Adams sheriff candidate decided to run before rancher’s shooting

Tom Watts with his horse, Chief, a Missouri Fox Trotter, at his home in Council.
Tom Watts with his horse, Chief, a Missouri Fox Trotter, at his home in Council. Provided by Tom Watts

The Adams County Sheriff’s race wouldn’t ordinarily draw a lot of interest beyond the boundaries of the rural Idaho county, which has fewer than 4,000 residents.

But the shooting death of longtime rancher Jack Yantis Nov. 1 during an encounter with two sheriff’s deputies has many watching this race. Decisions from the Idaho Attorney General’s Office and U.S. Attorney for Idaho on whether the deputies will be charged in Yantis’ death are pending.

Sheriff Ryan Zollman, 37, who has been with the department since December 2002, was elected in 2012. He is running as a Republican. The Adams County Sheriff’s Office has a total staff of 24, including the sheriff, and an annual budget of just over $1 million.

Zollman critics who have been hoping for an alternative might think former Nevada sheriff’s deputy Thomas Watts threw his hat in the ring because of the Yantis incident. But Watts said he’d been considering his first run for public office for about a year.

“Long before the shooting,” he said. “That had no effect on it.”

Watts is running as an independent, so the two won’t meet in the May 17 primary — voters will be asked to choose between them this fall.

He said he wants to build trust between the department and residents, and his plan to do that would include having deputies interact with kids at schools and on the street.

“You never a see a deputy walk down Main Street. They don’t stop into restaurants,” Watts said.

They do not engage people. They stay in their cars.

Thomas Watts, on Adams deputies

He also has concerns about the volume of traffic stops. He counted 70 listed in the local paper one week last August.

He believes deputies need more incident de-escalation training, and he’s identified an expert he wants to do that. His longer-term solution for getting highly-trained people in the positions that pay $14 an hour is to recruit retired officers from other states.

“They could draw a retirement out of Nevada and still work here,” he said.

Watts said he’s running as an independent because he’s never fully agreed with either the Republican or Democratic parties.

Watts and his wife, Brenda, moved to Council four years ago. The couple has family in Idaho, including a daughter who is a student at the University of Idaho, but that’s not what brought them to Adams County.

“Years ago, me and my wife drove through here, and we said, ‘This is a beautiful place,’” Watts said. “So we decided we were going to retire here.”

Watts spent 20 years with the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office in Reno, then retired in 2008 at the age of 52. After a few months he found himself “super bored,” he said. He took a job as a patrol officer at a reservation and then was a security supervisor at several mines.

He’s currently doing security work at Shore Lodge in McCall.

Katy Moeller: 208-377-6413, @KatyMoeller