Lawsuit alleges civil rights violation, negligence in death of tribal member

Federal action filed after Forks jail suicide

By Paul Gottlieb

Christi Baron

Olympic Peninsula News Group

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

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

Gray, who had worked at Clallam Bay Corrections Center, pleaded guilty in February to sexually assaulting four female Forks jail inmates between June 13 and 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, which alleges Gray raped her.

Gray is incarcerated in medium-security custody at an out-of-state corrections facility, state Department of Corrections spokesperson Rachel Ericson said Tuesday.

The 29-page lawsuit filed by Bender’s estate lists as defendants the city of Forks, Gray, Forks Police Chief Mike 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.

Bender’s family members are seeking a trial by jury, economic and non-economic 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.

Rowley could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

“Our official statement is that the city is aware of it and we have tendered the complaint to legal counsel that is associated with our risk pool,” City Attorney-Planner Rod Fleck said Tuesday.

The city will provide an answer to the complaint, he said.

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, and 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 Gray 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 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.

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

Gabrielle Galanda, an attorney for Judson Gray and Reid, could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

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Peninsula Daily News Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at pgottlieb@ peninsuladailynews.com.

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 cbaron@forksforum.com.

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