On July 1, 1997, after battling Spokane County and the City of Spokane for 11 years, the Marks family – leaders of the city's small Romani community – is awarded a settlement of $1.43 million to conclude a fight over illegal 1986 police searches of the homes of James "Jimmy" Marks and his parents. First filing suit for $40 million, then upping that figure to $59 million, the Marks family settles for the much-smaller sum rather than risk an adverse ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the 11 years of their legal ordeal, Jimmy Marks (1945-2007) and his parents ran through 23 attorneys. Everyone involved in the case grew weary of the back-and-forth. The damage and exhaustion were widespread – from lawyers to police, to the media, to the families. The settlement is most remarkable for the mistakes the county and city made. Those agencies had adequate dirt on the Roma to make convictions, including recorded conversations of Marks providing advice on which homes the police informant should burglarize. If the conclusions were clear on their face, the process that led up to those conclusions was fraught with missteps and bad judgment.
The Marks's civil rights were broadly violated in the search of their homes on June 18, 1986, by a task force comprised of Spokane County Sheriff's deputies and Spokane Police Department officers. The violations pivoted on the search warrant. The warrant never specified a search for cash, only for stolen jewelry. The seizure of $1.6 million found in canisters and sewn into quilts was ruled invalid, the cash given back. The searches also illegally ensued before the search warrant was signed. Civil rights were further breached by the overzealous police. Earrings were removed from a 5-year-old girl, gold-plated fingernails torn from women’s hands, and family heirlooms including a $20 gold piece confiscated and never returned. An infant’s diaper was even taken off and searched. In the language of Marks v. Clarke (1996):
"the police exceeded the authorization in the search warrant, conducted illegal searches because the searches and seizures made by the officers were unreasonable and the warrant itself failed to particularize the items to be seized, and that the officers were guilty of mismanagement and governmental misconduct in violation of the Fourth and Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution, Article I, section 7 of the Washington State Constitution, and Washington state criminal laws. The court suppressed all the seized evidence, dismissed the underlying criminal charges, and ordered the police to return all confiscated property to the Markses" (Marks v. Clarke).
Such judicial conclusions made the Spokane Police look like Keystone Kops – bungling, rash, unwilling to throw in the towel until forced to by the facts.
Spokane's mayor, John Vincent "Jack" Geraghty, Jr. (b. 1934), argued, "This settlement puts an end to one of the longest drawn-out legal battles ever faced by the city” (Morlin). The bulk of the settlement was paid by Spokane’s self-insurance fund, he noted. The city, Geraghty emphasized, admitted no wrongdoing, offered no apology. The city simply chose to settle out of court to avoid further legal costs and the possibility of a larger award, either by jury or by a different court. Assistant City Attorney Rocco Treppiedi agreed. He had long borne the brunt of the Gypsies’ wrath. "It was not an obsession," he said; "it was pure justice. Jimmy Marks perpetrated a hoax on the system" (Morlin). Other officials, weary of the public-relations war, were more tight-lipped. City Attorney Jim Sloane, Treppiedi’s boss, called the settlement a "business judgment" – a judgment he chose to exercise to suspend costly appeal verdicts that might follow (Morlin).
The missing apology was a major sticking point in the legal proceedings. The plaintiffs, to agree to a settlement, demanded an apology. City attorneys were unwilling to give one, due to the liability it might provide. Pat Stiley (1946-2017), a lead attorney for the Romani, lobbied for cultural-awareness training for Spokane Police officers. "We were rebuffed," Stiley said, "but I think $1.43 million is sufficient apology for my clients" (Morlin). Stiley estimated that the settlement ranked among the top five national awards for police misconduct at the time.
As a basis for comparison, the Spokane City Council on May 21, 2012, would close an excessive-force case. settling for $1.67 million with the family of intellectually disabled janitor Otto Zehm. He died at the hands of Spokane Police after being falsely called a thief. Officer Karl Thompson was convicted. He delivered the brunt of the manhandling that killed Zehm. More than 50 fellow officers saluted as Thompson left the court following his sentencing. By contrast, no individual officer was held liable for violating the rights of the Marks family. Treppiedi, the attorney who so staunchly supported the raid for all those 11 years, had gone defensively on record in 1992 when he said, about the members of the Marks family who were apprehended, "They haven’t been persecuted. They were just caught red-handed" (Egan). Treppiedi was fired from his job as an attorney in the aftermath of the Otto Zehm incident.
Marks, the center of his own storm, admitted the legal proceedings deranged him. He became a crazy man. He laid "Gypsy curses" on the city. He left 100 voice mails for reporter Rebecca Nappi when she was researching the case. Police had to restrain him from crashing a city news conference. The day of the settlement, he lit a cigar with a fake million-dollar bill and boasted, "They’re calling me ‘Million-Dollar Jimmy' now" (Morlin). He flung open the doors of his dead father’s hearse outside City Hall and ushered the spirit inside to hex the occupants. Marks became so estranged from family members that his widowed mother left him only a nickel in her will. His conduct motivated some 200 other Spokane Roms to pack up and move away. They felt contaminated by contact with the gadji (outsider) culture that Marks brought upon them.
Journalist Nappi observed, "Jimmy Marks is a man obsessed. He knows it. He doesn’t care. He shrugs it off when people hang up on him." He proclaimed about the case, "They can call it what they want, but it was an armed robbery" (McGregor). Such an accusation is one of hundreds he made before he died in 1997 at the age of 62. In a shrewd if juvenile maneuver he enacted when the monetary settlement was announced, Marks brought a bag of baby pacifiers to distribute to members of the City Council. After being thwarted from performing that stunt, he relented for a moment. He gave councilman Orville Barnes a hug, left the building, and threw a stone over his shoulder in a Gypsy ritual that signified "leaving the bad luck and terrible times behind me." He motored away from City Hall, now dignified, in a late-model Mercedes sedan.
Though Marks was illiterate – never educated beyond second grade – he had the savvy to win in the court of public opinion. He had a knack for image management. He claimed, with solid evidence, that the City of Spokane had spent millions defending itself and devising a countersuit that was ultimately rejected by the courts. He touched a raw financial nerve when he asserted that the taxpayers of Spokane deserved to know why the coverup went on so long and why so much money had been spent against him and his family. Clearly hoping to save face, city leaders refused to estimate the costs they had incurred. The council members, police, and attorneys dug in their heels, insisting that the courts had failed, that the raid had been legitimate.
Two years after the settlement in 1997, Marks's final PR gambit paid off. A feature film about his family’s ordeal was released. That documentary, five years in the making, walks a tightwire. It balances between defending the family and defending the police. American Gypsy: A Stranger in Everyone’s Land, directed by Jasmine Dellal, whose family was originally from India, succeeds also in delivering a deft capsule history of the plight of the Gypsies for millennia. From the mouth of Jimmy’s mother, Marie, whose nickname was Lippie, a kind of theme for the film erupts. "There is no truth!" she cries, when the director presses her on the elusive facts that embroiled her family and the city for those 11 years that led up to the settlement.
Jimmy Marks as protagonist in the film philosophizes. He explains his affinity for the used-car trade and his travel to Las Vegas to find cars. He declares, "Cars is like buffalos. Buffalos won’t come to you. You got to go to them." He began selling cars at 18; his father Grover, allegedly at the age of 14. Drivers licenses were doctored to make boyish Gypsies appear to be of legal age to drive. The sons still succeed their fathers in the Markses’ six car dealerships. The daughters are expected to become traditional homemakers. As the subtitle of the film puts it, a Gypsy is "a stranger in everyone’s land." No matter how resourceful, they have no homeland of their own.
Marks refuted himself in his statements about the settlement. At one point he said that he was going to accept only one dollar, at another point that he planned to spend some of the money on expensive champagne corked the same year as the police raids. He said he would fly to the burial place of John F. Kennedy, a civil rights champion, and drink that champagne at his graveside.