CHALLIS, Idaho — This article was written by Eric Grossarth of East Idaho News.
The Custer County Sheriff’s Office says an Eagle man fired a gun at campers before an off-duty police chief returned fire and killed him.
On Aug. 1, Bonners Ferry Police Chief Brian Zimmerman shot and killed 73-year-old Russell Van Liddell. According to an Eastern Idaho Officer-Involved Shooting Report Synopsis, investigators say during an argument at the Tin Cup Campground, an intoxicated Liddell racked a handgun and fired two shots. Zimmerman shot his own handgun reportedly in self-defense.
Details about the shooting have been kept under wraps for over two months as the Eastern Idaho Critical Incident Task Force investigated the shooting. The task force is a multi-agency police force that investigates officer-involved shootings. The details were released in the synopsis on Wednesday.
Zimmerman and his group arrived at the campground around 4 p.m. while on an eight-day UTV trip. The Sheriff’s Office says that around 10:15 p.m., a blue Dodge Ram 2500 pickup pulled into the campground. The driver stopped and idled for several minutes as members of the group reportedly questioned if they were looking for someone.
The pickup then drove past the main camp to a turn around spot approximately 60 yards away where a couple was in a tent. A woman in the group related to Zimmerman, went over to see if the driver, later identified as Liddell, needed help.
The woman told investigators that Liddell seemed agitated and claimed the group occupied his camping spot. The woman then walked back to a campfire to explain the situation to others in her party.
“Several members of the group overheard Liddell make a comment similar to, ‘All you f***** Californians coming up here with your God damn fancy toys,'” according to the synopsis.
A man exited the tent by the turnaround and later told investigators that Liddell appeared agitated and smelled of alcohol. The man said he would run Liddell off with a “41” and Liddell replied that he had a .45 caliber gun.
“Meanwhile, Chief Zimmerman, having heard about the interaction between (the woman) and Liddell had gone to his UTV and retrieved his Glock 22 .40 caliber pistol and concealed it in his shorts pocket,” according to the report.
Police say Zimmerman was not aware of the conversation the man in the tent had with Liddell about the gun and several other people walked with Zimmerman toward the truck to see if there was a problem.
Zimmerman told investigators the window of the pickup was down as he asked Liddell what was going on. Zimmerman said Liddell mumbled and didn’t acknowledge him.
Witnesses then said Liddell opened the driver’s door and exited the pickup. Liddle began stumbling as he went to the back passenger door and began looking for something. At this moment, Liddell had his back to three men, including Zimmerman, standing in the area.
“All three men heard the sound of a slide of a semi-automatic pistol being racked. Zimmerman reported when he heard the racking of the pistol he removed his pistol from his pocket and held it alongside his leg,” the synopsis reads.
Those in the group told investigator Liddell began turning toward Zimmerman and the other two men and fired two shots. The synopsis does not indicate which direction the shots were fired.
“Zimmerman, having already removed his pistol from his pocket, fired back at Liddell,” according to the synopsis. “Zimmerman believed he had fired five rounds at Liddell.”
After Liddell fell to the ground, the group rushed over and were unable to find a pulse.
At some point after the shooting, a man in the group took a UTV to the Diamond D Ranch where there was a phone and called 911. The ranch is 4.3 miles from the campground and a 17-minute drive, according to Google Maps.
The Custer County Sheriff’s Office and Idaho State Police Trooper arrived at the scene of the shooting around 1:45 a.m.
After the shooting, it took 12 days for the Sheriff’s Office to release Zimmerman’s and Liddell’s names. The Bonners Ferry Police Department also sent a statement to EastIdahoNews.com that day saying the shooting was in self-defense. The Police Department did not place Zimmerman on administrative leave, saying the shooting was not related to his employment with the city.
Custer County Sheriff Stu Lumpkin was not available Wednesday to answer questions or provide further comment.
Custer County Prosecutor Justin Oleson tells EastIdahoNews.com that he received the details of the investigation Tuesday and is reviewing the case. Oleson’s office will decide if criminal charges will be filed.