One of Claude Dallas' seized guns has been part of a judge's "historical" collection for more than four years.
Former 3rd District Court Judge Edward Lodge, who presided over the Dallas manslaughter trial in 1982, has held the .44-caliber pistol - despite knowledge of an ongoing legal battle over who has the right to the former trapper's guns and other seized items.Owyhee County Sheriff Tim Net-tleton, who headed the Dallas manhunt after two Idaho Fish and Game wardens were slain, said he gave Lodge the high-powered revolver mounted on a "thank-you" plaque about a year after the trial.
The plaque, presented privately by a court clerk in Murphy, was adorned with a Dallas wanted poster, the sheriff said.
Lodge, now a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge in Boise, says that it wasn't a gift.
"It's just simply a matter of having a kind of historical interest, I guess, in the items from that trial," he said. "It's not mine. I don't claim any ownership."
But the judge's possession of the gun has put a torch to simmering concerns over Owyhee County's handling of evidence.
"It's totally improper," charged Dallas' attorney, Renae Hoff of Caldwell. "This is not acceptable public conduct. You don't seize what you perceive as evidence, then pass it around. It's inappropriate for a judge to be a custodian of evidence.
"This is just another breach of the duty that Owyhee County law enforcement has. Have they ever heard of an evidence locker? Until it's theirs, this property should be under lock and key."
"I'm not surprised at all," said Dallas' brother, James, of Little Falls, N.Y. "I don't see it as an isolated incident."
Dallas, 38, a New Mexico prison inmate, has filed a petition in 3rd District Court seeking return of the goods, which include more than two dozen rifles and handguns, thousands of rounds of ammunition and a host of mountain man supplies.
Claiming it's contraband, Owyhee County wants the guns and bullets to help compensate for a costly criminal investigation and trial. And Dallas' former defense lawyers are seeking compensation for more than $30,000 in unpaid legal bills.
A decision is expected in a few months.
But the judge says the gun has been kept in his residence and exhibited at private parties. He refused to say where the gun is currently stored.
Nettleton maintained that the judge is only "holding" the gun, but state officials said Friday that such an arrangement is at best stretching laws requiring Nettleton to maintain strict custody and control over evidence.
The Code of Judicial Conduct strongly urges judges to avoid any suspicion of impropriety, and it's a misdemeanor offense for an Idaho judge to accept a gift or loan that may have been intended to influence a decision.
Hoff complained that Lodge apparently had the Dallas gun while the case was on appeal before the Idaho Supreme Court. Until the high court upheld the conviction and 30-year, indeterminate sentence in 1985, a second trial was possible, she said.
Idaho Attorney General Jim Jones said every sheriff's department has its own rules on maintenance of evidence.
Informed of the Lodge-Nettleton situation, Jones said, "That's not normally the way any kind of evidence should be maintained. If it's not needed for evidence, it should go back to the proper custodian."
Deputy Attorney General Peter Erbland said items seized by law enforcement agencies are the responsibility of the county sheriff until there is an order of forfeiture or return.
Lodge said he intends to return the gun to authorities when a decision on the Dallas inventory is handed down. If Owyhee County wins and the items are sold at a public auction, he added, "I'd have to go bid."
Lodge, a district judge in Canyon County for 22 years, was elevated to the bankruptcy court in 1987. At the time of the appointment, he was Idaho's senior district judge.