Editorial: Finding our own answers in Yantis case
November 19, 2015
It's a situation every rancher dreads—the call from the sheriff's office during dinner, saying you've got an animal on the road. The tightening of the stomach when you hear there was an accident.
That's how the evening started for the Yantis family that ranches near Council, Idaho.
According to family members and news reports, Jack Yantis, a 62-year-old rancher, took the call from the sheriff's office during supper with his wife, Donna, on Sunday, Nov. 1. Yantis's 5-year-old Angus bull had been hit by a Subaru on the road. Both occupants of the car had been airlifted to the hospital. The bull was injured and charging at police and medical responders.
Yantis did what ranchers do. He grabbed his rifle and he and his wife headed to the scene.
Within an hour Jack had been shot by deputies, Donna had a heart attack and the bull was still alive.
Those minutes that ticked by between Jack and Donna arriving on the scene and the decisions that ended Jack's life are the ones that are under investigation by the Idaho State Police, the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Recommended Stories For You
The sheriff of Adams County, Ryan Zollman, has not issued an official statement. He did host a town meeting to explain the process involved in the investigation and to ask for patience and understanding as the investigation continues.
Zollman said his office has received about 30 death threats from across the country.
Information about whether there is video footage of the incident from the deputies' body cameras or their squad car dash camera has not been released. Zollman said he doesn't have that information because he immediately turned over all the video to the Idaho State Police for their investigation.
Both deputies involved are on paid administrative leave. Their names have not been released, and though the Yantis family knows their identity, they aren't naming names either.
Jack's nephew, Rowdy Paradis, told the Washington Post, "We don't want anything to get out for fear of messing up criminal cases against these two officers," he said. "… I wish I could sit down with you and go through the whole thing and get the entire story out there, but I can't do that at this time."
Jack's family has made statements to the press and through their attorney, calling the shooting "needless murder," and supporters have organized a "Justice for Jack" rally and Facebook page.
They say Donna was thrown to the ground and handcuffed, and that she saw the deputies shoot her husband, which is when she had a heart attack. News reports say both deputies' guns and Jack's rifle were fired.
It's not difficult to imagine this happening in any ranching community, to anybody. Jack's flannel shirt could hang in any ranchhouse closet, his balding head and reading glasses could be bent over any kitchen table.
So it's natural for our ranching community to ask questions and want answers, to seek reassurance that this wouldn't happen to us, our fathers, brothers, husbands, children. But the reality is, it could.
We're not blaming Jack Yantis for what happened. We don't know what happened. Nobody does.
But maybe this is a chance for the ranching community to acknowledge that we're part of a ranching culture, which not everyone understands. The news stories quote Jack's family and friends, saying he was soft-spoken, a man who looked for God in Idaho's backcountry, rather than in church.
"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," Grossen said in the New York Times.
If you combine a good-hearted, hot-tempered rancher with a rifle in the dark, a stressful situation, flashing lights, inexperienced deputies, a bit of adrenaline and a finger slip on a trigger and heartbreak may not be so far off.
We don't know what prompted the deputies to fire their weapons. From all accounts, it wouldn't have been because Jack was threatening them. But there's a fine line between perception and reality.
Maybe that line shouldn't be a line in the sand, as so many police shootings have been. Maybe the lesson we should take from it isn't that law enforcement is bad and ranchers are good, and we need to protect ourselves from the police.
Maybe the ranching community needs to step forward, stretch our hand across that line and ask the local law enforcement officers what we can do to help their staff understand our situations.
Having watched police officers attempt to euthanize an injured calf, it's not hard to see that we could probably provide some training on when and how to humanely provide that service. Few things irritate a rancher more than someone's ineptitude causing a critter more pain.
Perhaps meeting a few ranchers and learning a little about our lifestyle—the fact that we do bring rifles to accident scenes, that our bark is worse than our bite, and that we do care about other people and our animals—would better equip the officers for dealing with situations that involve ranchers.
We'd love to be able to find the answers, to be able to answer the "why" and therefore figure out how to make sure this never happens again. But we can't—and maybe we never will.