The year 2019 brought some 66 felony offenses to Blaine County, including 16 felony DUI charges, 12 charges for possession of controlled substances and 15 total charges of aggravated battery, aggravated assault and attempted strangulation. Only one felony jury trial took place in Blaine County, the case of former Blaine County Sheriff’s Deputy Rene Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, 41, was found guilty on six felony sex-related offenses following a four-day trial in November. He is scheduled for sentencing in March, after a jury trial scheduled for March 3 in Twin Falls for similar charges.
Charges arose following an investigation that began in January, while Rodriguez was serving as sheriff of Lincoln County. The victim, Rodriguez’s adopted daughter, testified during the trial that she was sexually abused by Rodriguez between the ages of 9 and 17. Between 2007 and 2013, Rodriguez worked in Blaine County as a marshal for the city of Bellevue.
Rodriguez’s defense team, made up of lead defense attorney Cheri Hicks and second chair Blaine County Chief Public Defender Justin McCarthy, told the Idaho Mountain Express following the conviction that they will pursue an appeal following the sentencing on March 20.
In the Twin Falls case, Rodriguez faces one charge of sexual abuse of a minor for an offense that allegedly occurred in 1998.
Two other significant cases, one from 2018 and a second from 2019, will make their way into 2020.
Ryan Jensen, 35, of Bellevue, was charged with misdemeanor setting fire to prairie or timber land for allegedly starting the Sharps Fire on July 29, 2018. He is scheduled for a pretrial conference on Jan. 13.
If convicted, he will face a maximum sentence of one year in jail. He is allegedly responsible for causing more than $4.5 million is expenses to combat the fire that raged for two weeks and burned about 100 square miles, including 24,000 acres of BLM land, 11,000 acres of the Sawtooth National Forest and 10,000 acres of state land.
According to documents from the BLM, the department spent $4.2 million on fire suppression, including travel, lodging, food, equipment rentals, space rentals and aircraft rentals. According to documents from the Idaho Department of Lands, that agency incurred $336,467 in costs associated with the fire. Additionally, roughly 20,000 acres of private land burned.
In March, 5th District Magistrate Judge Jennifer Haemmerle suggested the idea of a “restorative justice conference” to Jensen’s defense attorney, Doug Nelson, and to prosecuting attorney Angela Nelson. Haemmerle described the conference as something typically done in juvenile cases and has never been done in Blaine County. At the time, Haemmerle said it could be an opportunity to bring various affected parties to the table to find an alternative resolution beyond criminal prosecution. Fifth District Magistrate Judge Mark Ingram has been mediating those discussions since they began sometime after May. Because restorative justice conferences are typically done in juvenile cases, they are considered a type of mediation and done off the record, behind closed doors. Involved parties to the mediation include the property owners affected by the fire, the Blaine County commissioners and fire departments who assisted during the wildfire, including the Carey Rural Fire Department.
Jensen’s jury trial has been rescheduled at least three times as the restorative justice conference has continued. He is now scheduled for a pretrial conference on Jan. 13, and no jury trial is currently set.
Matthew Richard Park, 46, of Fairfield, continues to face five felonies in 2020—three charges of vehicular manslaughter and two of aggravated DUI following a triple-fatality car accident that occurred on Aug. 10.
An investigation by the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office determined that a blue 2000 Dodge Neon, driven by Somchai Ray Lee Lurak, 26, of Mountain Home, with passenger Emma Wiegand, 26, also of Mountain Home, in the front seat and Lurak’s three daughters, ages 3, 5 and 6 in the back seat of the car, all in car seats, was stopped at a construction light on U.S. Highway 20 about 5 miles west of Timmerman Junction around 1:19 a.m. when Park, in a white 1995 Dodge pickup, also traveling west, collided with the rear of the Dodge Neon in the westbound lane. Two of the children, the 5- and 6-year-old, were pronounced dead at the scene and the 3-year-old died later at St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center.
Lurak and Weigand were transported to St. Luke’s Wood River and later transported to Saint Alphonsus hospital in Boise for their injuries. According to a GoFundMe page for the family, Weigand suffered a broken arm and three broken ribs and Lurak suffered several spinal cord injuries, leaving him a quadriplegic incomplete, meaning some feeling and movement is still present.
“Somchai suffered such terrible whiplash that his c5-c7 vertebrae shattered causing a spinal cord injury at the c5 level, he also had a concussion and collapsed lung,” the GoFundMe page, updated by Weigand, stated on Dec. 8.
Suspecting that Park was intoxicated, deputies at the scene gave him a field sobriety test and collected breath samples. According to court records, his breath tests registered alcohol concentrations of 0.191 and 0.189. The legal limit in Idaho is 0.08.
Park has remained in the Blaine County jail since his arrest in August. He is scheduled for a jury trial to begin in February, if a plea deal is not reached before then.