Editor’s note: This story includes depictions of suicide and sexual assault.
FORKS, Wash. – In November 2019, Dawn Reid was at her home on the Quileute Indian Reservation in La Push when she took a tearful call from her oldest daughter, Kimberly Bender.
Bender, 23, called from a pay phone near her jail cell at the Forks Correctional Facility, complaining of heroin withdrawals that felt unlike anything she’d experienced before.
“Well, jail isn’t where we want to see you, Kimberly,” Reid told her daughter over the jail’s recorded phone line. “But if it saves your life, then that’s where you need to be.”
Reid is the one who turned her daughter into police that November for a probation violation for possessing marijuana paraphernalia. Forcing Bender behind bars was a hard choice, Reid explained, but it felt like her only choice to keep her child alive.
“That’s all I wanted was somebody to help her,” Reid, 43, said. “To help her get clean.”
Bender, a single mother and Quileute tribal member, lived with complex mental health conditions, including bipolar disorder and depression, which, her mom said, stemmed from her being sexually assaulted as a child. As she struggled with drug addiction, she had been in and out of the Forks Correctional Facility seven times between April and December 2019.
But it turns out that last stint in jail didn’t save her life.
Bender died by suicide in her jail cell in December 2019. About three weeks earlier, police and hospital records reveal she tearfully reported to authorities that a Forks corrections officer, John Russell 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.
Gray went on to secure another job working as a prison guard for the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC), where he’d worked for more than two decades before the city of Forks brought him on as an “emergency hire” for the Forks jail in April 2019.
In February 2021, Gray was sentenced to 20 months in prison after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting four other women who were inmates at the Forks jail during the same time period that Bender was incarcerated there.
“They failed her miserably,” said Reid, who filed a federal lawsuit in October against Gray, the city of Forks and some of its employees. “She didn’t get treated like a victim.”
The lawsuit alleges, in part, that Bender’s death was “wrongful and unnecessary.” It blames the city for showing “negligence” to her “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 have not seen another case in which somebody like Kimberly Bender suffered such indignity or inhumanity,” said Gabe Galanda, the Seattle-based plaintiff attorney representing Bender’s family. “We’re asking for damages in an amount that will keep this from potentially never happening again to anybody in the city of Forks custody.”
Attorneys for Gray and the city of Forks declined KING 5 interview requests for this story. City leaders did not answer a list of written questions about the jail guard, Bender’s case or its policies on preventing and responding to sexual misconduct in the jail.
“The City does not comment on pending litigation,” wrote Megan Coluccio, the Seattle-based attorney representing the city and employees who are named defendants in the lawsuit.
In federal court documents, the city of Forks denied multiple allegations in the suit, including claims that officials were negligent in Kimberly’s death.
‘I won’t ask him for really anything’
About two weeks after Bender called her mom while suffering through heroin withdrawal in the jail, on Nov. 16, she was admitted to a Forks emergency room for a possible suicide attempt.
It was there that she told a Quileute tribal police officer, who recorded her tearful statement on his body camera, that Gray repeatedly made inappropriate comments, which made Bender so uncomfortable, she didn’t even want to use the bathroom when he was on duty.
“I won’t ask him for really anything,” Bender told the tribal officer. “And when I do ask him for something…He makes comments as to like, ‘Oh, what do I get out of it?’”
She said the guard implied she could use her inhaler as a sex toy, and he used a sexual innuendo when dispensing her nightly medication.
Medical records, provided by an attorney for Bender’s family, show she also spoke to a mental health professional after her possible suicide attempt. The doctor documented that the “scheduled jail officer for the night” triggers Bender’s post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and that Bender was “nervous about (the) next guard coming on duty.”
“It’s hard to imagine someone more vulnerable,” Galanda, the plaintiff attorney, said. “Her last hours and days were lived in absolute terror.”
A medical professional at the Forks hospital cleared Bender to return to jail the same day, as the city of Forks immediately launched an investigation into her claims and placed Gray on administrative leave.
In a recorded interview with the lead investigator, Bender provided more detail – revealing she wasn’t the only inmate Gray preyed upon. She named two other women who were incarcerated at the Forks jail that fall. 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.
Bender did not report sexual assault by Gray.
The Forks police officer, in his Nov. 18, 2019 investigation report, explained that he believed Bender was telling the truth. He cited four reasons, including the fact that her story was “consistent” with her report to the tribal officer, and it was “free-flowing.” He wrote she exhibited “embarrassment over certain details,” and he also documented that he’d “personally heard” Gray use “some of the phasing” Bender reported – in a different context.
The city finished it’s 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.
‘They could have asked more questions’
Advocates for survivors of sexual misconduct said it was the right move for the city to quickly open an internal review after Bender came forward. But the KING 5 investigators found the city fell short of examining the whole story.
Before concluding their investigation, city records show Forks officials never interviewed Gray.
“They could have asked more questions. They could have questioned him,” Reid, Bender’s mom, said. “Why wasn’t there more in the report?”
Investigators also didn’t speak with the two female inmates who Bender named as Gray’s 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.
“They could have investigated this better,” Reid said. “It tells me that they were trying to sweep it under the rug.”
‘I did just kind of sweep it under the carpet’
Gray often worked the night shift alone, according to a review of his timecards and Forks shift schedules.
Earlier in 2019, his unusual behavior during the night shift caught the attention of a coworker. The cop reported he saw the guard where he didn’t belong – in the hallway with a female inmate, who “looked very uncomfortable” and had a “deer in the headlights look” when she was spotted with the jail guard, according to law enforcement records.
Gray’s supervisor, Sgt. Ed Klahn, documented the incident in an August 2019 observation report for Gray. But Klahn admitted later to a Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office deputy who investigated Gray’s criminal case that he let the incident slide.
“I did just kind of sweep it under the carpet because I thought he was such a hard worker,” Klahn said to the deputy in a recorded interview. “I just thought he just put himself in a bad situation trying to get the job done, so I counseled.”
‘I felt her disappointment’
On Dec. 7, 2019, 18 days after she told officers about her interactions with Gray, Bender made another phone call to her mom.
She ended it with “I love you” and went back to her jail cell, where she was left alone for about three hours, according to police records.
That evening, a Forks police officer found her dead in her cell.
It’s not clear if her suicide was connected to her reported harassment or if she knew the results of Forks’ internal review.
But Reid, who held a large memorial for her daughter this month, is convinced that the city didn’t do enough to protect Bender after she tearfully came forward.
“When you're a mother you feel like you could feel every ounce of pain your child is feeling….I felt her fear. I felt her anger. I felt her disappointment,” she said. "The City of Forks can't give her back to me, and that's what I would want more than anything in this world is to have her back.”
If you need help
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or if you have experienced sexual assault and need support, help is available.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline - 1-800-273-TALK (8255) - 24 hours, 7 days a week | TTY: 1-800- 799-4TTY (4889)
King County Sexual Assault Resource Center’s 24-hour Resource Line - 888.99.VOICE