Investigators release findings into missing Lemhi Co. guns

Idaho Falls Post Register (Idaho), A SECTION; Pg. A1
BYLINE: By LAURA ZUCKERMAN

Lemhi County, ID

SALMON - Before he quit in August, a Lemhi County deputy told investigators he took home guns that were meant to be placed in the county evidence room.

Jeff Stokes, who resigned Aug. 31 after 15 years with the Lemhi County Sheriff's Office, has been at the center of an inquiry since accusations arose this summer about the guns, a questionable insurance claim and other allegations.

The probe into those matters was released Monday, with investigators from neighboring Custer and Jefferson counties submitting their findings to Lemhi County Sheriff Lynn Bowerman and Lemhi County Prosecutor Bruce Withers. The inquiry shows that several shotguns and rifles found near Salmon between 2003 and 2004 were taken to the Lemhi County Sheriff's Office, where they were checked in by Stokes and ""then over time they disappeared,"" according to the report.

When questioned, Stokes told investigators he had taken the guns, which were rusted, with the intention of cleaning them and hanging them in the sheriff's office for decoration. He said he never was asked about the guns and was unaware that anyone was seeking their whereabouts.

""Deputy Stokes said that he has other weapons at his house that are evidence, but he kept them at his residence because of the humidity in their evidence room,"" wrote Ricardo Frakes, a detective with the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office.

Stokes could not be reached for comment.

Withers said Tuesday that he is reviewing the information to determine whether it should be passed to an independent prosecutor for potential charges.

Lemhi County Sheriff Lynn Bowerman and other officials agreed Stokes' actions were inappropriate but declined to say whether they were chargeable offenses since it is unclear whether the guns constitute stolen property and whether he intended to keep them for his own personal use.

Under Idaho law, anyone who steals one or more firearms, rifles or shotguns is guilty of grand theft, a felony.

Violations of that law played out in a high-profile case with former Bonneville County and Idaho Falls prosecutor Kimball Mason, who was paroled in May after serving nearly four years in prison for stealing guns from the Idaho Falls Police Department's evidence vault and lying to prosecutors about the whereabouts of those firearms.

In general terms, any gun seized or turned in to a law enforcement agency should remain in that agency's possession until it is legally determined that it can be released to its owner, auctioned off by the agency or destroyed, said Mike Dillion, head of the office of professional responsibility for Idaho Peace Officer Standards and Training.

Investigators also looked into an allegation that Stokes filed a false insurance claim in 2005. Two members of the sheriff's office told investigators that Stokes told them that he blew up his camper-trailer and told the insurance company - which ultimately paid the claim - it was damaged by rocks falling off a mountain.

Stokes denied to investigators that he filed a fraudulent claim on the vehicle.

Accusations of Stokes' misconduct or criminal activity arose when former Bonneville County Deputy Prosecutor Randy Neal was appointed special prosecutor to review allegations of drunken driving by then-Sheriff Sam Slavin. Stokes is Slavin's stepson.

Slavin resigned during Neal's investigation, later pleaded guilty to a second-offense DUI and was sentenced to 20 days in jail - with 10 days subject to work release - and a year's suspension of his driver's license.

Neal and his team of investigators uncovered the allegations against Stokes while interviewing witnesses related to the Slavin matter.

Contacted Tuesday about the Stokes case, Neal said a review of the investigative report convinces him that felony charges could be filed against the former deputy.

Neal said he has referred information about Stokes to the Idaho Peace Officer Standards and Training, which licenses law enforcement officers in the state.

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