TWIN FALLS — A man who set fire to a romantic rival’s home will be spending time in prison.
Before an overflow crowd Tuesday in Twin Falls County Court, Todd Okelberry, 40, was sentenced to at least two years in prison.
In June, Okelberry pleaded guilty to felony first-degree in a plea agreement that included up to 10 years in prison.
The maximum punishment for arson in Idaho is 25 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.
Okelberry was charged after setting fire to the house in October 2017.
In his arguments, defense attorney Michael Danielson asked that his client be given probation, noting Okelberry accepted responsibility for the crime and has no previous criminal record.
“He is ashamed and prepared to accept punishment,” Danielson said.
Twin Falls Deputy Prosecutor Trevor Misseldine told Judge Eric Wildman that Okelberry’s crime was premeditated. Okelberry drove to the victim’s house, parked 150 feet down the street and walked to the house with a gas can before he poured the liquid around the house and lit it. Okelberry committed the deed because his wife was inside the home with another man.
Photos presented as evidence showed the damage done to the garage doors by the blaze.
“The court should not be in the business of endorsing vigilante justice,” Misseldine said.
Wildman agreed that a sentence of probation could convey that message.
Angela Okelberry wept and shook, pleading in her victim statement for her husband to be allowed to remain with his family and continue growing his business.
Wildman ordered prison time, noting that the defense had tried to shift the blame to the man whose house was burned. He described Okelberry’s behavior as reckless.
“This isn’t a probation case,” Wildman said. “It’s fortuitous [the fire] didn’t take down the house, take down the whole neighborhood.”
After remarking on Okelberry’s complete disregard for the lives and property of others, Wildman reminded Okelberry he had signed the plea agreement containing the 10-year prison term.
Wildman deviated, however, from that agreement, sentencing Okelberry to two to eight years in state prison, plus court costs and a fine of $3,000.
While members of the crowd burst into tears, Okelberry was taken into custody by Twin Falls County deputies and led from the courtroom.
JEROME — It was a little more than two years ago when a pair of fellow parishioners made a plan to turn a decaying building into a coffee shop that doubled as a community space.
Joshua Kern, who owns the building, and Will Ritter, who co-owns the shop, purchased the building on Main Street that would house Renew just six months after Ritter approached Kern with the idea.
It was no simple feat. The building was sitting empty for about seven years and needed major repairs to its pipes, its false ceiling removed and upgrades to bring it up to code.
The plight of empty downtown Jerome is longstanding and slow-going, but city officials anticipate being able to act on ideas brought forth by the Main Street Parking and Beautification committee in the next few years.
Renew came as a sign of what can happen when the community comes together to support downtown business for some. Ritter and Kern said neighboring business owners extended a hand in the repairs and other have contributed to events at the shop.
“It was a full community effort,” Kern, a doctor at a St. Luke’s clinic, said. “The city was very supportive of us taking an empty building and renovating it into a big open space.”
The city is considering plans to redevelop the median on Main Street, add better benches, improve lighting, add vegetation and create diagonal parking to allow for more cars to park closer to businesses. Funding and roadblocks with other agencies are impeding the pace of progress.
“At this stage everyone likes the idea and the pretty pictures getting drawn, but the big thing is the funding,” City Administrator Mike Williams said. “It will all be a process.”
Main Street is part of Idaho Highway 25, which falls under the Idaho Transportation Department. The department hasn’t been “thrilled” about plans to reduce traffic to one lane in each direction, but is open to talking with Jerome officials about it, Williams said.
According to Jerome’s 2019 Citizen’s Survey, which surveyed 1,800 homes on livability, the city ranked below the national average in the areas of shopping in town and having a vibrant downtown or commercial district. It also scored lower than average on overall appearance. Officials want to focus on finding specialty stores to fill vacancies because retail is now more streamlined with the advent of online shopping and megastores.
“When someone can go to Costco and get 17 pounds of mayonnaise and five dozen eggs, they’re probably not going to shop at a smaller store downtown,” City Councilman Chris Barber said. “We’re never going to be the retail mecca it once was. Those days are gone.”
Empty and blighted buildings are a problem for the city because they are private property. That means they city’s involvement in the fate of those buildings is limited. The Urban Renewal District can move to try to purchase them just as it can purchase parcels away from Idaho 79 to develop for parking.
This is where businesses like Renew come into play. The city relies on people willing to invest in projects that are out of its jurisdiction. For Ritter, the business was just as much about bringing life to downtown as it was making sure residents feel welcome.
“I want to make sure everyone understands that you’re worth it,” Ritter said. “Every single person is made in the image of God and are worth dying for. Understanding that changes the way you look at people. I want to make sure I’m bringing them the best.”
While the city can’t place businesses in empty storefronts and upgrades to old buildings can be expensive for prospective business owners, it is working to clean up what it can in the way of benches, lights and vegetation to build up the area’s appearance. Barber hopes to see more places that benefit people of all ages in the community.
“It’s a fantastic job what Renew has done, watching that whole processes and what it morphed into,” Barber said. “It’s is a perfect example of how this town works in symphony.”
Jerome may be in for a long road to revitalization, but Ritter dreams of playing a role in putting Jerome on the map as a destination city.
“We want people to not have to go to Twin to get what they need,” Ritter said. “The dream is that one day when people talk about Twin Falls the response will be ‘Is that anywhere near Jerome?’”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story had the wrong number for the state highway that includes Main Street. It is Idaho Highway 25. The Times-News regrets the error.
TWIN FALLS — City Council candidates were asked to respond to a number of questions on conservative Christian values Thursday evening at an event hosted by local conservative pastors. The event was intended to help voters from their churches.
Questions included one that raised eyebrows on whether to ban the public library from hosting events where drag queens read to children. Moderator Bill Colley asked candidates whether they would be willing to ban people dressed in drag from reading to children at the Twin Falls Public Library.
Here are their reactions:
The library is a publicly owned building, said Nikki Boyd, who is seeking reelection for seat two. “We do not discriminate,” Boyd said. The government’s job “is not to pick and choose who can use a public space.”
The library has never held such an event, said Ruth Pierce, who serves as the library’s liaison and is seeking reelection for seat seven. The City Council does not have authority over library events — Council appointed board members do, Pierce said.
Liyah Babayan, running for seat four, said she supports the LGBTQ+ community and that traditional Shakespearean plays were performed only by men, even roles for women. “If we’re going to start talking about banning dressing in costumes for entertainment purpose or costumes of characters reading to our children, whether that’s a pagan princess that’s depicted in Disney cartoons or a man who is wearing an entertainment costume, then we should go further, we should ban Shakespearean plays,” Babayan said.
Cort Johnson (seat two), Mona Weeks (seat three) and LeRoy Harcourt (seat seven) all said they support people’s freedom of choice but weren’t likely to bring their children to an event.
Craig Hawkins, running for seat four, said there’s no need for a man to dress in drag to tell stories at the public library, but people can dress the way they want. “It has little to do with telling stories, and everything to do with normalizing and mainstreaming cross-dressing and transgenderation,” Hawkins said. “I would not be in favor of the city passing an ordinance to prohibit such action but feel there are other avenues that could be pursued.”
Although the individuals are provided freedom of expression, the city needs to look into whether such events include lewd conduct and indecent exposure, said Jaren Thompson, a candidate for seat seven. “You do cross a line when you’re in a public environment,” Thompson said. “Several cities across the nation who do permit this kind of behavior have had a rash of pedophiles, who are supposed to be banned from interacting with children, at these events.”
Candidates were asked several other questions related to family values as defined by the host churches. Outside of whether the city should ban abortions, questions were mostly about issues unrelated to the role of the City Council. A story on abortion questions appeared in Friday’s Times-News and at Magicvalley.com.
HAILEY — The former Lincoln County sheriff who faces charges of sexually abusing a child appeared in court Wednesday as his attorneys argued with the prosecutor over the rules for his scheduled trial.
Defense attorneys told Judge Ned Williamson they think Rene Rodriguez is facing double jeopardy because two of the charges in the case lack specifics.
Rodriguez was indicted by a grand jury on seven felony counts of sexually abusing an underage girl between 2005 and 2014, starting when the child was 9 years old. The multiple counts appear to be for different incidents with the same girl.
He is charged with one count of child sexual abuse of a minor under 16 years of age, four counts of lewd conduct with a child under 16, and two counts of rape.
After he was charged, Rodriguez resigned from his role as Lincoln County sheriff on April 8.
He was initially held on $500,000 bond, but that was later reduced to $100,000, which he posted to be released from jail.
Attorneys Cheri Hicks and Justin McCarthy asked the judge to dismiss one of the counts of rape because the wording of both counts was identical and non-specific.
McCarthy told Williamson that such language amounted to double jeopardy, meaning Rodriguez would be tried twice for the same offense.
The defense also took said the lewd conduct terminology is vague because it did not include the place or the identities of those involved.
“Mr. Rodriguez needs to know what act he’s defending himself on,” McCarthy said.
The prosecutor, Deputy Attorney General Kristina Schindele, offered to clarify the information, adding the location and how Rodriguez and the girl were involved in the act.
The locations include Eden, Twin Falls, the Splash and Dash in Bellevue, Richfield, and a Habitat for Humanity house, Williamson said.
McCarthy also argued the use of the term “public defender” would lead the jury to presume Rodriguez is indigent, which would be prejudicial.
He also said referring to the girl as the “victim” presumes a crime has already been committed. “It has a subconscious effect on the jury,” McCarthy said.
The judge said that if those common terms were banned, they might be used inadvertently or innocently.
Williamson also ruled that information about charges Rodriguez faces in Twin Falls County should not be included at trial.
Williamson took other motions under advisement, with his rulings to be issued during a follow-up hearing on Monday.
Those included preventing the prosecution from including information about uncharged crimes Rodriguez might have committed during the trial, and the inclusion of medical records.
During Monday’s hearing, jury questionnaires will also be discussed and some potential jurors may be excused based on their responses.
The maximum sentence, if Rodriguez is convicted, would be life in prison.