By Paul P. Murphy and Emma Tucker, CNN
Members of a southeastern Idaho youth church group were being driven around by their chaperone last month,delivering Thanksgiving cards in the neighborhood to those they were thankful for when they decided last-minute to stop at the home of the county sheriff’s house, according to a probable cause affidavit later in court.
What happened next outside the home of Bingham County Sheriff Craig Rowland has put the small Idaho community in the national spotlight. The sheriff is facing calls for his resignation after charges that stem from an incident in which he allegedly pointed a gun at his long-time neighbor, and later during an interview with investigators allegedly made disparaging remarks about Native Americans
The incident took place on the night of November 9 in the town of Blackfoot, Idaho. The seven girls had hand-traced and cut paper turkeys with messages listing “why they were thankful for certain people,” according to the affidavit. The plan was to tape the turkey on the front door of the recipient’s house, ring the doorbell and run away before they were seen, according to the affidavit.
But when two of the girls tried to deliver a paper turkey, the sheriff walked out of his house with a gun drawn, according to the affidavit.
Chelsea Cox, the group’s chaperone who also lives down the street from Rowland, was told by the girls that the sheriff had seen them, and they couldn’t deliver the card without being caught, according to the affidavit. Shortly afterward, Cox told investigators, she saw Rowland trying to wave her down with a gun in his other hand.
When Rowland approached the car, Cox opened the door and she told him that they were “just here to drop off something for Lisa,” the sheriff’s wife, the affidavit says. Cox told investigators that Rowland then pointed his gun at her and two young girls in the passenger seat and told her to “get the f–k out of the car.”
As Cox went to shift her car into park, Rowland moved closer to her and then grabbed and yanked her hair while ordering her to get out of the car again, according to the affidavit. He then allegedly pointed the gun at Cox and asked her what she was doing. When she tried to answer him, the affidavit said that Rowland, “yelled that he could or would shoot Cox.”
Rowland made an initial appearance in court Wednesday morning on two felony charges — aggravated battery and aggravated assault — in addition to a misdemeanor charge, the exhibition or use of a deadly weapon. Rowland has not yet entered a plea but will have a preliminary appearance on December 29.
Rowland’s attorney Justin Oleson says that at that appearance, prosecutors will present their evidence to a magistrate judge who will then determine whether there is enough to proceed with the case. “Probable cause affidavits are someone’s interpretation of what they heard someone else say and are not necessarily accurate or a complete recitation of the facts that occurred,” he said.
According to that affidavit, Rowland told investigators in an interview that he believed the people he saw could have been casing the neighborhood, and he said at no time was his finger on the trigger of his gun.
Rowland and his wife also told investigators, according to the affidavit, that they had received threats: a former inmate had a discussion with Rowland’s wife in a grocery store and Rowland had been the purported target of harassment by another local resident.
When detailing the threats, Rowland allegedly made disparaging comments to investigators about Native Americans.
“I have been doing this job for 36 years, I’ve had drunk Indians drive down my cul-de-sac, I’ve had drunk Indians come to my door, I live just off of the reservation, we have a lot of reservation people around us that are not good people, they, they committed crimes, we’ve arrested them, so on and so forth,” Rowland told investigators, according to the probable cause affidavit.
Oleson, who says he was present for the interview, said that Rowland is not a racist and that the comments were, “taken completely out of context.”
“It was a descriptive term; it wasn’t meant to be racial against that type of people,” Oleson said.
Calls grow for sheriff’s resignation
In the weeks since the incident, there has been a push for the elected sheriff to resign, including from the local police union and the mayor. Speaking to local media, Bingham’s three county commissioners all condemned the comments, but stopped short of calling for his resignation
Rowland told investigators that although he had an alcoholic beverage during dinner that night, the affidavit notes that he said the recent daylight saving time change had “really messed me up.”
Oleson confirmed that Rowland did take some “time away from the office to allow the investigation to occur,” but is back at work as the sheriff.
The only way Rowland could be removed from office if he does not resign would be to recall him, according to Idaho’s constitution. Some 20% of Bingham County residents who were registered to vote in the last general election would need to sign a petition for a special recall election to be held. During that special recall election, a simple majority would need to vote in favor of a recall to remove Rowland from office.
The Shoshone-Bannock tribes, who live on the Fort Hall Reservation — which Rowland alluded to in his alleged remarks — issued a statement on December 16, saying that the sheriff’s remarks were extremely offensive.
“We ask Rowland to officially step down as Sheriff and offer a public apology to the Fort Hall community,” Chairman Devon Boyer said.
Bingham County prosecutor Paul Rogers told the Bingham News Chronicle he hopes Rowland considers resigning “to allow Bingham County to begin the healing process and allow the officers and the County to continue on safely and effectively.”
CNN has reached out to Rogers for comment, but did not immediately hear back.
The Snake River Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #35, whose 125 members work at five law enforcement agencies in the Bingham County area, including the sheriff’s office, joined the call for Rowland to step down, saying that it was disheartened by the incident.
The mayor of Blackfoot, Idaho, Bingham’s county seat, also called for his resignation.
“His comments do not in any way reflect the City’s nor the Blackfoot Police Department’s attitudes towards our neighbors at Fort Hall,” mayor Marc Carroll said in a statement.
Oleson says the case against his client was politically motivated and should have never been charged.
“It has nothing to do with what happened,” he said, adding the calls to resign are “truly political jockeying” and “politicians at work.”
Cox was a ‘close family friend’ of sheriff
According to the probable cause affidavit, Rowland told Blackfoot Police Department Chief Scott Gay that on November 9 he confronted a vehicle after he said two people approached his house.
“He said he had his gun in hand but no flash light,” Gay wrote in a report sent to the Idaho State Police. “He saw a vehicle coming back from the end of his road…he approached the vehicle in the road and stopped it.”
Rowland then said he grabbed the driver and pulled them from the vehicle by their hair, according to an excerpt of the report mentioned in the probable cause affidavit. He asked her, “who the f–k are you what the f–k are you doing,” a couple of times, according to the affidavit, until the driver identified herself as his neighbor, Chelsea Cox.
CNN reached out to Cox for comment but has not received a response.
Cox’s husband told investigators, according to the affidavit, that Rowland had been a close family friend for 30 years, and that Cox had not only grown up in the house next to the sheriff but also lived down the road from him.
Oleson said that Cox is like a daughter to the sheriff, and he had the conversation with the Blackfoot Police chief because he was upset and thought, “Oh I screwed up and I think I scared my family member.” He also told CNN that Rowland had spoken with Cox since the incident.
“Sheriff Rowland lifted the gun and pointed it at Cox’s head while holding the gun approximately two inches from her forehead,” the affidavit said.
“That’s when I really got scared because the gun was still at my head and he didn’t know who I was,” Cox told investigators, according to the affidavit.
After he asked her who she was again, the affidavit said that Cox said she told him, “Chelsea.” The affidavit says that Rowland told her to not ever do this again and that he could shoot her.
Authorities also interviewed the seven minors who were in the car at the time, who all appeared to corroborate the series of events described by Cox.
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