Carolyn Brewer was startled by the unannounced presence of an armed man in her bedroom. Her mood didn’t improve when the intruder sternly ordered her, “You don’t get up.” That directive was issued in the interest of “officer safety,” which presumably would have been undermined if the 74-year-old woman had somehow roused herself from her sickbed.
“I was in bed and it was dark, and he came in and announced who he was,” Brewer recounted to me. “He had a big spotlight and just said, `It’s Fish and Game, we came here we have to search your room.’ I asked why, but he wouldn’t tell me why. I told him that I’m a widow, and I’m sick, and that I didn’t want him in my room. But he searched it anyway.”
Brewer rents a room in the Caldwell, Idaho home of Kenneth and Carrol Watson. She was sleeping when Lori Alley, one of the couple’s adult daughters, knocked on the bedroom door to tell her that an officer from the Idaho Department of Fish & Game wanted to search the room. Brewer groggily replied that she wanted to be left alone, and went back to sleep. A few minutes later, she told me, the officer “startled me awake” by barging in despite the elderly woman’s desire to be left in peace.
The imposition was brief, but thoroughly unpleasant. The officer went through Brewer’s closet and tried to look under her bed. While pawing through the victim’s belongings the officer knocked over a heater, an act of heedless negligence that could easily have led to a catastrophic fire (for which he would not have been held liable, given that he is imbued with that magic property called “qualified immunity”).
Finding nothing of interest, he left without a word of explanation or apology, leaving a traumatized septuagenarian in his wake.
“I was so frightened and upset I could hardly sleep the rest of the night,” Brewer told me a few days after the October 8 raid. “My chest is still tight, and I can’t sleep at night. There was this man in my room with a big gun on his belt. He was very curt, and wouldn’t even tell me what he was looking for. I’m a widow, I’m sick, and I spent the entire night in a cold room because he knocked over my heater. What made it worse was that the owner of the house wasn’t here. I felt really threatened – I was scared, I was petrified.”
“This didn’t feel like America to me,” Brewer continued. “This was like something that would happen in Iran, or Afghanistan, countries like that.”
Brewer is under the care of Adult Family Services, and there was a possibility of contacting the agency to complain about the mistreatment she had suffered. But she was concerned that by doing so she would cause more problems for Kenneth and Carrol Watson, for whom she has limitless respect.
“After my husband died, I had to move out of my house,” Brewer explains. “The Watsons offered to rent me a room. They are the nicest people – you’ll never find nicer or more generous people. They help everybody there is. If you’re in need, they’ll help you.”
The Idaho Fish & Game raid on the Watson home tested the limits of that generosity. Kenneth, a lay pastor, and Carrol, a home-schooler, had been attending Wednesday night church services when they received a phone call informing them about the raid. Upon reaching their home they found five police vehicles clustered around their home, and seven officers prowling their property.
After ordering the startled home owners to deposit their cell phones on the kitchen table – “For our safety and your own,” they were told – Kenneth and Carrol were presented with the warrant, which authorized the intruders to find and confiscate “an elk, elk parts … processed and/or packaged elk, bow and other archery equipment, images and/or video and/or digital/electronic data and associated metadata evidences in whatever form” belonging to Zack Hershberger, another long-term guest of the family.
Instinctively seeking to deflect blame for the imposition, Officer Paul Alexander told Mr. Watson that Hershberger “could have avoided all this if he had just come in and talked to us.”
The agency claimed to have evidence that Hershberger, a former resident of Oregon, had fraudulently obtained and used an Idaho elk hunting license before establishing legal residency. When he was contacted by the agency, Hershberger – acting on the advice of a friend who is a former trooper with the Idaho State Patrol – refused to talk with investigators without an attorney.
This means that the after-dark raid – which led to the invasion of a terrified old woman’s bedroom, and the in-home detention of several people for about two and a half hours on a weeknight – was a gratuitous exercise intended to punish Hershberger, and those with whom he lived, because of his impudent insistence on asserting his rights under the law.
Hershberger explained to me that he came to Caldwell in late October of last year. Over the past year he has lived in Caldwell, Lewiston, and Nampa while working in various jobs, both in and out of the state. With the help of Kenneth Watson and his son-in-law, Loren Alley, Hershberger obtained both an Idaho driver’s license and a hunting license last August.
To qualify for a resident hunting license, the applicant must be “domiciled in this state with the bona fide intent of making it their place of permanent abode, for a period of not less than 6 months immediately preceding the date of application for any license, tag, or permit.” Zack Hershberger easily qualified under that definition.
“I was very careful and very specific in trying to find out what Zack needed to do in order to get his hunting license,” Loren Alley told me. “We went down to Fish & Game and asked what he had to do in order to get a residential license, and we were told that he had to have a driver’s license, and that once this was done the burden would be on him. When we went to the DMV, we were told that the person he was living with could vouch for him. We did exactly what Fish and Game told us to do.”
Hershberger’s difficulties began when he offered to share some elk meat with his aunt and uncle, who appear to be of a severely authoritarian cast of mind. Rather than thanking the young man for his generosity, they contacted the Fish & Game department to inform them of their suspicions that he had been hunting illegally with a fraudulent residential hunting permit.
“Fish and Game called me yesterday [October 7] at about a quarter after five,” Hershberger recalled to me during a conversation in the Watson family’s dining room shortly after the raid was over. “They wanted me to come down to their office at eight the following morning. They told me that I had to come in. When I said I had other plans – I have a job, after all – I was told `They’ll have to change.’”
Unlike his tormentors, Hershberger is honorably and gainfully employed in the productive sector. He was also aware of the fact that the officers had no right to demand that he speak with them without an attorney being present to advise him. He told the officer that “I was going to work, and I told them the address where I would be. I also said that they could send someone to talk to me, but I wasn’t going to talk with them without a lawyer.”
Shortly before noon on the following day, an officer had materialized on the Watson family’s doorstep, demanding to know if Hershberger was at the home. Carrol Watson, whose immeasurably more important work as a home-schooler was interrupted to deal with the imperious pest, explained that the young man had lived with them as a renter and expected to do so again.
“I shouldn’t have said anything to them,” she later recalled, that conclusion fortified by outrage after she had an opportunity compare notes with Hershberger – and realized that the officers had lied to him about her conversation with the officer.
After the raiders arrived later that evening, they ordered Hershberger to walk out to the driveway where he was patted down and interrogated for about a half-hour.
“They told me that Mrs. Watson had said I just moved in last summer,” Hershberger told me in Mrs. Watson’s presence, prompting a shocked and angry reaction from her. “The officer said to me, `Oh, so you’re saying that she lied?’ He kept trying to get me to change my answers. I didn’t know at the time what Mrs. Watson had told them, but I had no reason to change my story.”
“Yeah, I guess I shouldn’t have talked with them, either,” he concluded, regretfully.
At around 11:30 PM, after confiscating dozens of vacuum-sealed packages of elk meat, Zack’s bow hunting gear, computer drives, data cards – and deleting a photograph of an officer taken by one of their hostages – the Fish & Game officers left.
“The officer who interrogated me shook my hand and before he left he told me, `The door is still open,’” Hershberger points out.
This was an invitation for the young man to incriminate himself. None of the “evidence” seized by the raiders could prove the charge that Hershberger obtained a hunting license through fraud. (The only possible exception could be the “metadata” information the agency seeks to obtain from his cellphone, which might be used to track his movements during the past year.) In familiar fashion, the officers were hoping to beguile, bully, or brow-beat him into admitting wrongdoing – or, failing that objective, into saying something that could be fashioned into a charge of “obstruction.”
I arrived on the scene about ten minutes before the officers left – just in time to hear Mr. Watson invite them to return under different circumstances to enjoy a meal with the family. In the interest of full disclosure, I must acknowledge that my family and I have been blessed by the Watsons’ generosity. Kenneth Watson’s son, Scott, is a close friend and professional associate, and our families have attended church together.
Although Kenneth and Carrol weren’t home when the raiders showed up, their daughter, son-in-law, and three granddaughters were in the house, along with Hershberger and Carolyn Brewer. One of the granddaughters used her iPod to make a covert recording of the raid, which reveals the intruders to be very well-mannered, but unbearably condescending.
After the occupants were ordered outside to be patted down “for our safety and yours,” the officer in charge explained that “Once they get the house cleared, everybody can go sit in the living room…. For everybody’s safety we need you all contained in there – just ’cause it’s easier for us not to have to babysit so many people. We’ll put a couple of guys in there to just make sure everybody stays safe.”
This presumptuous fixation on “safety” prompted the demand that the captives surrender their cell phones “because we don’t want a bunch of people here.” By that time, however, word of the raid had gotten out. One of the first to learn about the incident was Scott Watson, Jr. (known to family and friends as Scotty), who upon his arrival was told that he would have to leave because “they didn’t want `another person to babysit.’”
“I went to visit my grandma, and got threatened with arrest,” Scotty Watson recalled. “My mom called me and said Grandma’s house was being raided. I went there, and the driveway was blocked. I just drove around their vehicles and into the yard, and starting walking into the house.”
His way was obstructed by an officer who told him, “We have a search warrant – you’re not going beyond this point.”
“I’m going to see my grandma,” Scotty insisted.
“I was just in there,” the armed stranger assured Scotty. “She’s smiling and happy as a clam.”
That was another in a rather generous assortment of lies told by that individual and his comrades that evening: Carrol Watson was polite, composed, and coldly furious.
As is so often the case in conversation with law enforcement, the officer served a 100-proof falsehood and chased it with a threat.
“He told me that while my grandma was happy, one thing that wouldn’t make her happy would be to see her grandson in handcuffs,” Scott Watson. I asked to see the warrant, and he said `no.’ I asked how long I would have to wait, and he said it would be `midnight or later.’ And while I was talking to him, one of the other officers was shining a flashlight into my car. When I told him to stop, the officer said that I had `inserted [my] car into [his] search warrant’” – the same warrant they refused to show him.
The uninvited visitors maintained the pretense that they were professionals carrying out an unpleasant by unavoidable duty.
“It’s not very fun to have all of us here,” Officer Alexander remarked at one point. “We try to be polite and respectful about it.” Their presence was necessary, he claimed, because “my investigators are pretty convinced that the elk [stored in a freezer] is illegal, because Zack doesn’t have a legal license.”
It is important to reiterate that there was no evidence to justify that conclusion, unless we assume that a single uncorroborated allegation constitutes convincing proof.
The warrant, which was blithely endorsed by a local magistrate, cited a “oral affidavit” by “Brian Jack, a conservation officer with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game,” as justification for a nighttime raid. That raid, as Alexander informed his hostages, could have been a fully realized military affair, if in his judgment, “officer safety” had required it to be.
“You’re a hunting family, we’re sure there’s guns and knives and all that kind of stuff in the house,” Alexander told Carrol Watson. “Not that anybody [here] is a bad person. We don’t think that, or we’d have come in with a SWAT team and everybody else, obviously. We don’t think we’re going to have any trouble, or we’d have done it differently.”
This remark was apparently intended to leave the Watson family and their guests prostrate with gratitude that their domicile hadn’t scored just a little higher on the “threat matrix.” It’s important to understand that a guns-drawn raid – making use of a locally available MRAP, most likely – was considered a valid option to carry out a raid that was staged for the sole purpose of punishing somebody who refused to talk with officers in the absence of legal counsel.
The suspect in this case stood accused – on the basis of nothing more substantial than rumor – of cheating the Fish & Game department out of fees it would use on such worthy projects as its inept, profligate, and counter-productive wolf management program.
It could be considered progress of a sort that privileged invaders who disrupted the Watson family’s home have learned to display a measure of gentility and self-restraint when they inflict themselves on harmless and law-abiding people. To be specific, it is precisely the same kind of progress we would expect if cannibals learned to use cutlery.