Terminated Spokane County sergeant files a million-dollar claim

click to enlarge Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich

A former Spokane County Sheriff's sergeant who was fired last month for alleged sexual harassment and racist statements has filed a $12.5 million claim against the county, denying the allegations while claiming that Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich defamed him during a press conference.

Jeff Thurman, an 18-year veteran of the department, allegedly threatened to kill black people during a phone conversation with another deputy in 2016 — remarks that another deputy also heard due to the fact that the call was conducted using a Bluetooth speaker. "You ready to kill some [n-word] tonight or what?" Thurman purportedly said.

Initially, Thurman's supervisors didn't initiate an internal investigation into the remarks after one of the deputies brought them to their attention, Knezovich said at a June 13 press conference. It wasn't until Kevin Richey, president of the deputies union, heard about the incident and informed Knezovich, who initiated an internal investigation. (Thurman was placed on administrative leave back in May 2019 pending the investigation.)

The inquiry also reportedly found that Thurman sexually harassed a female deputy by telling her that he would impregnate her while they were rooming together at an out-of-town training.

"Thurman was fired for conduct unbecoming a deputy: For sexual harassment, for use of a racial slur," Knezovich said at the June 13 press conference. "You never use the words 'let's go out and kill anybody.' That's why he was terminated."

But in Thurman's claim — a procedural step before a formal lawsuit is filed — he both denies the accusations and asserts that the internal investigation produced no evidence to support them.

"As to the alleged statement about hunting and killing black suspects, Sheriff Knezovich knew or reasonably should have known that no competent evidence supported Jeffrey Thurman having ever made such a statement," the claim reads. "There is no evidence of a call from Jeffrey Thurman to that car or that deputy's phone in the call records or elsewhere."

Additionally, Thurman broadly asserts in the claim that Knezovich mischaracterized the findings of the internal investigation into his conduct: "Showing Jeffrey Thurman to be a lying, racist law enforcement officer who hunted black suspects and sexually harassed females is defamation per se because it is a blatantly false characterization of that report and of Jeffrey Thurman," the claim reads.

Sheriff Knezovich did not return the Inlander's requests for comment on the claim filing.

The county has two months to respond to the claim, after which Thurman can formally file a lawsuit.

The claim was filed by Mary Schultz, a prominent local attorney who notably represented former Spokane Police Chief Frank Straub when he sued the city after he was terminated for sexual assault. Their case was ultimately shot down by a federal appellate court who upheld its dismissal.

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About The Author

Josh Kelety

As a staff writer, Josh covers criminal justice issues and Spokane County government. Previously, he worked as a reporter for Seattle Weekly. Josh grew up in Port Townsend and graduated from the University of Washington. Message him through Signal @ (360) 301-3490.