Letters from the West

How Adams County can begin to heal

Adams County Sheriff Ryan Zollman is interviewed by Boise reporters after the town hall Tuesday on the Yantis shooting.
Adams County Sheriff Ryan Zollman is interviewed by Boise reporters after the town hall Tuesday on the Yantis shooting. kmoeller@idahostatesman.com

Adams County Sheriff Ryan Zollman looked the daughter of slain rancher Jack Yantis in the eye when he said Tuesday that he was sure his officers would be dealt with if they had done anything wrong.

Sarah Yantis, before 300 of her neighbors and friends in the hollowed-out expanse of the former office of the U.S. Forest Service, which is now the Assembly of God Church, told the sheriff he was lying.

“How can it be more obvious this is a crime?” Yantis asked.

Their stare reflected the divide in the room and in a town that is still waiting for answers after Yantis, 62, was shot to death by deputies Nov. 1 on U.S. 95 in front of his ranch 6 miles north of Council. Two of Yantis’ family members who were with him that night said that a deputy grabbed the rancher while he was trying to put down an injured bull. At the same time, another deputy opened fire without provocation, his family told the Statesman. The details have yet to be confirmed by investigators, and many at the Tuesday night town meeting told Zollman that they didn’t think it was right that the two deputies involved in the incident were free on paid leave.

Residents in cowboy hats and lumberjack shirts shouted questions and expressed frustration with Zollman’s answers. Many of those answers were unsatisfactory to the crowd, Zollman said, because there’s a lot he doesn’t know after turning the investigation over to the Idaho State Police immediately upon hearing the initial story of deputies. When the badgering began to get out of hand, Zollman said he would leave rather than argue with people.

The crowd settled down but didn’t back off. The town meeting showed how a community, even in the depths of a tragedy, could express anger and discontent without giving up its dignity.

Over the past 20 years, the community has gone from a thriving mill town to a struggling county seat trying to find a new direction. Boise Cascade closed its mill in 1996, a call center failed a decade ago, and a new Whole Foods bottled water plant is the only hope to supplement the surviving ranch and logging industry tied to the Tamarack mill a few miles north.

Many of the families go back generations and are interrelated. But new residents have been attracted by the low land prices, and the awesome beauty of the wide-open landscape and Cuddy Mountain, which towers to the southwest.

Teens stroll the sidewalks, texting on their smartphones or getting a pizza at Shy Simon’s. Retired friends share the Adams County Record newspaper over coffee at the Seven Devils Café.

Zollman, 37, who came to Council from nearby Enterprise, Ore., had strong support at the Tuesday night town meeting with his call for patience.

When someone asked whether he would step down if the two deputies were found guilty of a crime, Zollman replied emphatically, “No.” He said he’s too committed to the safety of the community to back out.

When the meeting ended, Zollman received another round of applause, a sign that his efforts to keep the community together succeeded for now, despite the feelings expressed by some that they fear his police force more than the people in the room carrying concealed firearms.

To most in the community, predictably, the greatest threat appears to come from outside. Social media has turned Council into an overgeneralized symbol of many Americans’ concerns of an out-of-control police authority and rural America’s Ferguson — the community in Missouri torn apart when a white officer shot a black man.

For Zollman, this caricature has invaded his home and family. He’s received death threats from places such as Corvallis, Ore.; Salem, Ore.; and Coeur d’Alene. Pictures of his home are on the Internet. He is understandably angry that he has to warn his children to be vigilant of strange cars when they go outside.

This is the kind of fear that people come to places like Council to get away from.

Ultimately, the acts of the deputies and Jack Yantis — presented as thoroughly and transparently as possible — must be judged before Council’s wounds can heal. That places the burden now on the Idaho State Police, an organization with questions about how it handled the private prison investigation and other cases. Investigators will be overseen by Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s office, which has been appointed the special prosecutor in the case.

On Thursday we learned that the FBI also is investigating. How well law enforcement conducts this investigation and how authorities handle potential future prosecutions will determine whether Sarah Yantis and Ryan Zollman get the justice they demand and deserve.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

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