October 24, 1996 in Nation/World

Latah Sheriff’s Race Has It All: Bickering, Innuendo, Elvis Ex-Elvis Impersonator Says Race ‘Vicious’; Opponent Calls It ‘Bizarre’

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Tucked forgotten amid a stack of sheriff’s candidate literature at a recent forum were two radio ad scripts.

One was labeled “Gloves On.” The other: “Gloves Off.”

It barely matters anymore. In the race for Latah County sheriff, the gloves came off a long time ago. For months, candidates and their friends have gone toe-to-toe with jibes and accusations.

Consider this:

One candidate is suing a critic for libel.

Another candidate’s been accused of spraying Mace on police toilet seats, causing burns on three officers.

Lewiston police and the Idaho Department of Law Enforcement are investigating illegal campaign letters, alleged misuse of a Moscow police computer, and the writing of letters to the editor under a fictitious undercover police name.

One candidate’s sideline as lead singer and Elvis impersonator in a rock band has drawn hoots from critics.

“I’ve faced the most vicious, nasty stuff in this race,” said the Republican candidate, Kenny Piel.

“It’s gone from absurd to bizarre,” said the Democratic candidate, Jeff Crouch.

The sheriff’s race would have been high-profile anyway. The incumbent, Joe Overstreet, had a much-publicized string of gaffes, scandals and crises.

A former Army officer, Overstreet ousted two police lieutenants, told rural areas he couldn’t afford to respond to anything but emergencies and had to be subpoenaed before he’d meet with county commissioners about budget overruns. The department also apparently lost two cars and a machine gun, which Overstreet blamed on his predecessor.

When Overstreet came up for re-election this year, five people lined up to run against him. He came in third in May’s three-way GOP primary.

The Republican winner, Piel, is a 42-year-old Florida native with 10 years of police experience in Southern California. He graduated from Pomona High School. He retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in 1984 after his patrol car was smashed by an ice truck. His back was injured.

Piel became a private investigator and lie detector expert. He moved to his family’s five acres on a hillside north of Moscow in 1988, and built a home with his wife.

The same year, Piel launched Big Boomer and the Wanderers, his ‘50s and ‘60s nostalgia band. The band played in Reno, Seattle and Boise, Piel said, earning up to $7,000 a night. Piel said he’s proud of the band’s success - and his Elvis impersonation.

“I ran one of the most professional musical businesses that the Northwest has ever seen,” he said.

About a year ago, the group disbanded so Piel could run for sheriff. He’s raised and spent about $10,000 on the race.

“I have missed law enforcement since the day they retired me,” he said.

If elected, he said, he’ll establish written policies for consistent policing. He’d revise patrol duties so officers could dictate their reports on the road, instead of waiting for an available computer at the station to type things in. He says he’d also try to recruit 20 to 30 reserve officers to strengthen enforcement in rural areas.

Among his critics, the most tenacious charges about Piel are that he beat a prisoner and tipped off a friend to an arrest warrant.

Piel was convicted 13 years ago of striking a prisoner, although a judge later expunged the record at Piel’s request. Piel said he was arguing with the prisoner, who raised his hands to his mouth.

Piel, thinking it was a punch, said he elbowed the prisoner once in the chest. He said he shouldn’t have gotten that close to the prisoner.

As for the warrant, Piel said that 17 years ago a friend asked if he was “wanted” for not attending Navy reserve meetings. Piel came up with a “hold and notify” order. Instead of arresting his friend, Piel turned him and the order over to an attorney. He was charged with two misdemeanors for not making an arrest. He said he was later acquitted.

The Democratic candidate, Jeff Crouch, is a 32-year-old Connecticut native with two associate’s degrees, a bachelor’s degree in justice and law administration, and a master’s in public administration from the University of Idaho. He’s worked as a probation aide, Air Force “law enforcement specialist,” and part-time staff sergeant in the Air National Guard. The son of a longtime Connecticut cop, Crouch has been a Moscow police officer since 1993.

He’s raised and spent about $3,000 on the race.

“I was embarrassed by what was going on at the sheriff’s office,” he said. “I felt I had a lot to offer with my education and my law enforcement experience.”

If elected, Crouch said, he would eliminate political appointments in favor of merit. He would push for better 911 services for the county’s rural areas and assign a deputy full time to area schools.

He said he would make sure the best cars, radios and other gear are assigned to street officers, not department brass. He also said he would rejoin the local Quad Cities Drug Task Force, which Overstreet pulled out of.

Arguably the most damning accusations about Crouch are that he sprayed pepper spray on police department toilet seats and that he used Moscow police computers to check a primary opponent’s background.

He wouldn’t comment on the computer incident, saying Police Chief Dan Weaver told him not to.

As for the pepper spray, he admitted that he did it.

“Yes I did - in response to a series of practical jokes that had been played on me,” he said, adding that no one was seriously hurt.

“Hindsight being 20-20, would I do that again? No,” Crouch said. “I haven’t played a practical joke since.”

Crouch has also been tainted by the alleged actions of two supporters, Val Barber and Brian Claypool. Crouch reprinted some of his campaign literature, removing their names.

Up until a few weeks ago, Barber was a Moscow police detective and member of the Quad Cities Drug Task Force. During the campaign, he allegedly wrote letters to the editors of local papers using a fake name. The name was “Lance Barr,” the same name used by the task force to make undercover drug buys.

Piel said he filed a complaint with the Moscow Police Department about Barber’s writing the letters.

“I don’t believe there’s any doubt (that the letters were written by Barber),” said Steve Tomson, Whitman County sheriff and director of the task force.

Barber was fired a few weeks ago. Chief Weaver wouldn’t discuss the specifics of the case, but said the firing wasn’t because of the letter. Barber, who couldn’t be reached for comment, is appealing the firing.

Police have said the use of the undercover name doesn’t appear to have jeopardized any ongoing investigations.

Claypool was a Republican candidate for sheriff, losing to Piel in the primary. In early October, Claypool allegedly sent anonymous mail critical of Piel.

But under a rarely used Idaho election law, anonymous political mail is illegal, according to Latah County Prosecutor William Thompson. The law doesn’t limit what a person says, but requires that the sender be identified, he said.

“It’s kind of a public accountability thing,” Thompson said. “The idea is to make sure the political process is open and forthright.”

The investigation into the anonymous letters is still going on, Thompson said. But Crouch said he confronted Claypool, who admitted mailing them.

Claypool couldn’t be reached for comment.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (1 color)


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