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Former Idaho legislator’s attorney: Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger was on vacation, not on the run

Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger (R, Lewiston) at the Idaho Capitol on April 6, 2021.   (Otto Kitsinger/Idaho Capital Sun / Idaho Capital Sun)
By Kelcie Moseley-Morris Idaho Capital Sun

The attorney for former Idaho House Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, Jon Cox, says his client was not trying to evade law enforcement when he was arrested in Georgia last week. Von Ehlinger was on a pre-planned vacation with family in Central America when the warrant was issued, and had been there since May, according to Cox.

“He was out of the country far in advance of the warrant being issued,” Cox said.

Von Ehlinger, 39, was arrested in Clayton County, Georgia, on Friday and charged as a fugitive from justice. According to court records, he has been held in Clayton County Jail after being denied bond by a judge on Monday.

The Lewiston Tribune first reported a warrant for his arrest was issued by the Ada County District Court on Sept. 9, following an investigation by the Boise Police Department.

Von Ehlinger, who represented Lewiston in the Legislature, resigned his seat at the end of April following an ethics hearing in the Idaho House of Representatives over his conduct as a legislator. A 19-year-old intern on the legislative staff said von Ehlinger raped her by forcing her to perform oral sex. Two other female legislative staffers said von Ehlinger made them uncomfortable with unwanted advances.

Von Ehlinger has denied the accusation of rape, saying it was consensual.

Cox held a news conference in his downtown Boise office on Wednesday at von Ehlinger’s request.

“He asked me because he’s been speaking with family and he understands from social media or media outlets that there’s this perception he was on the run, trying to hide,” Cox said. “That’s absolutely not true.”

One example of social media speculation was a tweet over the weekend from an airline passenger who said von Ehlinger’s name had been called as a Delta flight came into Atlanta from Honduras. Cox said he had heard about that but did not know if von Ehlinger was in Honduras specifically.

Cox said von Ehlinger contacted him a few days after the warrant was issued to ask him for representation because the attorney he had at the time did not specialize in cases of this nature. Cox knew von Ehlinger was out of the country, but since the warrant issued for his arrest did not involve bail, he didn’t think von Ehlinger’s planned return date of Sept. 24 would make a difference.

“Our thought was, it took six months for this investigation to happen … what’s two more weeks in order to get him back?” Cox said.

Law enforcement aware of travel, attorney says

Von Ehlinger was en route back to Idaho on Sept. 24 and had a layover in Atlanta after his flight was rerouted from Houston, Cox said. The warrant issued by Ada County was considered a “book and release” warrant, according to Cox, which means he would have needed to turn himself in, be fingerprinted and then released. He would not have had to post bond for the charge.

But even a warrant of that level is posted to the National Crime Information Center – a database for law enforcement use.

“We did talk about how he could be picked up on a warrant,” Cox said. “… We knew this could happen, but he was always ready, willing and able to comply.”

While von Ehlinger was out of the country, Cox said they were in touch with the lead Boise Police Department detective about where he was and that he planned to turn himself in once he came back to Idaho.

Von Ehlinger had a court appearance Sunday in Clayton County, where he declined to contest the extradition to Idaho. But he will be held there until arrangements are made for travel. The Ada County Prosecutor’s Office is trying to get in touch with the Clayton County Prosecutor’s Office to make sure there are no other outstanding holds on von Ehlinger before arranging for his return to Idaho, Cox said. To Cox’s knowledge, there are no other holds.

Emily Lowe, spokesperson for the Ada County Prosecutor’s Office, said a copy of the arrest warrant was provided to Clayton County.

“Von Ehlinger is being held in custody in Clayton County consistent with the legal standards and practices for one who is arrested on an Idaho warrant in another state,” Lowe wrote in an email to the Idaho Capital Sun. “The warrant allows for his release once he is booked into the Ada County Jail, where he will be served with a no-contact order that was issued in conjunction with the warrant.”

The state of Idaho has 30 days to arrange for von Ehlinger to either be flown back to Idaho or transported by vehicle, which Cox said will take much longer and at greater expense.

Once von Ehlinger is back in Idaho, a preliminary hearing will be scheduled. Under COVID-19 restrictions from the Idaho Supreme Court that went into effect Sept. 27, the normal 21-day requirement for a preliminary hearing is waived, so it may take longer for a hearing. According to the orders from the court, the hearing may take place online or in person, but it is up to the judge’s discretion.

Cox said he expects a grand jury to be convened for the indictment against von Ehlinger, but under the COVID restrictions, a new grand jury would not be assembled until after Dec. 6.

Cox said von Ehlinger maintains his innocence.

“He is adamant that he’s going to fight these charges,” Cox said.

Accuser frustrated Idaho legal process

Annie Hightower, who represents the accuser known as Jane Doe in the case, said she did not know von Ehlinger was out of the country and has not heard from law enforcement since the warrant was issued for his arrest.

“As a systems advocate, it’s really disappointing the way things are playing out,” Hightower said. “The system is not working in favor of folks that have experienced violent crime. It would’ve been really helpful for her to be informed of these things so we could know what to expect next.”

Hightower said the last communication Doe had with her victim-witness coordinator in Ada County was just after the warrant was issued.

“She is definitely frustrated that this isn’t working the way she thought it would, which is not an uncommon experience for survivors working in these big systems,” Hightower said.

The delay for proceedings is also difficult, Hightower said, knowing the case could drag out for months in part because of COVID restrictions.

“When those (Supreme Court) orders came out, I kind of had a sinking feeling in my gut because he hadn’t been picked up yet, that this is where we’d end up,” Hightower said.