It’s housed some of Kootenai County’s most notorious and most colorful characters.
But no one shed tears as rafters splintered and plaster walls crumpled under the great maw of a yellow backhoe Saturday. The rocking, roaring machine consumed the old Kootenai County Jail with such fervor that, at one point, the backhoe almost went down on its nose.
Steel screamed. Dust clouds rolled.
Good riddance, most said to the circa 1923 building, which was effectively closed 20 years ago by a federal judge who ruled it was so bad that a night in jail was cruel and unusual punishment.
“My favorite memory? Right now,” said George Evjen, chief deputy at the jail in the early 1970s, as he watched the backhoe chomp away. “It’s an antiquated, old building, of no value to the county.”
Except as a source of great stories about the people it housed. And those who escaped.
There’s the prisoner, name forgotten, who almost succeeded in digging his way out through a wall with a spoon. “That’s how soft those plaster walls were,” Evjen remembered.
The escapee was caught when another deputy passed by the outside wall and noticed the paint chipping off. Evjen went in the cell to get the guy and discovered he’d fashioned a knife out of spoon handles.
“He came after me with it,” Evjen said. “I told him it was the inappropriate thing to do, and politically incorrect, and if he persisted I was going to blow his … head off.
Evjen started visiting the combination jail and sheriff’s office as a child because his dad did electrical work there. Sheriff Harry Haner occasionally invited him up to the top-floor living quarters for milk and pie.
“Every once in awhile, I’d sneak down and look at the prisoners,” Evjen said. That was enough to keep him on the straight and narrow.
Then there’s the female fugitive who tried to burn down the jail. Her name is in dispute among story tellers. Wanted by the FBI, she was located in a Post Falls motel in the early ‘70s.
When the cops showed up, she went to the door with her copper-plated .30-caliber M-1 carbine - complete with a pistol grip - and started shooting, said Stu Kimball, who started working for the sheriff’s department two decades ago. The woman clipped an FBI agent’s leg with a bullet, and bragged about her prowess with a gun at her trial.
Once collared, she started a fire in her cell. The charred spot that remained always reminded First District Judge Gary Haman of the fire when he took lunchtime strolls around the building.
“The comment at the time was it was too darn bad they had to put it out,” Haman said.
Then there were the trustees - prisoners given a little extra freedom and responsibility. One had what jailers thought was a bad leg. Until he disappeared.
“All that was left was his crutch,” Kimball said. “We never saw him again.”
Another smooth-talking trustee turned his artistic ability into a ticket to freedom. He persuaded the jailer and his wife to buy him a van and sponsor an art show for him.
He sold lots of the paintings at the show, loaded them up in the van and disappeared.
Lawsuits over the slumping build ing are as colorful as the inmates. “If they stayed more than one day, they wanted to sue,” said Sheriff’s Lt. Skip Rapp.
One inmate sued for a toothbrush, former deputy Evjen said.
An insurance carrier threatened to pull the county’s liability insurance over the jail’s hazardous electrical wiring in 1978. Most homes had more electrical capacity.
Kootenai County continued to reject bond issues for new jails. But Idaho Legal Aid finally persuaded a federal judge to severely restrict use of the jail in 1978. Even then-Sheriff Rocky Watson testified against the building.
“It was either testify it was improper or perjure yourself,” he said. The federal judge’s ruling left Kootenai County trucking prisoners to Wallace three times a day.
The old building remained so long after a new jail was built because it was used as a holding facility for prisoners going to court. New holding cells were constructed last year, ending the need to keep the old jail.
Crews should have the building reduced to rubble by today for a cost of $12,000 to $15,000, County Administrator Tom Taggart said. County administrative offices may be built on the site, considering the county is so short of room it now rents space in five or six different locations.
Meanwhile, former Sheriff Watson is trying to salvage the last bit of history - an old cannonball safe pulled out of the basement Friday. Apparently the county commissioners don’t want to let it go without opening it. But no one has the combination.
“Three weeks ago when I went though the building, a guy told me all of the records of the illegal acts of county officials are in that safe,” Watson said. “I wouldn’t put too much water on that.”
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