COUNCIL – The Yantis family was at dinner when the telephone rang. A bull owned by Jack Yantis had been struck by a vehicle on Route 95, which cuts through Yantis land. He needed to come down.
Collisions like that are not uncommon in the rural West. The owner of the animal, if it is alive but beyond recovery, puts a bullet through its head and hauls it away.
This time it went wrong.
About 45 minutes after the crash, Jack Yantis, 62, lay dying on the highway, shot by two deputies from the Adams County Sheriff’s Office, who had responded to the collision. Yantis’ wife, Donna, who had been ordered to the ground with other bystanders and relatives, was having a heart attack.
Much about what happened that night remains uncertain. State and county officials said Jack Yantis’ bolt-action rifle discharged, but they have not described the circumstances. Family members say flatly that Yantis was murdered. Inquiries by the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Idaho State Police are just beginning. Donna Yantis, 63, is still recovering in a hospital in Boise, and one of the people in the vehicle that struck the bull is still hospitalized.
But residents say the convulsion of recrimination, anger and anxiety that has gripped this community of 800 people since the shooting Nov. 1 is not going away. Much of it is directed at the sheriff’s office. Though the circumstances of other recent police-involved shootings around the nation are different – including that all the parties involved here were white – the alienation from authority echoes in a way that feels much the same.
“This is a very conservative community in a very conservative state, and people are just distrustful of the government,” said Dale Fisk, the editor of The Adams County Record, a weekly newspaper that has been covering the story. Now the uncertainty over what happened has become what Fisk, who played football with Yantis in high school, called “a suffocating blanket.”
Sheriff Ryan Zollman has said he received numerous death threats, though many of them, judging by the area codes of the phone numbers, came from far away.
The tensions were evident Saturday, when about 75 people marched through Council carrying signs reading “Justice for Jack,” and “How many bullets constitute excessive force?” A group called 3% of Idaho, which stands for “freedom, liberty and the Constitution,” according to its website, brought in about 10 members from around the state to march alongside local residents.
“We heard there might be attempts to disrupt,” said Eric Parker, the group’s vice president. The march was ultimately peaceful.
YANTIS’ TOUGH LIFE
There is little doubt, residents and family members said, that Yantis was a tough man who had lived a tough outdoor life. He lost part of a toe in a logging accident, and just a few years ago – still training horses – he broke his pelvis coming down on a saddle horn when the horse bucked.
Several people over two days of interviews in Council said Yantis, who ran for sheriff himself seven or eight years ago but lost, was also a man who was not about to hold his tongue when he felt wronged.
“He was a good man, he was an honest man, a hard worker, but he did have a bit of a temper,” said Bob Grossen, whose family has been in the Council area since the 1880s. “But if you know Jack, if you grew up around Jack, you know Jack would not be the person who would pull a gun on someone – I have no problem saying that.”
Yantis’ two daughters described him as a soft-spoken man who rarely raised his voice and who loved his animals. He trained his daughters in gun safety from the age of 5. His idea of Sunday worship was to head into Idaho’s back country.
“Let’s go see what God created,” he would say, his daughter Sarah Yantis, 42, recalled.
ADAMS COUNTY’S TOUGH ECONOMY
That Adams County is a tough place to be in law enforcement, though, or to hire or retain officers, is also clear. The pay is low – $14.50 to $15 an hour in a dangerous job – and the territory to patrol is vast. With the two officers involved in the shooting now on paid administrative leave, only four deputies are left to patrol an area bigger than the state of Rhode Island.
Economic stress is also part of the fabric. Adams County has the highest unemployment rate in Idaho, 6.8 percent, compared with 4.2 percent statewide, according to the most recent federal figures. Timbering jobs and tax revenues have declined over the years, and some residents believe that the sheriff’s office writes more speeding tickets than necessary just to make up the revenue. The county has about 3,900 residents.
“They have to do their job and I agree with that – you can’t speed, and you can’t drive drunk,” said Sylvia Hulin, who said she has nieces and nephews married into the Yantis family. “But oh my gosh, it’s just known all over the country, ‘Be careful when you go through Council because they'll stop you.’”
WERE DEPUTIES’ CAMERAS ON?
Part of the frustration in Council is that Zollman has not said definitively whether any cameras on the deputies or their vehicles were turned on that night. Deputies, he said in an interview, have discretion in camera use because of the limits of battery time and memory; for traffic incidents, they do not always hit record.
He said in the interview that he had turned over the cameras to investigators for the state police without checking because he did not want anyone to say that evidence might have been doctored.
“We are in a lose-lose situation, not just for the sheriff’s office, but the community,” Zollman said. No matter what happens with the state and federal investigations, he said, “there are always going to be people who say we should have acted differently.”