Attorney accuses Payette sheriff of possible jury tampering ahead of crash trial

The attorney for a woman whose father was hit and killed by a sheriff’s deputy in 2011 told a judge that Payette County Sheriff Chad Huff might be tampering with possible jurors, just days before a trial on the crash is expected to start.

“I unequivocally deny the disparaging allegations levied against me,” Huff told the Statesman on Saturday. “We look forward to defending Payette County in the upcoming trial and I personally look forward to clearing my name.”

Nathan Olsen is the attorney representing Jackie Raymond, who sued the sheriff’s department in 2013, alleging wrongful death and that the department manipulated the crash investigation to protect the deputy involved.

Jury selection in the civil suit is scheduled to begin Monday. But on April 13, Olsen asked 3rd District Judge Christopher Nye to hold the trial in another county, citing new information “from a credible and reliable source.”

Olsen went into more detail during an April 16 hearing, according to a transcript from that date.

Olsen told Nye that on April 12, he contacted one of his witnesses. The witness told Olsen that his neighbor had recently been to Payette County offices on an unrelated matter. While there, the witness told Olsen, Huff took the neighbor into a separate room and started talking to him about the witness. That included asking him about their relationship and about the witness’ deposition in the Raymond case, Olsen told the judge.

When the neighbor told the sheriff he had received a jury summons, the sheriff reportedly said the neighbor would not be on the jury very long.

“Then (Huff) stopped and said, ‘Maybe we want you on that jury,’ ” Olsen told Nye. “And the very strong insinuation felt by this person was that the sheriff wanted to make a deal. He felt intimidated by him. He’s deeply concerned about retribution.”

During that same hearing, Payette County’s attorney, Michael Kane, said he had already talked to the sheriff about the incident.

“I got a completely different story and I will tell you that what I just heard from plaintiff is not even remotely close to what my client is telling me,” Kane said.

“To extrapolate from this conversation a massive conspiracy among law enforcement to affect jurors and intimidate witnesses and even intimidate counsel is a complete out-of-this-world stretch, and I object to that and I’m going to ask the court to simply await events.”

Huff said the allegations stem from a conversation he had with a county resident who was in violation of an ordinance.

“On his second visit to my office, to discuss the ordinance issue, he was unhappy with my response and I believe this is retaliatory in nature,” Huff said. “The story Mr. Olsen presented to the court is completely embellished and has been taken out of context.”

Olsen declined comment to the Statesman about the hearing, Kane’s remarks or whether he had any other examples of possible witness or jury tampering.

According to the transcript, Olsen also told Nye that he was concerned other Payette citizens would be intimidated by serving on a jury tasked with deciding whether the sheriff’s department was at fault in Johnson’s death and in its handling of the investigation.

“I don’t think we’re going to get folks who are going to be forthcoming about the intimidation that they have perhaps felt from the county or any of its officials with regard to this case, or what kind of an impact it will have on them, given the culture of the way things work in Payette County,” Olsen told the judge. “And I have to believe that if we have this example of potential jury tampering, that there’s a strong likelihood that that has or is continuing to occur in this case.”

Nye did not move the trial. Instead, he said, he would wait for Monday’s jury selection “to see if we can get a fair jury.”

“If there’s some people that want to speak in private, we’ll take them up in a different room at the courthouse” to avoid polluting the full panel, Nye said. “So we’ll wait and see what happens next Monday.”

High-speed crash

For nearly five years, Raymond has waged a one-woman legal battle against two law enforcement agencies over the death of her father, Barry Johnson, who was hit and killed by a sheriff’s deputy.

The crash happened along a remote stretch of U.S. 30 near New Plymouth, late in the afternoon of Oct. 18, 2011.

Payette County Sheriff’s Deputy Scott Sloan was driving east in his patrol car at speeds in excess of 100 mph while responding with lights and sirens to a 911 call. The speed limit was 55 mph on the two-lane rural highway.

Johnson’s 1983 Jeep was also eastbound, in front of Sloan, traveling about 24 mph.

As Sloan tried to pass him, Johnson, who was on his way home, began to turn left into his driveway. Sloan slammed on the brakes. His 2004 Ford Crown Victoria had slowed to 88 mph by the time it struck the driver’s side of the Jeep.

Gem County Prosecutor Richard Linville determined that Johnson was not to blame for the fatal crash – the deputy was. Linville charged Sloan with felony vehicular manslaughter.

But less than two months before the trial, in March 2013, Linville dropped the vehicular manslaughter charge. He said conflicting Idaho State Police crash-investigation reports and the untrustworthy conduct of the state trooper who led the investigation undermined his ability to prosecute the case.

Three ISP investigators later said they felt pressured by command staff to change their investigation report to state that Johnson’s blood alcohol caused or contributed to the accident, a conclusion they thought could not be proved.

When Raymond learned that Sloan would not face criminal charges, she sued Payette County and ISP. Raymond’s lawsuit alleges wrongful death and “tortious interference” by Payette County. She also argued that the ISP issues complicated the criminal case and her civil suit, but Nye dismissed those claims last year.

“ISP was dismissed by the district judge because he decided that Idaho does not recognize a civil claim for what we alleged they did. We will have the option to appeal that decision after this part of the case is over,” Olsen said.

Drinking before the crash?

Johnson had been on his way home from a local bar where he had spent the afternoon with friends. The coroner stated that Johnson had a blood alcohol level between .053 and .1271. The legal limit for drivers is .08.

After talking to people who were with her father that day and learning about possible errors made by the coroner in collecting her father’s blood samples, Raymond is convinced her father was not driving drunk, something she said he would not do.

As her case has gone through discovery and procuring expert witnesses, Raymond says she has already had a personal victory: Toxicology experts have analyzed the evidence and determined that her father’s blood alcohol level was no more than .053.

“It has not been disputed by the defense,” Olsen said of that conclusion.

“I am so happy that I finally get to expose the corruption and the lies. And I get to show everybody that my dad was not drunk that day,” Raymond said. “My number one goal was to prove my dad was not at fault or drunk. I am proud of myself for not giving up. My dad meant the world to me and to have someone taint his name to cover up their mess is disgusting.”

The judge in February 2017 allowed Raymond to add a new claim regarding the behavior of Payette County 911 dispatchers on the day Johnson died.

Before Raymond had been notified of her father’s death, the complaint alleges, dispatchers on the recorded 911 line and their callers, who included law enforcement officers, “were extremely inappropriate and vulgar, at times laced with profanity and laughter,” as they discussed Johnson and his daughter. The complaint alleges that this constituted an invasion of privacy and that Payette violated its own rules on notification of next of kin “as well as common law and/or a fiduciary responsibility as public officers to properly handle highly sensitive information in times of tragedy and death.”

Kane told the Statesman on Friday, “We intend to defend the county to the utmost and demonstrate the facts as they are and have always been.”

Other cases

Raymond’s case was the last of three lawsuits filed against ISP over its handling of the Sloan investigation.

Two lawsuits were filed by Fred Rice and Brandon Eller, ISP employees who worked on the Sloan crash investigation. Both alleged that they were ordered by command staff to shape the investigative report to protect the deputy, and suffered retaliation when they did not go along.

Rice retired. Eller still works at ISP.

Rice’s case was dismissed by an Ada County judge in October 2015 with the judge writing only that the evidence offered “no genuine issue of material fact.”

Eller’s case went to trial last year, and an Ada County jury awarded him $1.5 million in August 2017. The judge reduced the award to $1 million.

Both sides in the Eller case have appealed to the Idaho Supreme Court.

Cynthia Sewell: 208-377-6428, @CynthiaSewell