Yantis shooting probe over, Sheriff Ryan Zollman’s next challenge is election

Ryan Zollman, left, and Thomas Watts.
Ryan Zollman, left, and Thomas Watts.

It’s been a long year for Adams County.

The death of rancher Jack Yantis at the hands of two county sheriff’s deputies on Nov. 1, 2015, rocked the rural community and resulted in months of intense public scrutiny of the Adams County Sheriff’s Office — and the man at the helm, Sheriff Ryan Zollman.

The 38-year-old sheriff, a Republican, has been with the department for almost 14 years. He’s running for a second four-year term against independent newcomer Thomas Watts, a 60-year-old retired Nevada sheriff’s deputy.

The deputies shot Yantis as he was holding a rifle he had brought to U.S. 95 next to his ranch to put down one of his bulls, which had been hit by a car. Deputies said he aimed the rifle in a threatening way and refused commands to put it down. He was shot 12 times and died at the scene.

State and federal prosecutors said they found insufficient evidence for criminal charges against former deputies Brian Wood and Cody Roland. Zollman supporters view that as vindication after months of vilification. They are impressed with the mettle the sheriff has shown in the face of ongoing criticism from grass-roots groups such as Justice for Jack.

“They keep bringing up this one incident. To my mind, it has gone on long enough,” said Indian Valley Fire Chief Tim Toomey, who didn’t vote for Zollman in the last election but plans to this time.

I feel bad for the [Yantis] family. I’m convinced that no one on the side of law enforcement did anything beyond the scope of their training. I hope that the people of Adams County are willing to allow Sheriff Zollman to continue, because in my estimation, he’s done an excellent job.

Indian Valley Fire Chief Tim Toomey

Toomey and others credit Zollman with turning around the small department — which employs about 25 people — after it languished under former Sheriff Rich Green. In 2006, Green pleaded guilty to two counts of petit theft, with several other charges dropped, for using a county credit card to buy personal items.

Zollman’s harshest critics say the Yantis case was not a tragic anomaly but the last straw — the most recent of questionable actions by Adams County deputies that have resulted in lawsuits. They point to allegations in recent years of sexual coercion and excessive force against three other deputies who no longer work for the department.

“The only way the community can start to heal from the Yantis murder is to get rid of Ryan Zollman,” said Ed Fields, a retired heavy equipment supervisor who is backing Watts.

To have [Zollman] get re-elected as sheriff is going to be a constant reminder that the good guys lost.

Ed Fields, a retired heavy equipment supervisor who is backing Watts

Watts has 20 years of law enforcement experience, primarily working in the Washoe County jail in Reno. He says he gained some management experience while working security at several Nevada mines after retiring from the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office in 2008.

Why does he think he’s more qualified than Zollman?

“Maturity,” Watts said. “I’ve seen people hang themselves, jump from upper floors. ... After awhile you learn to deal with these things, securing the scene, taking care of this and that.”

2,439 Number of registered voters in Adams County

34% Voter turnout for 2016 primary

57% Voter turnout for last general election

76% Voter turnout for last presidential election

Watts has received about $5,818 in campaign donations this year, through the start of this month. In comparison, Zollman was given $1,169 on top of $980 left over in his campaign fund, according to Oct. 10 campaign finance reports. Roughly $1,800 of Watts’ total came from him or a family member, including a $100 loan to himself.

‘This is home’

Zollman is from northeastern Oregon, but he has spent most of his adult life in Adams County.

He landed in Council after earning an associate’s degree in criminal justice at Treasure Valley Community College in Ontario. Council is where he met his wife and where his in-laws live. The Zollmans have three children.

Zollman started as a school resource officer, served as a patrol deputy and was promoted to lieutenant in 2009. He ran for sheriff in 2012.

“Our current sheriff was retiring, and I didn’t know who was going to be running and what was happening,” he said. “I wanted to work here. This is home, where I wanted to be. Either shut up or step up.”

He’s described by Toomey as a hands-on sheriff, whether he’s needed on patrol or helping direct traffic for a fire.

“I wasn’t sure that Ryan had the maturity at that time to handle the job, but I’ve since been proved wrong,” Toomey said. “I don’t think Ryan had been in office more than a month or six weeks before the changes for the better started to manifest themselves.”

3,850 Number of residents in Adams County

Zollman says raising deputies’ wages has been one of his achievements — one critical to attracting and retaining qualified deputies. Three years ago, a starting-level deputy made $14 an hour. Now they get $15.50, and close to $17 once they are certified by Idaho Peace Officer Standards and Training, Zollman said. New deputies have one year to secure POST certification.

The money came from about $250,000 a year in increased jail revenues, a result of housing more inmates from other counties and for the state.

“I haven’t had to go to taxpayers,” Zollman said.

The sheriff’s salary is $56,000.

Community members such as Jim Miller are impressed by Zollman’s local involvement, everything from coaching football to participating in Bible study. And supporters say he has developed a good working relationship with other departments in the region, and his campaign website shows he’s been endorsed by sheriffs in Canyon, Payette and Owyhee counties.

“In my opinion, one of his most important characteristics is his leadership abilities,” Payette Sheriff Chad Huff wrote in an endorsement letter.

Leadership is the cornerstone of the Office of Sheriff — whether it’s inherited or learned.

Payette Sheriff Chad Huff, endorsing Zollman

‘They need trained’

Watts, a Nevada native, worked in mines and was a cowboy on ranches after graduating from high school. His career in law enforcement began later than most.

He was 32 when he entered the High Sierra Regional Law Enforcement Academy at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno. He went to work for the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office — which today has about 400 employees — because it offered better pay and insurance for his family.

If you work on ranches your whole life, you don’t get to retire.

Thomas Watts

Most of Watts’ two decades were at the jail. He was a patrol deputy for less than a year. He is proud of a military-style boot camp that he led for inmates for four years.

“You get everybody up at 5 a.m., exercise, take them through schooling and life skills,” Watts said.

Retired Washoe County Deputy Edward Walters worked with Watts for years, running housing units with dozens of inmates. “He’s just a roundabout good guy. He can talk to people, and that’s so important in law enforcement,” Walters said.

Watts and his wife have family in Idaho. They moved to Council four years ago to retire.

Watts said he decided to run for sheriff because he was disturbed by what he observed, read in the local paper and heard from friends.

Tom Landveer, a small-business owner who is supporting Watts, voted for Zollman in the last election because he thought, “How hard could the job possibly be?”

“Now I’m shaking my head at the mess we’re in,” he said.

He and others believe deputies have been involved in a disturbing series of incidents in the past few years, including these two cases:

▪  Norma Ratcliff, 74, accused deputies Sikko Barghoorn and David Pattan of excessive force and elder abuse after she was forcibly taken into custody in 2013 during a traffic stop in which she was suspected of drinking and driving.

County insurer ICRMP paid Ratcliff $45,000 as part of a settlement.

▪  In 2014, Deputy Brian R. Yoakum allegedly coerced a drunken driver into having sex in his work vehicle, according to a federal lawsuit filed this year. Yoakum admitted to having sexual contact with the Caldwell woman, but the Idaho Attorney General’s Office found insufficient evidence to charge him with a crime.

Zollman, who didn’t hire these deputies, said he’s been accused of sweeping these incidents under the rug. “It’s personnel information,” he said. “I don’t have the liberty to have gone out to the community and say, ‘This guy did this.’ I do my best to monitor and evaluate.”

Watts believes Adams County deputies don’t have enough training and are “bored.”

One of his proposals is to hire retired law enforcement officers from other states, because they would have pensions and would not have to survive on the pay. Also, they could be tapped to provide in-house training, he said.

Diane Coon, a former Adams County dispatcher who worked with Zollman, said she is supporting Watts because he’s “mature” and has “outstanding” credentials.

“Zollman was a very immature individual,” she said. “I’m not saying he’s not a good guy. He is a nice guy. He’s just a little bit too relaxed or laid back. A leader can’t be that.”

Katy Moeller: 208-377-6413, @KatyMoeller

Adams County Sheriff’s Office

Employees: 25. Nine patrol deputies (including sheriff and undersheriff), nine detention deputies (including supervisor), six dispatchers and one civil deputy.

Annual budget: $1.3 million

Sheriff’s salary: $56,000

Top crimes reported in 2015: larceny (20), simple assault (20), drugs/narcotics (15), DUI (8).

Arrests in 2015: 46

Sources: Adams County Sheriff’s Office, Idaho State Police’s 2015 Crime in Idaho report

Adams sheriff debate

Thursday, Nov. 3, at Council Elementary School, 202 U.S. 95. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and opening statements will be delivered at 7 p.m.

McCall Star-News Editor Tom Grote will be the moderator. All questions will be in writing on forms provided at the forum, and no verbal questions will be permitted.