City of Forks and others named in lawsuit

  • Fri Nov 5th, 2021 5:57am
  • News

The family of a 23-year-old Quileute tribal member who died by suicide Dec. 7, 2019, while incarcerated in the Forks city jail, has filed a federal lawsuit alleging that civil rights violations and negligence led to her death.

In a lawsuit filed Oct. 21 in federal District Court at Tacoma, the family of Kimberly Bender alleges jail officials were negligent in preventing Bender from dying by suicide and violated her civil rights by allowing her to be tormented by John Russell Gray, who allegedly made Bender his fifth known victim between July-November, 2019, according to the lawsuit.

Gray pleaded guilty in February to sexually assaulting four female inmates between June 13-Oct. 3, 2019. He was sentenced to 20 months in prison.

“An additional crime was not charged because Kimberly was dead,” according to the lawsuit.

Bender, 23, was in and out of the Forks jail between July and December 2019, struggling with drug addiction and depression, exhibiting known suicide-risk factors and being at risk for opioid withdrawal syndrome, according to the lawsuit.

While incarcerated, Gray allegedly tormented Bender at night, making sexual remarks about her taking medication and referring to her inhaler as a sexual toy.

“He’s made comments as to when I’m taking my meds, ‘Oh, if you can swallow that, I wonder what else you can swallow,” she said, according to the complaint.

Gray previously worked at Clallam Bay Corrections Center.

After violating her parole for possessing marijuana-related paraphernalia, Bender was sent back to the Forks jail Nov. 5, 2019, Gray began harassing her again, according to the lawsuit.

Bender attempted suicide by slicing one of her forearms with a razor 11 days later, on Nov. 16 — three days after Gray made the lewd comment about her swallowing her medication, according to the complaint.

While being treated at Forks Community Hospital, she complained to two officers that Gray “was making inappropriate comments for several months” dating to July 2019, according to the lawsuit.

“He’s starting to really make me feel uncomfortable,” she said. “I won’t go to the bathroom when he’s on [duty].”

According to the lawsuit, Bender was released from the hospital and sent back to jail, along with specific medical instructions.

Forks Police Officer Jackson Folkner investigated Bender’s assertions about Gray, concluding, “I believe that Bender is telling the truth,” according to the lawsuit.

“Some of the phrasing that she mentions I have personally heard Officer say in [a] different context.”

Rowley concluded that Gray’s activities constituted “‘verbal unprofessionalism,’” according to the lawsuit, and found there was no evidence to prove misconduct against Gray, according to the lawsuit.

“The Forks Mayor quietly terminated Defendant Gray’s probationary employment at the jail without cause, and he returned to work at CBCC,” according to the lawsuit.

Three days after attempting death by suicide and reporting her allegations, Bender was found hanged by a bed sheet attached to the door handle of her cell.

Three hours earlier, she had talked with her mother, both ending the conversation with, “I love you,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that Rowley neglected to disclose to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, which investigated Bender’s death, that 18 days earlier, she had reported being sexually harassed while in custody, or that the jail had investigated the allegations.

The 29-page lawsuit lists as defendants the city of Forks, Gray, Rowley, Forks Police Sgt. Ed Klahn, and jail corrections officers Brandon Leask, Kelsey Pearson, and Lex Prose. Also named are John and Jane Does 1-10.

The lawsuit was filed by Judson Gray, the personal representative for Bender’s estate, and Dawn Reid, Bender’s mother.

They are seeking a trial by jury, economic and noneconomic damages “including damages for pain, suffering, terror, loss of consortium, and loss of familial relations, and loss of society and companionship,” punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.

Gray and Reid are represented by Galanda Broadman PLLC of Seattle.

Rowley and Forks City Attorney Rod Fleck could not be reached for comment Tuesday morning on the lawsuit.

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].

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Christi Baron is the editor of the Forks Forum, which is part of the Olympic Peninsula News Group, composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. Reach her at [email protected].