BOISE – Prosecutors say the Payette National Forest operation that ended in the shooting of a homeless man in a wheelchair was the escalation of years of frustrating dealings with a family who had camped too long on public land in Idaho.
Defense attorneys say the episode in May north of McCall conducted by undercover officers was a “pointless and wildly dangerous ruse operation that needlessly jeopardized the lives and safety” of everyone over a handful of misdemeanors.
To the family involved – Judy Roberts, 62, and her two adult sons, Timber, 35, and Brooks, 39 – the incident was just the latest in a long line of cruel blows.
Over the course of two years, they had lost their home, their jobs and even the use of their bodies. Now they are watching their cases wend through the legal system, including Brooks Roberts’ tort claim against several government agencies over a shooting that left him paralyzed, and a variety of federal charges against the family members.
“This was not something that these folks chose,” Craig Durham, an attorney for Brooks Roberts, told the Idaho Statesman by phone. “This is not something they wanted. This really lays bare the problem of housing costs, particularly in this area, and homelessness, and homelessness on public lands.
“I really believe that the richest government in the world should develop some kind of policy to address these issues so that it doesn’t get to the point where you concoct a trick that causes somebody to be shot 11 times.”
Day of the shooting and arrests
Police body camera footage from May 19 showed two ordinary-looking men – dressed in plaid and jeans – approach the Roberts trailer near the forest’s West Face Trailhead, just seven minutes from downtown McCall and adjacent to Brundage Mountain. They knocked on the door and asked Timber Roberts for help jumpstarting their vehicle. Timber agrees and backs his truck up to their vehicle, bringing it within jumper-cable distance.
Unbeknownst to the Roberts family, at least 10 other federal and state law enforcement officers were waiting out of sight. When Timber exited his vehicle, the two men grabbed him and took him to the ground.
Timber screamed, calling for his older brother.
“Get off of me,” he yelled in the video. “Help! Help! Brooks! Brooks! Brooks!”
The next few seconds were chaotic. Brooks rushed out of the trailer, his hands pumping the wheels of the wheelchair he has to use because of a disability sustained while working. He drew a .22 revolver, according to court documents, and pointed it at the men.
“He’s got a gun,” an officer shouted.
Shots rang out, all from the guns of undercover U.S. Forest Service officers. The sound of about a dozen gunshots can be heard in the video – none from Brooks. Documents filed by his lawyers said he threw his gun out of reach before the officers fired their first shot.
In police footage, Brooks can be seen on the ground, covered in blood, his wheelchair next to him. An officer turned him over to handcuff him and assured an apologetic Brooks that help was on the way.
“I’m sorry,” Brooks said. “I thought my brother was being attacked. You didn’t give me a chance to put the gun down. … I didn’t know you guys were cops.”
Brooks was shot through his arm, armpit, shoulder, the middle of his back, and several times in his legs, while another bullet lodged in his spine, according to a tort claim filed by attorneys in August.
Brooks was hospitalized for almost five months before being released in September. He is paralyzed from the waist down and has limited use of his right arm, according to the claim.
“His prognosis is guarded,” according to the claim filed by defense attorneys. “He likely will never recover the use of his lower body. He cannot control his bowels and requires a diaper. His recovery will be slow and difficult.”
Legal activity on both sides
Attorneys for Brooks filed the tort claim against the United States Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Agriculture – seeking $50 million for, among other things, pain and suffering, lost wages, loss of enjoyment of life, and trauma.
A tort claim is a “legal filing in response to one party breaching the duty of care owed to another person” or “intentionally wronging another person,” according to personal injury attorney Michael Waks. It is necessary before suing a government agency.
The government has six months to respond to the claim before Brooks can file a suit. Durham said no response has been received yet.
Meanwhile, the government has forged ahead in court with the family’s misdemeanor cases that involve, among other things, staying too long on public land.
The three family members pleaded guilty through agreements with prosecutors. Brooks and Judy are set to be sentenced on Jan. 4 in the James A. McClure Federal Building in Boise.
Durham said Brooks pleaded guilty only because he received favorable terms, which included getting time served – meaning no additional jail time – and unsupervised probation, with the condition that the family not live on federal land for three years.
Brooks took a binding plea agreement, meaning if the judge rejects these conditions, he can still withdraw his guilty plea and go to trial.
Timber has already been sentenced and also received no additional jail time and unsupervised probation.
Homeless family turns to camping
Law enforcement and the Roberts family had been locked in a struggle for more than two years. Forest Service officials said the family refused to stop camping on federal land, eventually becoming “hostile” to those who got too close. The family said they had nowhere else to go. Court documents detailed both sides’ versions of what happened.
Brian Harris, a U.S. Forest Service spokesperson out of the McCall office, told the Statesman that the FBI is investigating the shooting and the Forest Service cannot comment on it. The FBI declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation. U.S. Attorney for the District of Idaho Josh Hurwit said he stands by the filings and evidence in the court record, but can’t comment until the case is closed.
The tort claim said the family’s troubles started in May 2020 after Judy was severely injured when her car was T-boned after another driver blew through a stop sign. Judy was the primary breadwinner for her two sons, both of whom had mental disabilities and did not finish high school, and the injury caused her to lose the manufacturing job she’d worked for 13 years.
Without that income, the family was soon evicted from their longtime downtown Emmett rental unit, according to the tort claim.
The three of them – who had never lived apart – struggled to find a place to live and were told emergency housing was full, public defender Abigail Thiry said at the recent sentencing for Timber. The tort claim explained their situation further:
“The family desperately searched for housing during an unprecedented public health emergency and a housing market in the Treasure Valley that was nearly impossible for renters. But with nowhere else to go and an airborne pandemic raging, they were forced to gather what they could of their belongings into their two camp trailers and try to survive that way for the time being.”
The family began camping on federal public land. People may camp for up to 14 days on Bureau of Land Management grounds before having to move at least 25 miles from that spot, and can’t return to the same campground for 28 consecutive days, according to BLM rules.
“Initially they were doing that,” Durham said. “They were actually complying with that, but they essentially ran out of places to go.”
Thiry said Timber left for a time, getting a job, moving in with a roommate and beginning a romantic relationship.
But things were not going well for the other two. Judy got frostbite in the winter of 2021-22, according to tort claim documents. Her feet froze to the floor of an old school bus the family had bought to live in, and the bottoms of both legs had to be amputated.
Brooks was injured at his job at Walmart in June 2022, according to the claim. He lost partial feeling in his legs and began having to use a wheelchair.
“That’s when (Brooks) called (Timber),” Thiry said at his sentencing. “That’s when (Timber) realized that his mom and brother were not surviving without him – when his brother begged him to come back, when his brother said, ‘How could you leave us like this?’ ”
Timber returned to his family, and the Robertses drove their bus and camper to the Payette National Forest in October 2022, where the family had camped as children, according to Thiry.
Activity in Payette National Forest
There, Forest Service officers said they had repeated issues with the family. Officers said they tried to connect them with social services or point them to campgrounds and RV parks where the family could go.
Court documents filed by the prosecution said the Robertses told officers they had squatter’s rights. Officers said the family purchased items to live in the forest more comfortably rather than using their money to find legal housing.
Judy received a “relatively small amount” of Social Security following her amputations, and for a time, Timber was on temporary Social Security relating to an injury, according to Durham.
“The Roberts family created large camping compounds on the public lands, outfitted them with air conditioning units, solar panel arrays, and hot tubs, and lived the ‘van life’ to the detriment of the public lands and the other members of the public who wanted to use them,” U.S. Attorney for Idaho Josh Hurwit said in a sentencing memorandum filing.
Durham called the prosecution’s narrative around the family’s spending “exaggerated.” The Robertses were “pack-ratty people” who often bought, traded or picked up cheap or free used items, according to Durham.
He said some items they owned, including an old Jeep and boat, did not work. The family knew they weren’t allowed to leave the Jeep in the forest, and part of the issue with moving to another location in May involved difficulty figuring out how to dispose of it, according to Durham.
“It’s not like they were living in the lap of luxury and just out there recreating and having a good time,” Durham said. “These were subsistence-level items that, had they sold them, didn’t mean they were going to find a place in the Valley and pay their rent for a year.”
Over the winter, the Robertses became snowed in near the West Face Trailhead – which the Forest Service had warned them about – and were unable to move their vehicles, according to court documents.
By February, the federal government had charged Judy, Timber and Brooks with multiple misdemeanor counts related to staying on federal lands longer than allowed. Prosecutors indicated they would seek jail time, and all three were appointed lawyers as court proceedings began moving forward. Durham said the family had attended all required court hearings.
“After I was appointed, I brought on board a co-counsel, and we got a social worker,” Durham said. “The idea was to try and help this family get resources and housing. I went out of my way to develop a rapport with the family, and they trusted me. We were making some progress.”
Law enforcement officers said the Robertses’ behavior became “hostile” toward them, escalating to the point that Timber told law enforcement that if they touched the family’s possessions, then someone would be “majorly hurt with booby traps” and law enforcement should “expect retaliation,” according to the sentencing memorandum.
The Forest Service grew more concerned after Timber claimed to be a member of law enforcement and told a 70-year-old man visiting the area to leave, according to the memorandum. The agency then began making plans for an operation to arrest the family.
Durham said there were other legal procedures officers should have followed rather than attempting the surprise arrest. They did not notify the family’s attorneys before the undercover operation took place.
“If they were really concerned about this, they should have come to the attorneys and said, ‘Look, this is escalating. We’ve got new charges. We need them to come into court,’” Durham said. “And if the judge felt that there was a risk after they came into court and appeared, then the judge could detain Timber.”
Mother and sons now in limbo
On Oct. 30, Timber pleaded guilty to camping on BLM land for longer than allowed; intimidating, threatening and/or interfering with a forest officer; and assaulting a federal officer. The rest of his charges were dismissed, including those related to using the land for residential purposes, improperly disposing of garbage and leaving property on public land.
Timber was required to get a mental health evaluation as part of a presentencing court report. Professionals diagnosed major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, a learning disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and an IQ of 85, according to the report. It found Timber to have no history of substance abuse.
“With low intelligence and executive dysfunction, Mr. Roberts has exhibited poor decision-making and problem-solving skills,” his evaluation stated.
Speaking in court at his sentencing, Timber tearfully apologized.
“I’m sorry for this entire situation that has happened,” he said. “I feel very disappointed in myself. I let my temper get the best of me. I never do. I’m a Presbyterian. Presbyterians don’t believe in violence. I felt bullied and felt like I was back in school all over again, being bullied and thrown into trash cans.”
U.S. Magistrate Judge Debora Grasham sentenced Timber to time served and three years of probation, as well as $1,648 in restitution, which will be split between all three family members.
She said she took into consideration the many difficulties he’d faced, including childhood abuse, severe school bullying and mental health issues. The judge also acknowledged the problems he had caused.
“His conduct and these offenses not only caused damage to public lands, but endangered the officers at issue and others,” Grasham said.
The family is now living in a Boise motel funded by donations raised on GoFundMe after their story became public. But that money is dwindling, and Durham said the Robertses don’t know what they will do next.
With the help of local nonprofit CATCH, Brooks was placed on a permanent supportive housing waiting list shortly after his shooting, but a social worker has told him it could be months or even years before a spot opens up, according to Durham.