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At town hall, sheriff urges patience with investigation into Idaho rancher’s death

The Yantis family’s barn just north of Council, as seen Tuesday.
The Yantis family’s barn just north of Council, as seen Tuesday. rbarker@idahostatesman.com

It was a meeting with more questions than answers, but it was a start.

A small-town Idaho sheriff faced a standing-room-only crowd of about 300 at a town hall meeting Tuesday to address the Nov. 1 shooting death of a well-known rancher at the hands of two deputies. It was a strong turnout for Council, whose population is about 800.

Adams County Sheriff Ryan Zollman asked for the community’s patience as Idaho State Police investigate the death of 62-year-old Jack Yantis.

“I come before you with a heavy heart,” said Zollman. He later apologized for not talking directly to the community sooner.

He said he tried to get more answers about the case from ISP on Tuesday, but the agency declined to release anything to him. Zollman promised that when the investigation was done, he would hold a meeting to talk to the community before talking to anyone else.

The sheriff fielded questions on a number of things, including officer training, policies and practices. He said the two deputies involved in the Yantis shooting — who have not been identified — are both certified through Idaho’s Peace Officer Standards and Training program. One has five years of experience and the other is a 15-year veteran, he said.

“They were not two rookie, inexperienced officers,” he said.

Zollman said he’s had trouble finding qualified people to fill deputy positions. He said he’s had a job posted for six weeks and received just three applications.

The first question of the night was about the safety of the deputies when their names are released. The sheriff said he remains concerned — and he noted that he has received threats and had a photo of his house and address posted on social media.

“I am not going to do that to these deputies,” he said.

People in the crowd responded swiftly:

“The day will come. The day has to come.”

“It is our right to know.”

More than one person asked why the deputies are on paid leave and not sitting in jail pending the outcome of the investigation.

One man said many do not trust the police to do a truly independent investigation of Yantis’ death.

“All of the investigation is under one roof of government,” Brian Pearce said. “You’re looking at a crowd that does not trust government on any level.”

Zollman said he doesn’t know whether the deputies were wearing the body cameras they were issued; he said one of their vehicles had a dashboard camera. Deputies have been advised to wear them at all times now, and they’ve been advised that they’re always running.

“If my tax dollars are paying for them body cameras, why are they not on all of the time on them officers?” said Taran York.

The meeting was held at the Council Valley Assembly of God Church. Zollman spoke for less than 10 minutes and the gathering was over in about 45 minutes.

The media and crowd were asked not to record the meeting, but one woman recorded it on her cellphone. She brushed off attempts to get her to stop; she said she was recording for her sister, who could not make the meeting.

Many of those who asked questions at the meeting called the sheriff by his first name. The crowd clapped a couple of times, including when someone asked, “If you’re so committed to the safety of the community, then why am I so scared?”

Asked whether he would resign if the deputies were found guilty of a crime in Yantis’ death, the sheriff was emphatic in his response:

“No,” he said. “I’m dedicated to the county.”

Yantis was shot to death by the deputies on U.S. 95 in front of his ranch, about 6 miles north of Council, after Yantis had been summoned to deal with a bull he owned that had been hit by a Subaru station wagon.

Two of Yantis’ family members who were with him that night said that a deputy grabbed the rancher while he was trying to shoot the bull. At the same time, another deputy opened fire without provocation, his family told the Statesman.

No similar specifics have been available yet from ISP as its officers continue an investigation into the night’s events.

Yantis’ wife, Donna, suffered a heart attack after the shooting. She remains hospitalized at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise.

ISP denied a public records request for any available 911 audio involving the crash and subsequent shooting, or for any video from body cameras, if it exists. ISP cited Idaho’s public records exemption for materials that are part of a pending investigation.

‘AN ABSOLUTE TRAGEDY’

Lt. Gov. Brad Little, a cattle rancher, was asked about the Council shooting and whether the state might take a greater role in dealing with the community’s concerns in a meeting with the Idaho Statesman editorial board Tuesday. He has personal connections to Adams County and to those involved in the shooting: Yantis’ sister-in-law once worked for him, he said.

“It’s an absolute tragedy,” Little said. “The issue is the attorneys for the Yantis family are going out and painting a picture, and the sheriff’s deputies, the sheriff, the Attorney General’s Office, the State Police have got protocols that they’ve got to follow. And nature abhors a vacuum. ... There’s no way in hell they can have a trial in Adams County.

“It just breaks my heart. There’s no good way this is going to end up.

“I’m hypothesizing that those cops didn’t know how to kill that bull, and having had experience, you can’t hardly knock one down if you don’t know exactly where to put that bullet,” Little said. “And Jack (Yantis) showed up and said, ‘I’ll take care of this.’

“I’ve been involved in it many, many times,” Little said. Authorities call “and we — my foreman, my son, the guys at the ranch — we get called out at night all the time.”

He discussed the state’s open range laws, which make motorists financially responsible in case of an accident involving livestock.

“I tell my cattleman friends, ‘You have a school bus hit a bull, you’re not going to like the way the open range laws in Idaho are changed.’”

Little also spoke about rural life in places like Adams County and the issues that county faces in particular.

“I can tell you among the people I travel with — this is terrible to say — I’m glad it wasn’t the state police, because people have a lot of faith in their county sheriff,” Little said. “I know as a politician if I’ve got a county I’m worried about, if there’s a county sheriff’s race I know people will show up and vote because they’ve always got an opinion one way or other about their sheriff, and that’s a good way to drive turnout in an election.”

Katy Moeller: 208-377-6413, @KatyMoeller Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker Bill Dentzer: 208-377-6438, @IDS_billd

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