Business Insider

David Staats: The story behind the family’s account of Jack Yantis’ death

The death of lifelong Adams County rancher Jack Yantis in an encounter with two sheriff’s deputies is an extraordinary story, a tragedy that has divided Adams County and raised fresh worries about police shootings.

Authorities have reported scant facts: A car struck one of Yantis’s bulls Nov. 1 on U.S. 95 near his ranch near Council, injuring the occupants. Emergency responders, including the deputies, went to the scene. So did Yantis and his wife, Donna. The deputies’ and Yantis’ guns went off. Yantis, 62, was killed. His wife, Donna, had a heart attack.

Family members blame the deputies. “I saw them murder my husband,” Donna Yantis said.

They and their lawyers approached Statesman reporter Cynthia Sewell to tell their story first, because of her watchdog reporting on problems within the Idaho State Police. They wanted to be heard, and they did not want to wait for months for results of an official investigation. They gave Sewell written statements and interviews.

As her editor, I worked with Sewell to refine the story. We sought to be especially careful with language, details and context.

Our job as journalists includes giving voice to people in situations like this. We felt Idahoans deserved to learn what they could without delay.

But we thought the story would upset people, and it did: Sheriff Ryan Zollman said his office received about 30 threatening or derogatory emails and calls after it appeared.

Sewell’s story drew a million readers online, more than any Statesman story since Tim Woodward’s 2010 account of the death of Dugout Dick, the Salmon River Caveman.

The Statesman kept pursuing other angles and developments, with reporting by Sewell, Rocky Barker, Zach Kyle, Bill Dentzer and especially Katy Moeller. Dale Fisk, editor of the Adams County Record, wrote a beautiful essay for us, “A few dark seconds will haunt Council,” that you can read on

We still await the deputies’ side, which authorities are withholding while the ISP and the FBI investigate the death. I welcome your comments.

David Staats: 208-377-6417,, @DavidStaats. This column appears in the Nov.18-Dec. 15, 2015, edition of the Statesman’s Business Insider magazine.