Year after Idaho rancher’s killing, backers seek justice, community seeks healing

Justice For Jack group still seeks justice

One year ago, two sheriff’s deputies in western Idaho’s rural Adams County shot and killed Council rancher Jack Yantis. Justice for Jack formed to support the family. The citizens group is working to defeat incumbent Sheriff Ryan Zollman in the No
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One year ago, two sheriff’s deputies in western Idaho’s rural Adams County shot and killed Council rancher Jack Yantis. Justice for Jack formed to support the family. The citizens group is working to defeat incumbent Sheriff Ryan Zollman in the No

The 4-foot-high, 8-foot-wide sign is impossible for drivers on U.S. 95 north of Council to miss. Its three words in white letters are set against a bright red background and planted on the hillside of the Yantis family ranch: Justice for Jack.

Almost immediately after rancher Jack Yantis was shot and killed by two Adams County sheriff’s deputies last Nov. 1, divisions arose in the rural county in west-central Idaho. Some people defended the deputies. Others called the killing of Yantis murder.

The shooting received national attention at a time when police-involved shootings have divided communities around the country.

Idaho State Police investigated the death for seven months before state and federal prosecutors announced in July that there wasn’t enough evidence to charge either deputy.

That settled the criminal investigation but not the controversy.

“It is almost as if a scab has been peeled off that requires the healing to start. The scab is off,” Sheriff Ryan Zollman told the Statesman on the day he learned no charges would be filed against his deputies. “It is going to take not weeks, not months, but years to get through it. For some people, they never will.”

A group that formed shortly after the shooting to support the family, Justice for Jack, was stunned by the July announcement, though members contend that the truth about the shooting will eventually emerge, and with it, justice.

The Attorney General did not say, and this is huge, ‘This is a justifiable shooting.’ … You are not innocent.

Justice for Jack member Michael McLaughlin

As news of the shooting and the subsequent investigation spread across the country, Justice for Jack’s membership grew, most of it through social media. Today it claims more than 3,400 members in Idaho, the nation and abroad — about equal to the population of Adams County.

The initial wave of members comprised Yantis friends and family. As the group grew, many who joined had no connection to the family or even Idaho. Some are animals lovers dismayed at how Yantis’ bull, which had been struck by a vehicle, suffered. Some are ranchers and rural denizens who understand the country lifestyle. Some are concerned about the spate of police-involved shootings.

The group’s most active members are about two dozen people from Adams County, eastern Oregon and the Treasure Valley. Many did not know each other before they joined.

“The amount of love and care shown for a lost member of our community, and the family and friends he left behind, has brought me to tears several times,” said Johanna DeMoss, one of the core members, a Council native and a 40-year resident of Adams County. “It’s what I would hope for my own family if, God forbid, a tragedy like this were to occur to me.”

‘I saw them murder my husband’

It was already dark shortly before 7 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2015, when deputies Brian Wood and Cody Roland shot Yantis on U.S. 95.

A car driven by a Nampa couple had struck a bull. County dispatchers had called Yantis, 62, at home to tell him to take care of the injured animal. He went to the road with his rifle to euthanize it. The deputies said Yantis held his rifle in a threatening manner and refused commands to lower it. They shot him 12 times.

“The evidence shows that a drunk individual took a loaded weapon and pointed it at a deputy and fired,” Wood told KIVI-TV in Nampa in August. Yantis had a blood alcohol content of .104 percent, the state’s investigative report said.

Investigators found no definitive evidence that Yantis fired his rifle.

Yantis’ widow, Donna, and nephew, Rowdy Paradis, witnessed the shooting. Both said Jack Yantis was killed for no reason.

“I was there. I saw them murder my husband,” Donna said in a statement to lawyers from her hospital bed. She had a heart attack at the scene and spent about two weeks in a Boise hospital.

The family has served notice that it plans to sue the Adams County Sheriff’s Office, Zollman, Wood and Roland for wrongful death.

‘We became the voice for the family’

DeMoss said she could not make sense of it.

“From the beginning, the possibility that Jack may have been responsible for his own death was absolutely unfathomable to me,” she said. “He was one of the good guys.”

So DeMoss turned to Facebook, hoping to connect with people who shared her concerns and might have answers. She created a page and named it Justice for Jack.

A few days later, Becca Barrow joined the group. A Treasure Valley resident, she grew up in Council. Yantis’ daughter, Lauretta, was her softball and basketball coach at Council High School.

Barrow used the Facebook page to connect with members, then fewer than 50, to organize a rally on Nov. 14, 2015, in Council to show support for the Yantis family and community. About 75 people turned out. They walked from Council Elementary School to the Adams County Courthouse. Some carried signs.

Michael McLaughlin, a truck driver who lives in southeast Oregon, joined as well. He and his wife had bought a house south of Council from Jack and Donna Yantis more than 20 years ago. “It was the first home in which Donna and Jack lived and where Sarah Yantis was born,” McLaughlin said.

To be around Donna, Sarah, Mike, Rowdy, it is just a testament to the strength of ranching and hardworking, God-fearing, good people.

Justice for Jack member Michael McLaughlin, on the extended Yantis family

Barrow, McLaughlin, DeMoss and other supporters got to work organizing letter-writing and email campaigns, rallies and meetings. As the investigation into the shooting dragged on, a handful of members went to the Idaho Statehouse every Thursday to stand outside the Attorney General’s Office.

“We became the voice for the family, because their attorneys told them not to talk,” Barrow said.

(Donna and Sarah Yantis, and Paradis, declined to be interviewed for this story, citing the advice of their attorney.)

After the investigation ended, “Donna came to us,” Barrow said. “She was so fearful we were going to fold up and go away. I told her, ‘We are attached for life now.’ ... [Donna] said, ‘Keep digging. There is more.’ 

McLaughlin and Barrow marveled at how social media effectively and efficiently accomplished what traditionally was done via fliers, letters and phone calls.

“We showed how to bring forward a powerful lobbying group,” McLaughlin said.

One wristband, 2,000 wristbands

Audrey Bath, 60, was born and raised in suburban New Jersey. She moved to Boise 10 years ago. She had never been to Council; she did not know the Yantises.

“I have always been an animal lover,” said Bath, who rescues elderly, disabled, “last chance” dogs. “It was the shooting of the bull, and then leaving it there to die like that, that initially resonated with me — troubled me and horrified me — even before I could grasp the horror of Mr. Yantis’ death.”

The situation was and has been tremendously upsetting to me. I really wanted to do more than be a bystander.

Justice for Jack member Audrey Bath

When Bath first met McLaughlin at a protest at the Statehouse, he was wearing a red wristband with white Justice for Jack lettering — one of several Barrow had ordered. She asked him how she could get one.

“He took his wristband off of his wrist and gave it to me and put it on my arm,” she said. “I have not taken it off since. ... Whenever anybody would see it on me they would ask, ‘Who is Jack?’ And it would give me an opportunity to talk about it, and people became interested and wanted to know more.”

Bath decided she wanted to share the wristbands with as many people as I she could, so she ordered 1,000.

In less than three weeks all the wristbands were gone, so Bath ordered another 1,000. She paid for them herself, about $400. She said she has spent more than that mailing the wristbands.

“I’ve had requests from England, Ireland, Wales, Germany and Australia,” she said.

Bath has been to Council several times now. She has become friends with Donna Yantis, taking her produce and other items whenever she visits.

“I’ve made a lot of friends,” she said.

‘Most divisive thing’

With a population of 3,843, Adams is one of Idaho’s least populated counties. Council, the county seat, is home to just 800 people.

Farming and ranching jobs make up 12 percent of the county’s jobs. Government jobs are 14 percent.

Some of the families have been in the area for generations. As is typical in rural areas, the locals know each other and are often friends or relatives.

“We moved up here because we thought we were moving back to what we missed so much about California in the old days, the quiet ranching community,” said Janet Fields, whose husband, Ed, is an eighth-generation rancher. They moved to Council in 2004.

“Never have we heard of a sheriff shooting a rancher over one of his cows. Never pulled a gun on one,” Fields said.

As details about the shooting emerged, residents started taking sides. Some said Yantis had a temper and liked to drink. Others said the deputies had bad reputations and their boss, Zollman, was a poor leader.

Neighbors found themselves on opposite sides of the fence, literally and figuratively: Justice for Jack member Claire Cox lives next to Roland, one of the deputies who shot Yantis; another member, Zerry Greenwood, has a ranch next to the sheriff’s house.

In the spring, someone stole the Justice for Jack sign posted at the Yantis ranch. “We never did find out who took it,” McLaughlin said. “We offered a $500 reward.”

Justice for Jack replaced the sign.

Yantis’ death “is the most divisive thing that has happened to the community,” said Cyndi Hulin, a Justice for Jack member and bartender with the Ace Saloon who has lived in Council for more than four decades. Hulin said the past year has been rough, but she is “optimistic” things will get better.

In June, the bar hosted a benefit motorcycle ride that raised $2,300 for the Yantis family, Hulin said. The saloon has sold 80 Justice for Jack T-shirts, with proceeds going to the family.

Support for the deputies

Barrow said she has received threats because of her Justice for Jack work. She and McLaughlin did not want to be photographed or have the towns where they live named. When the Statesman met with 10 other Justice for Jack members at Council’s 7 Devils Cafe, eight were carrying guns.

With the community so divided, Laughlin said he wonders why a similar public group did not emerge in support of the deputies and Zollman, the sheriff.

“Where is that group? Where are the thousands of people supporting Wood, Roland and Zollman?” Laughlin asked.

Zollman did not want to comment. “I am sorry I don’t have anything to say that would help with your story,” he told the Statesman.

Wood and Roland declined to talk to the Statesman, but they told KIVI-TV that the local community, by and large, has been supportive. “We’ve received letters, calls, people inviting us to just be in their homes and spend time with them,” Wood said.

Wood said there is a “very, very vocal group” that does not support the deputies, but it is a minority.

“There is a lot of division because of that minority,” he said.

Lyle Sall, owner and publisher of the county’s only newspaper, the Adams County Record, said, “I really do not think the controversy is there.”

“Most of the people in town, I did not feel they were up in arms” after the attorney general announced no charges would be filed, Sall said. “Among the Justice for Jack group ... a fairly small group ... I think they felt they have been cheated.”

Sall bought the newspaper in 2004 and has had a cabin in Adams County since the 1970s. He thinks Justice for Jack has pushed too hard to keep the issue alive: “I think that is it more than anything. They felt like they had a position and they were not being satisfied.”

A new divide

Zollman, a Republican, is seeking a second term in the Nov. 8 election. He faces one challenger on the ballot: Tom Watts, a retired Nevada sheriff’s deputy who is running as an independent.

“The holes torn in this community by Jack’s death are being ripped open again by this election. It is a highly emotional time for all of us,” wrote Thomas Landweer, a 20-year resident, in an Oct. 21 post to Justice for Jack. Like other group members the Statesman interviewed, he backs Watts.

Part of the “justice” that the group says it is seeking is the defeat of Zollman, who members say is partly to blame for Yantis’ death. The Sheriff’s Office never should have hired Wood or Roland, members said.

Wood had been fired from the McCall Police Department in neighboring Valley County in 2011 for a poaching conviction. Roland had worked for six other Southwest Idaho law enforcement agencies. Glen Beal, a Justice for Jack member and former law enforcement officer, said Roland’s frequent career changes should have been examined closely.

Wood and Roland are no longer with the Adams County Sheriff’s Office. Wood was dismissed and Roland resigned.

In its quest for answers, Justice for Jack has sought to find out whether there have been problems with Zollman and his office.

For almost a year, the group has been posting its findings on Facebook. They include details about lawsuits involving other (now former) Adams County deputies; reports on how the Adams County Sheriff’s Office lost the Idaho Power Hells Canyon marine patrol contract to neighboring Washington County; and a bulletin about Wood issued to law enforcement agencies statewide last January by the Ada County Sheriff’s Office after a colleague raised concerns about Wood’s mental state.

“There will be no healing process in this town, in this county, unless Ryan Zollman is replaced,” said Ed Fields, a Justice for Jack member. “He will be a constant reminder of Jack’s death.”

Sall said he does not think there is enough bitterness to unseat Zollman.

“It was certainly a tragedy, and we can hold our own ideas about why it happened,” Sall said. “I just do not feel like the local people have tied the blame on Ryan. He is just too nice of a guy. ... These little communities are pretty solid when you have people in office. They do not kick them out lightly.”

‘We are not bashing the police’

Small-town life goes on around Council. The cows are coming home from the mountains. Elk and deer hunting season is in full swing. So is high school football: The Council High Lumberjacks hosted Garden Valley in the 2016 Senior Night football game on Friday, winning 30-0 to improve to 5-4 on the season.

Last week, a 7-year-old girl brought homemade cookies to the Sheriff’s Office with a handmade card reading, “Thank you cops for doing what you do.” A roadside memorial where Yantis was shot continues to grow as flowers and notes are added. On Oct. 8, Sarah Yantis was the guest of honor in Council at a community baby shower — she and her husband, Mike Armistead, are expecting a boy in early November.

Justice for Jack members and the Sheriff’s Office remain at odds, but at least sometimes they get along.

Take Zerry Greenwood, who owns a ranch near Council and has lived in Adams County for 44 years. The Yantis case haunts her.

“At some point, one or the other of these unstable men are going to tell that story to somebody of what really happened that night and this case can be opened back up,” she told the Statesman. “That is my hope.”

A couple of days after that interview, one of Greenwood’s cows was hit by a car. An Adams County sheriff’s deputy responded. Greenwood posted an account of the incident Oct. 20 on the Justice for Jack page:

“Tonight I received a very polite phone call from dispatch informing me I had a cow hit on the road, where it was at and that an officer was in route. The officer and I showed up about the same time to the scene, he got out of his car, talked to the driver, and when my son and I got out greeted us politely and stood back while the driver and I discussed the situation, the calf was hurt but able to walk.

“The driver gave me his card and said he would be more than happy to pay for it if we needed to put it down. The officer asked what we wanted to do, and we told him we would wait till the scene was cleared and drive the cows home. He then escorted the driver back to town and we pushed the cows back in the pasture.

“Thank you Officer [Jacob] Hart for the courtesy of letting us decide how to take care of our cattle.”

Greenwood said she wants to highlight her positive interaction with Hart to quell the misconception that she and Justice for Jack are anti-law enforcement.

“We are not bashing the police. I am not anti-police,” Greenwood said. “I am willing to say they are right when they are right and to say they are wrong when they are wrong.”

Cynthia Sewell: 208-377-6428, @CynthiaSewell

Key people in the Yantis story

Jack Yantis: Longtime Council logger and rancher shot and killed Nov. 1, 2015.

Brian Wood: Adams County deputy involved in the shooting. He was dismissed on Aug. 31.

Cody Roland: Adams County deputy involved in the shooting. He resigned last Nov. 30 to take a seasonal job.

Ryan Zollman: Adams County sheriff, elected in 2012. Up for re-election Nov. 8

Donna Yantis: Wife of Jack Yantis. She witnessed the shooting and had a heart attack at the scene.

Rowdy Paradis: Jack’s nephew. He witnessed the shooting.

Sarah Yantis: Jack’s daughter. She arrived on scene shortly after the shooting and tried to administer first aid.