonte. She’s the Mayor.
I wouldn’t know her challenger this fall, David Condon, from Abe Vigoda. And given what I know of his political lineage, I wouldn’t be inclined to vote for him. Yet, as Spokesman-Review columnist Shawn Vestal pointed out last week, the questions Condon has raised about Verner’s leadership on the Zehm controversy are entirely legitimate.
It’s not as though Verner has been a bystander in this sad chapter. As I noted in Working the Dark Side last October, the Mayor has gone out of her way to defend Rocky Treppiedi’s controversial tactics not just in the Zehm case but on the broader issue of police accountability. The fact that Treppiedi’s still on the City’s payroll and still deeply involved in the Zehm case speaks volumes about Verner.
For all the apple-cheeked flag waving in the Lilac City, Tony Bamonte is an auspicious living reminder or our local penchant for burying hard truths and ostracizing, or exiling, those who would try to exhume them.
The Mayor’s response to the stunning August 3rd affidavit by Assistant Police Chief Jim Nicks is also telling. Nicks’s 22-page statement is a complete reversal of the defense he offered on behalf of Karl Thompson in 2006, and it plainly contradicts arguments Treppiedi offered in his June 21, 2006 letter to CFJ lawyers. The legal ramifications are yet to be determined, but Nicks’s turnabout clearly unleashed a new torrent of moral revulsion in the community not just about the death of an innocent man but the ‘don’t believe your lying eyes’ attitude that Treppiedi has regularly promoted on the City’s behalf.
Even before Condon said a word about the case, Verner was on the defensive because of the strong public outcry over Nicks’s declaration. On August 9th she released a statement via City Public Affairs Officer Marlene Feist, the headline on which read: “Mayor Pursues Progress in Zehm Civil Case to Help Community Reach Closure.”
The first sentence of the release reported: “Spokane Mayor Mary Verner has directed the City Attorney to identify and pursue any and all courses of action to move the civil case in the Otto Zehm matter toward resolution.”
That was a month ago. If people read that to mean that the City would soon be in touch with lawyers representing Ann Zehm, Otto’s mother, they were mistaken. The 8/9 statement also said the effort to move the civil case toward resolution “could include a motion requesting the court to lift the stay which would allow the parties in civil case to proceed without violating any court orders.”
There has been no such motion.
The next we saw of the Mayor, on September 9th, she was standing at an outdoor podium, near the Post Street entrance to City Hall, announcing a “comprehensive review of the Zehm case after legal matters conclude.”
When she spoke, Verner quickly made clear that the initiative was in response to public outcry and that she and her fellow elected representatives share the public frustration that, after five years, the public is still waiting for a resolution in the courts.
“Our citizens shouldn’t have to wait that long,” she said. “Unfortunately, much of the timing is beyond the control of the city and all of us.”
I imagine that several of the reporters who were there, myself included, would have liked to ask the Mayor about her position on settlement talks to resolve the Zehm civil case. I also would have liked to ask questions completely unrelated to the litigation, including whether her actions and those of the City Attorney’s office would be part of the “thorough internal and external review of all aspects of the case.” And given that she had blasted Condon in a campaign press release just the day before, I think many reporters would have liked to ask why his criticism of her was, as she claimed, off base and inaccurate.
Yet, as I reported later that day, nobody was allowed to ask questions other than the ones handed out (with scripted answers) by the City. The Mayor explained it would be “inappropriate for me or the council members to get into legal details or strategies” even though the initiative she’d summoned the media to announce is one that is supposed to take place when the litigation is over.
Not surprisingly, Verner’s “no questions” gambit drew bitingly negative reactions from local reporters because it was high-handed and disingenuous, and left a lot of important questions unanswered.
It looked like she had something to hide, and that’s not a good look for someone who’s promoted herself as “the people’s mayor” but is increasingly being identified as Rocky Treppiedi’s mayor.
Bamonte, for his part, had reached his conclusion about Verner well before Jim Nicks’s bombshell in early August.
When I asked him if he was being too hard on the mayor for being loyal to her police department and for backing Chief Kirkpatrick and the City Attorney’s office in its litigation posture, the former sheriff wouldn’t budge.
“This is very offensive,” he said. “If she were an honest person she wouldn’t be handling it this way.”