FORKS, Wash. — The city of Forks has agreed to pay $1 million to the family of a 23-year-old Quileute woman who died by suicide in the Forks jail after reporting sexual harassment at the hands of her jail guard, John Russell Gray.
The family of Kimberly Bender settled their federal lawsuit against the city this week. Forks City Council members unanimously voted on Monday to approve the settlement agreement, which will impact Bender’s mom and Bender’s 6-year-old son.
“I feel relieved. This means that we can move on – or try to,” said Dawn Reid, Bender’s mother. “I feel like I’ve kind of reached my goal, and I’m hoping that Forks will make their jail a better place for all inmates.”
Bender’s story was featured prominently this year in a multi-part KING 5 investigation, which centered on how local and state leaders responded to Gray’s predatory behavior. The reporting revealed Forks' top brass knew the guard was repeatedly disciplined for a slew of violations – and, at one point, fired from his job as a Washington state corrections officer – before they hired him to work at the Forks Correctional Facility in 2019. The series also found city leaders failed to thoroughly investigate the extent of Gray’s sexual misconduct involving inmates at the jail.
A Clallam County judge sentenced Gray to 20 months in prison in February 2021 after he pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting four other women who were inmates at the Forks jail during the same time period that Bender was incarcerated there. After serving 13 months of his sentence, in March, Gray was released from prison.
In October 2021, Bender's mother filed the federal lawsuit against the city, Gray, police Chief Michael Rowley, the jail supervisor and several other Forks employees. The lawsuit alleged that Bender’s 2019 suicide was “wrongful and unnecessary.” It blamed the city for showing “negligence” to Bender’s “well-being, medical condition and conditions of confinement,” while Gray allegedly “sexually harassed and tormented” her and after she reported the abuse to law enforcement officials.
"I always thought jail would be a safer place for her so she couldn't use (drugs), she couldn't hurt herself, she couldn't make any more mistakes," Reid said. "I really hope that no one ever has to go through what Kimberly or any other female had to go through with this officer or the conditions at the jail."
In federal court documents, the city of Forks denied multiple allegations in the suit, including claims that officials were negligent in Kimberly’s death.
"The city is glad to have some level of closure for the parties, particularly Ms. Bender's minor child," wrote Rod Fleck, Forks city attorney, in a Nov. 16 statement about the settlement. "The city stands by the multiple layers of review of this event, its employees and its defense of the lawsuit."
Forks officials previously declined KING 5's requests for interviews related to the case, and they did not respond to a list of written questions.
An attorney for Gray did not respond to an email seeking a response for this story.
A federal judge must sign off on the settlement agreement before the lawsuit is officially resolved. All claims against Gray and the five city employees who were individually named as defendants in the suit will be dismissed, according to Fleck and the family's attorney, Gabe Galanda.
Galanda said he's hopeful the spotlight on Bender's case will lead the city of Forks to make lasting changes at the jail and lead the state to increase funding for staffing, training and supervision in rural jails.
“Kimberly Bender's life mattered," he said. "We hope that the next time there is any suggestion whatsoever of sexual impropriety or misconduct, that it'd be taken with the utmost of seriousness."
‘It’s starting to make me uncomfortable’
About three weeks before Bender took her life in December 2019, police and hospital records reveal she tearfully reported to authorities that Gray sexually harassed and stalked her in her cell at night – whispering lewd comments while she was incarcerated over the course of several months.
“It’s starting to make me uncomfortable, being that I am the only female at the jail right now,” Bender told a tribal police officer, who recorded her Nov. 16, 2019 statement on his body camera.
Investigators who interviewed Bender believed her story and cited multiple reasons for why they thought she was “telling the truth.” But at the conclusion of a swift internal review, the city’s police chief said they were “unable to substantiate” her allegations, even as the city fired the jail guard.
In a recorded interview with the lead investigator, Bender revealed she wasn’t the only inmate Gray preyed upon. She named two other women who were incarcerated at the Forks jail in 2019. She said she believed Gray may have had physical sexual contact with them – possibly even paying at least one woman’s bail money to get out.
The city finished its internal probe just days after Bender reported the behavior. The police chief, Mike Rowley, ruled her accusations were “unsubstantiated” because he said the city could find “no evidence to prove the allegations of misconduct,” which he characterized as “verbal unprofessionalism” instead of sexual harassment, according to a review of the city’s internal investigation report.
Forks officials terminated Gray on Nov. 18, 2019 – two days after Bender came forward. But he didn’t lose his job because of the alleged sexual harassment. City leaders cited his “probationary status” as the reason for ending his employment – a condition that allows the city to let go of new hires who aren’t working out.
“The allegations of verbal unprofessionalism was a factor in terminating the probationary employment of Officer John Gray,” Rowley wrote in the investigation report.
Investigators didn’t speak with Gray or the two female inmates who Bender named as his possible victims, according to city and law enforcement records.
The two women later became part of Gray’s criminal case. They were among two of the four victims of sex crimes in the case that sent Gray to prison last year.
Forks officials knew about Gray's troubled past
When City of Forks officials brought John Gray on board to work the overnight shift at the jail, he was considered an "emergency hire" due to staffing shortages, according to city records.
The guard worked for more than two decades as a corrections officer at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center, an adult male prison located about 30 miles north of the city of Forks.
As a prison guard, he faced repeated discipline – from letters of reprimand to suspensions – for misconduct that included racism toward coworkers, vulgarity toward offenders, security breaches and sexual harassment, according to DOC records. Gray was fired from his prison job at one point only to later be reinstated.
The officer’s misconduct in his prison job shouldn’t have been a secret to the Forks leaders who offered him work.
Prior to hiring Gray as a jail guard at $19.38 an hour in April 2019, the City of Forks conducted a background check, a polygraph examination and a psychological examination, according to Gray’s final offer of employment letter from the city.
Forks Police Chief Mike Rowley personally reviewed Gray’s DOC file four weeks before he hired him, according to a record of the people who accessed Gray’s prison file.
Gray’s personnel file, reviewed by KING 5, includes details of his extensive history on the job – with records dating back to the late 90s when he first became a state employee.
It contains Gray’s training records, letters of commendation and union grievances, in addition to copies of numerous complaints, prison investigations and disciplinary measures taken against him.