FORKS — The City of Forks agreed to pay $1 million in a settlement with the family of a woman who committed suicide while incarcerated in the city jail in 2019.
In December 2019, Kimberly Bender, a 23-year-old member of the Quileute Tribe, was found dead, hanged by a bed sheet attached to the door of her cell at the Forks jail. The lawsuit filed by Bender’s estate said jail officials were negligent by not preventing Bender from committing suicide and had violated her civil rights by allowing her to be sexually harassed and tormented by a corrections officer.
“Kimberly’s life mattered. Like many, she suffered affliction and addiction,” her family said in a statement following the settlement agreement. “Her hurt and suffering as a young Indigenous woman made her more, not less, human.
“Nobody in the city of Forks’ custody and care should ever be dehumanized. Kimberly’s family hopes Forks will take greater efforts to honor and protect the lives of incarcerated women and Indigenous people,” the statement said.
Bender’s mother, Dawn Reid of La Push, said Thursday she felt relieved to have reached a settlement and justice had been served “for the most part.”
A significant portion of the settlement money will be placed in a structured settlement for Bender’s child, a minor, the City of Forks said in a statement.
“The City is glad to have some level of closure for the parties, particularly Ms. Bender’s minor child. The City stands by the multiple layers of review of this event, its employees, and its defense of the lawsuit,” the city said.
The city is the only party to the settlement because the plaintiffs have agreed to voluntarily dismiss all claims against the individual defendants with prejudice, the city said, and all the current and former employees named will be dismissed from the case immediately and no money paid on their behalf.
According to the city’s statement, the payment will be made on the city’s behalf by its insurance pool, which will also be paying other agreed-upon minor administrative costs. Because the litigation named the city and its past and current employees, the City Council was required to agree to settle the matter in the manner in which it was mediated by both outside counsel and the City Attorney.
The 29-page lawsuit filed Oct. 21, 2021, in federal District Court in Tacoma by Bender’s estate — represented by attorney Gabriel S. Galanda — lists as defendants the city of Forks, jail corrections officer John Russell 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.
Gray, who also had worked at Clallam Bay Corrections Center, pleaded guilty in February 2021 to sexually assaulting four female Forks jail inmates between June 13 and Oct. 3, 2019, two months before Bender’s death on Dec. 7. Fifty-two years old at the time, 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.
Bender, a single mother and member of the Quileute Tribe, had been struggling with addiction since the age of 13, according to a motion for summary judgment filed by Galanda.
According to the document, Bender was booked into the jail at least six times between 2014-2015 and in 2014 had disclosed past suicide attempts to jail staff at least twice.
Gray was hired at the city jail despite having been previously reprimanded in 2017 for making inappropriate, disrespectful and “racially slanderous communications toward a coworker and supervisor” while working at the Department of Corrections’ Clallam Bay Corrections Center, the document said.
Gray was hired under an emergency staffing order as the Forks jail had been chronically understaffed, the document said, saying that a proper background check was never conducted. Throughout 2019, both jail staff and inmates reported inappropriate behavior by Gray, but those allegations were never investigated, the document said.
In January, the City of Forks denied a negligence charge in a federal civil rights suit that sought a jury trial, unspecified economic and non-economic damages, punitive damages and attorney fees.
Galanda, of Galanda Broadman in Seattle, said Thursday he was pleased and relieved for the family.
“No amount of money will bring Kim back,” Galanda said. “At least the settlement proceeds will allow them a new start in life.”
Galanda said the state, and society at large, needs to find better ways to treat the mentally ill, many of whom end up in corrections facilities.
“As long as people like Kim are going to be entrusted to jails, we as a society and a state need to do a better job about equipping that jail for success,” Galanda said, suggesting more funding for training, staffing and supervision.
Reporter Peter Segall can be reached at email@example.com.