rancher

The killers of Council, Idaho rancher Jack Yantis will soon return to work after being cleared of criminal charges by Idaho Attorney General Larry Wasden.

Nearly ten months have elapsed since Yantis, 62, was cut down by a twelve-shot fusillade alongside Highway 95 after he had been summoned by the Adams County Sheriff’s Office to put down a bull that had been struck by a car. The deputies who responded to the accident, Brian Wood and Cody Roland, shot the bull, but neither was able to kill it. Roland called the sheriff’s dispatch to have Yantis kill the animal.

The collision with the bull occurred early on the evening of November 1. Yantis, his wife Donna, and their friend Rowdy Paradis, arrived on the scene at 7:22 PM. Yantis was armed with a .204 bolt action rifle; Paradis was driving a skid-loader that would be used to haul away the dead bull. Yantis approached the stricken animal, passing Deputy Wood, who was armed with a .223 rifle that had been ineffective in dealing with the bull.

“Get that piece of sh*t away from my animal,” Yantis instructed the deputy, as he approached the bull and lined up a kill-shot near its head. Mrs. Yantis and Mr. Paradis testified that he had chosen an angle that was safe; Wood and Roland – who had been impotently flinging lead at the beast – later claimed that they were worried that the angle Yantis selected potentially endangered people to the south of the accident scene.

All of the witnesses agree that Wood approached Jack as the rancher prepared to fire. Paradis and Mrs. Yantis both claim that he laid hands on the rancher, causing him to turn and stumble. Wood admits reaching toward Yantis, but denies coming in physical contact with him.

“Deputy Wood … told him not to shoot and attempted to stop him,” Roland recounted in his initial handwritten account of the incident. “The owner then shoved Deputy Wood sideways and began to raise the rifle toward Deputy Wood. I drew my sidearm and as I was drawing, the owner turned toward me and fired from the hip. I returned fire… I saw the muzzle blast and felt the shock.”

In his account, Wood claimed that as Yantis lined up the shot at the bull, he was distracted by Roland, and that he “took his rifle and shoved it forward in the direction of Roland directly toward Roland’s chest.” At that point, multiple gunshots were fired.

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“His belief at the time was it was Yantis’ rifle that went off because of the motion he saw Yantis make,” summarized a December 9 Idaho State Police investigative report – an account, it should be noted, that was given more than a month after the events.

Several witnesses, including Donna Yantis, say that they heard Roland exclaim, “I’m hit!” He didn’t suffer an injury, nor was there gunpowder residue on his clothing. He opened fire on Yantis, as did Wood, leaving the rancher fatally perforated with a dozen shots.

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There was an empty round in the rifle, and what was described as a .20 caliber bullet from Yantis’s gun was later recovered at the scene. The March 2 FBI lab report doesn’t clearly identify that round as one fired by Yantis: It describes the round as “a damaged bullet consisted with .20 caliber, however, due to deformation other calibers could not be excluded.” (Emphasis added.) So there is no physical evidence to corroborate the killers’ account that victim wheeled and opened fire on the deputies.

Undated, handwritten notes from Idaho State Police investigators underscored some contradictions and implausibilities in the deputies’ account. Reference is made to “the progression of the struggle/controlling of the gun,” which indicates there was a hands-on altercation involving Yantis. Roland was asked at one point, “Is there any reason your prints [are] on Yantis rifle,” but the question was struck through by the interviewer.

In an early interview, Roland claimed that Yantis “shoved Wood,” leaving the younger, more muscular deputy with his “left leg up” as he “reached down to grab [the rifle].” This detail appears to have prompted skepticism on the part of one interviewer:  “I have a very hard time believing an older man who’s [sic] hips are being held together by a steel girdle” could shove back “a very strong cop moving in with purpose to control a situation.”

The same investigator noted that there was a “contradiction” about Wood being involved in a “struggle”: “How was there a struggle if Wood was off balance?” In addition, “You both talk about expecting him to stop but both talk about firing as fast as possible.”

“Should we … talk about sympathetic shooting?” the interviewed noted, using a familiar law enforcement term of art often used to justify panicked overkill by officers who unload on a citizen without clearly knowing why.

After unloading multiple rounds into Yantis, Roland sent out a “shots fired” call, and Wood immediately began to perform unnecessary first aid on his colleague. Rise Gail Smith, an EMT from Council, gathered the two deputies into an ambulance, where she witnessed the two of them immediately starting to collaborate on their shared story of the incident.

“I know we are not supposed to talk about this,” Wood told Roland, as Smith – who is familiar with investigative protocol – advised him “not to go too far.” “I just wanted to know if you saw the rifle.”

“I saw the flash, that’s all I saw,” Roland replied, as Smith sharply told them, “That’s it, guys.”

Roland was clearly the first deputy to open fire. In a June 3 interview with two ISP officers and an FBI Special Agent, Roland insisted that he and Yantis “fired almost simultaneously,” that he did not consider Yantis’s firing to be “an accidental discharge,” and that he “intended to shoot Yantis as soon as the rifle was pointed in his direct, “because it was how he was trained and taught.”

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Critically, Roland insisted that there was physical contact prior to the shooting – specifically, that he “did not see Wood grab Yantis, [but rather that] Yantis pushed Wood” – in other words, he was reverting to the original, and discredited, story that a crippled senior citizen overpowered a younger, stronger man who has boasted of being trained by the Navy SEALs.

Unlike the assailants, the two eyewitnesses on the scene, Donna Yantis and Rowdy Paradis, have provided a consistent account. Mrs. Yantis described one of the deputies grabbing her husband prior to the shooting. Paradis told investigators that “he saw Jack readying to fire at the bull with his finger on the trigger,” when “the officer with the handgun” – namely, Roland – “grabbed Jack by the vest, pulled him toward the centerline, pushed him away and both officers fired.”

After Jack was fatally shot, the deputies arrested and handcuffed the two eyewitnesses. Mrs. Yantis, her initial trauma at seeing her husband killed in front of her compounded by the unwarranted cruelty of being proned-out and shackled, suffered a heart attack on the scene before being taken away by EMTs.

“Jack went down to shoot the bull – they called,” Mrs. Yantis, 63 at the time of the homicide, weakly testified on video while tethered to an IV in an ambulance immediately after witnessing the homicide. “A cop [came] up and grabbed his arm, and jerked him backwards, and then they shot him, four or six times. They just shot him for no reason.”

Both deputies, Brian Wood and Cody Roland, were equipped with body cameras. Their vehicles were equipped with dashcams. None of them was recording during the five-minute encounter. A truck driver named Kevin J. Darrah claimed to have witnessed the shooting, offering an account closely resembling those of Mrs. Yantis and Mr. Paradis. Darrah described the incident as “absolutely sickening.”

Pages 175-183 of the evidence compiled by the Idaho Attorney General’s office include photocopies of Darrah’s Facebook posts, and comments made in reply to it. Page 176 contains a November 9, 2015 email from ISP Trooper Jason Horst to ISP Detective Kenneth White: “Kenny, please follow up on this.” The page below is a handwritten notation that a single phone call had been made, and he “was not there.” No mention can be found that he was interviewed by investigators, or that a serious effort was made to do so.

As in all officer-involved shootings, the dead citizen was identified as the “suspect,” and the officers who killed him were designated the “victims.” Unlike common citizens, police officers are presumptively “justified” when they use lethal force, creating a legal burden that is – by design – all but impossible to meet for that rarest of all things, a prosecutor who seeks to hold police accountable for the use of deadly force.

In his letter announcing the eminently predictable decision that the killers of Jack Yantis would face no legal consequences, Idaho Attorney General Wasden recited the familiar Graham v. Connor formula in which officer-inflicted homicides are to be assessed from the perspective of the hypothetical “reasonable officer” on the scene. Under the “calculus of reasonableness” that would be used in an actual criminal trial, greater weight would be given to the self-serving perception of the officer or officers who committed the lethal act.

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This creates a legal anomaly akin to 19th century racist laws in Idaho, California, and other western states, under which a person of Chinese, American Indian, or Negro ancestry could not testify against a white man accused of murder. Citizens who are not members of the Blue Tribe are not regarded as competent to assess the lethal actions of their costumed overseers.

Attorney General Wasden, who once tried to imprison a 66-year-old retired nun for the supposed offense of acting as a conscientious juror in a minor narcotics possession case, is not distinguished by his zeal for officer accountability. Thus it came as no surprise when he ruled that “the Justifiable Homicide by Officer statute is ultimately dispositive” in the Yantis case. The Yantis family has filed a notice of tort claim against Adams County, which if successful would require the county’s tax victims to indemnify the actions of two deputies who have never missed a paycheck, and will soon be cleared to resume their duties.

“It is a bit of a comfort for the office and for the department to know that based on the evidence and based on the facts that the officers did their job and weren’t excessive in doing so,” Adams County Sheriff Ryan Zollman told the Idaho Statesman, confirming that the killers, who had been on “administrative leave” (that is, paid vacation) since gunning down a man they had called for help, would soon be returning to duty.

In a separate interview with Boise ABC affiliate KIVI, Zollman appealed to Yantis’s traumatized family and friends to accept the legal vindication of his killers as a manifestation of the divine will: “I hope and I pray that cool heads will prevail. I’m a man of faith, and I believe nothing happens without a reason. Leave this to a higher power watching over us.”

Sheriff Zollman and his law enforcement colleagues were not content to rely on Providence last January 22 after Deputy Wood, during an incident of domestic violence involving his now-estranged wife, threatened the lives of other officers who might intervene.

“If cops are involved, shots will be fired,” Wood reportedly told a friend named William “Chip” Gallagher, prompting the dissemination of an “officer safety flier.” Wood was described as “a highly trained sniper” believed to have “demolition capabilities and access to explosives” who also suffered from PTSD.

Deputy Wood was perceived as an impermissible threat to fellow members of the state’s punitive priesthood on the basis of something he had said. The fact that he and Roland killed an innocent commoner, however, doesn’t make him an unacceptable risk to the general public.

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