Early next month, Elmore County Sheriff Rick Layher, 62, and Prosecutor Kristina Schindele, 45, will pack up their belongings and leave their Mountain Home offices for the last time.
Across Idaho counties, elected officials regularly come and go. But Elmore’s transition to Sheriff-elect Mike Hollinshead and Prosecutor-elect Daniel Page is big change for a county with years of unchanged criminal justice leadership.
Layher spent 40 years with the sheriff’s office — the last 30 as sheriff. He’s now retiring.
Schindele, who was the prosecutor for 12 years, lost to Page last month with just 30 percent of the vote. In her case, no one interviewed by the Statesman — a county commissioner, local business owners and others — could name an issue with her tenure that led to her defeat. Rather, several people said that Schindele’s political affiliation — she’s a Democrat, Page is Republican — could have been the culprit in her first contested race while in office.
“Probably more people were voting a straight Republican Party ticket,” said Barb Fogleman, a Mountain Home real estate broker.
Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 6 to 1 in Elmore County. There are 6,028 Republicans, 1,030 Democrats and 3,998 unaffiliated voters.
Schindele said she is weighing what she will do in January.
“I am looking forward and figuring out what I will do next,” she said
Nearly an Idaho record
Layher’s tenure — 30 years as sheriff — places him second in longevity among active sheriffs in Idaho, and among the longest-served sheriffs in state history. Bear Lake County Sheriff Brent Bunn, who has served in that southeastern Idaho county for 32 years, also will retire in January with what appears to be the longest tenure by anyone as one county’s sheriff in Idaho history.
“Rick and I went through the (state police training academy) together in 1977, so we’ve known each other for 40 years,” said Bunn, who lives in Montpelier. “He’s worked hard for his county and he obviously did a great job because they kept re-electing him.”
Turnover among sheriffs is common, said Vaughn Killeen, executive director of the Idaho Sheriffs’ Association, who spent two decades as Ada County sheriff before retiring in 2004. Sheriffs retire. They get voted out of office.
Eighteen of Idaho’s current 44 sheriffs took office in 2012 or later. With the retirements of Layher and Bunn, Bannock County Sheriff Lorin Nielsen and Gooding County Sheriff Shaun Gough will become the longest-serving sheriffs. They were both elected in 1996.
Layher’s departure after such a long career certainly will be noticed — though in some ways, his presence in local law enforcement will remain. For example, he mentored Mountain Home Police Chief Nick Schilz, who worked for Layher for 30 years before becoming the head of the city department in 2011.
“When you lose that kind of knowledge, years and ‘been there, done that,’ that says a lot,” said Bud Corbus, an Elmore County commissioner. “He is simply a hands-on guy. He was involved in everything they had going on.”
Hollinshead, too, is conscious of it.
“Everyone says I’ve got big shoes to fill. I’m not going to be able to fill them. He’s got so much on me,” said the incoming sheriff. “He has done an outstanding job and our goal is to build on that.”
Hollinshead, 62, previously worked as a deputy for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office in California and as a civilian antiterrorism officer at Mountain Home Air Force Base. He also has previous experience as a reserve officer for both the Elmore County Sheriff’s Office and the Mountain Home Police Department, and currently serves as a reserve coordinator for the Idaho Police Officer Standards and Training.
Layher and his command staff have met extensively with Hollinshead since the election to ensure a smooth transition.
“I’ve gone over and picked their brains on why people are in certain positions, why things are done the way they are. We don’t want to go in and reinvent the wheel,” Hollinshead said.
His management style, he said, is to give his employees the authority to do their jobs.
Hollinshead said he admires Layher for his leadership, an emphasis on putting employees first and his caring nature. He said Layher also spent a lot of time mentoring younger deputies.
Out in the field, not in the office
Layher, who left the U.S. Air Force at Mountain Home to become a deputy in 1976, said he tried to keep in mind that everyone deserves to be treated with decency. He said the relationships he built with people he arrested helped him later on — for example, one time in the 1970s in rural Atlanta, several people he had cited for marijuana possession came to his aid when an unruly crowd confronted him.
“Everything with me about law enforcement is common sense and caring, caring about the people,” Layher said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re someone you arrest or a businessman down the street, you treat them all like human beings. I think that’s helped me over the years, especially with the guys involved in crime. Most of them respect me.”
For many years, in cases involving death — from unattended deaths to homicides — Layher would personally handle knocking on family members’ doors to inform them.
“The way I looked at it everything, with all of the deaths and mangulated bodies, this is a job somebody’s got to do and I can do it with loving hands and help the family,” he said.
Killeen called Layher “a real working sheriff. He spends a lot of time out in the field with his men. He probably gets out more with the troops than probably just about any sheriff that I know.”
It’s been a good go. Probably the only reason I’m alive is because the good Lord kept a watch over me. There were lots and lots of dangerous things out there. Retiring Sheriff Rick Layher
The theft of a horse on a holiday early in Layher’s career illustrates that approach. Instead of taking a report and investigating it the next day when more deputies would be on duty, Layher tracked the animal for hours on foot.
He followed the animal’s hoof prints as they led south toward the Snake River. Along the way, he found the thief’s wallet and driver’s license.
“It was sort of funny because it was like an old western movie. I got to this rock outcropping thing before you drop over the ridge and I’m sneaking up there and I can see a little bit of a glow of a fire, a campfire. And I’m thinking, shoot, this is out of a movie,” Layher said, laughing at the memory.
Layher snuck up on the man, grabbed a rifle off a scabbard on the horse and took the thief into custody. He needed the rifle because he had left his service gun, radio and badge in his car back at the victim’s house. Anticipating a slow day, he hadn’t bothered to take them out from under the seat of his car — a fact an older deputy didn’t appreciate later that day.
“Boy, was he chewing my butt out. I was out all day and they had no idea where I was,” Layher said. “To me, that’s just what I did.”
Drugs in community
Both Page and Hollinshead are set to be sworn in Jan. 9. They both mentioned drug abuse as among their serious concerns, certainly one not unique to Elmore, a county of 3,000 square miles, larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined.
Page, 29, grew up in Middleton and graduated from the William & Mary Law School in Williamsburg, Va. He has been a member of the Idaho bar since 2012 and has served as an adjunct law instructor at Brown Mackie College in Boise. He has also operated his own law firm in Meridian and Mountain Home, and most recently served as a public defender for the Nez Perce Tribe.
During the campaign, Page said, he knocked on doors in every neighborhood in Mountain Home and made telephone calls to residents in outlying areas. People told him they were concerned about the problems caused by addiction to methamphetamine.
“It is a poison in our community and a large concern for a lot of people,” Page said.
Marijuana stands out to Hollinshead. He said he expects to see more use of it in Elmore County due to the legalization of recreational marijuana in neighboring Nevada. Voters there this month decided to allow adults 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of pot, joining Oregon, Washington and Colorado.
“My personal feeling is that it could and probably will create an additional concern that we need to keep in the forefront,” Hollinshead said.
Page said he supports the specialty drug court set up in Elmore County. The court focuses on treating people’s addictions and keeping them out of jail rather than simply locking them up.
“I would like to see that used for nonviolent offenders who need treatment because it saves taxpayers money and reduces recidivism,” he said. “If we can solve this problem cheaply and without incarcerating a large portion of our population, so much the better.”
What drew Page to the job? A prosecutor’s job is different from other categories of attorneys, he said, who are more focused on what benefits their clients as a first priority.
“The ability to seek the truth and to search for justice is what drew me to the position,” Page said.
“I look forward to taking on this tremendous responsibility. I’m grateful to the voters.”