Race for coroner: Two Republicans vie to face off against incumbent Owens

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Republicans Rich Riffle and Cheri Durst are hoping to be the GOP nominee for the office of Ada County Coroner. The two will face off in the May primary. The winner will then take on incumbent Democrat Dotti Owens in the November election. Owens has been the county coroner since 2014.

To help voters make an informed choice, BoiseDev interviewed the GOP hopefuls along with Owens to find out more about their backgrounds, beliefs, and qualifications.

Cheri Durst – R

Cheri Durst has held a number of administrative positions throughout her career, including an executive administrator for a company. Durst currently works at BodyBuilding.com and says the skills she has picked up are transferable to the office of the coroner.

“The corner is an administrative position. And so that fits well with my background and I’ve done a lot of administrative work and organizational development in companies,” Durst said. “I would go in initially as a learner and I think that’s really important, especially when you’re managing the entire department. In order to set myself up for success, I need to walk in with that level of humility to learn from who’s there because my understanding is that there’s a lot of longevity in the coroner’s office, that the folks who work there are good at their jobs and like what they do.”

While Durst currently lives in unincorporated Ada County, she grew up in east Africa. She says her experience living in Kenya has prepared her to deal with death as it relates to the duties of a coroner.

“I was exposed to a lot more death than you would see as a kid here growing up here in the States because life expectancy is a little bit shorter. And it doesn’t scare me. I think a lot of people are scared of death, and part of that I think is because of my faith.”

Durst added that she spent a lot of time with sick patients in Kenyan hospitals, which gave her the people skills to deal with the family of a loved one who has just died.

“I think that I’m very good at meeting peoples’ needs for where they are at. You know, some people are angry and you need to let them be angry.”

If elected, Durst says her party affiliation will not impact all of her duties as coroner but her Republican beliefs will play a role.

“I believe that who you are absolutely impacts what you do.”

Durst was charged with misdemeanor injury to a child in 2021, and the court case is currently ongoing. She says she expects to be fully exonerated and welcomes any questions voters may have about the incident, as she says she is a very open and honest person.

“People will hopefully realize that statements made by a woman who has pretty much used every opportunity to bring my husband and my family to court about an instance where she was not even in the room are likely to be false.”

Rich Riffle – R

Rich Riffle moved to Idaho from Oregon five years ago after retiring from a career in law enforcement. He spent 26 years in various policing roles, including 15 years as a deputy medical examiner, the leader of a multi-agency crash investigation team, and the chief of police. Riffle says these positions have well prepared him to deal with death as it relates to the duties of a coroner.

“You know, not everybody can handle seeing an autopsy and then there is dealing with the family. It’s heavy, and it’s solemn,” Riffle said. “I’m no stranger to death investigations.”

In addition to certifying the cause and manner of the death, the Ada County Coroner is also responsible for managing daily operations in the office. Riffle says he served on the city council in a small town in Oregon and was also a union representative, which he believes will translate into the administrative portion of the job.

“Working on the city council helped immensely with enhancing my knowledge of government budgeting,” Riffle said. “And then, you know, as the chief of police, even though it was a very small town, I had full budget authority. I served in public service for a long time, and that’s my forte so to speak. I think I’m pretty darn qualified for that.”

And while Riffle is a Republican, he doesn’t see his party affiliation playing a major role if elected.

“It’s not a position of creating public policy. I’m sure there is some in there, don’t get me wrong. My values are going to play very little into the actual work itself.”

If elected, Riffle admits there would be a learning curve, but feels he would be caught up to speed quickly and do a successful job.

“I’m just coming in, in an oversimplified way, to be the administrator of the department and just let the worker bees do their thing.”

Dotti Owens – D

Incumbent Dotti Owens was elected to office in 2014. She’s been working for Ada County for a total of 12 years. She started as a medical legal death investigator under former coroner Erwin Sonnenberg and before that worked under coroner Dennis Chambers in Twin Falls. Owens says having first-hand experience is imperative for this job.

“I mean, this is cause and manner of death, end of life, we are all going to go through it. How horrible for a family if something is inaccurate,” Owens said. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, and you’re sitting in this seat in any population-level throughout the state, it is detrimental to your community. It is not a learn as you go.”

In Owens’ almost eight years in office, her proudest accomplishments include working on suicide and overdose prevention campaigns. The coroner says she began doing research after noticing an uptick in suicides in middle-aged men.

“As a result of that research, I was able to get a grant for the office, and I rolled out our therapy suicide prevention campaign, and that’s been going pretty good,” Owens said. “We’re only in year two on that. And so that’s something that I put a lot of my own time into. And we’re going to continue with that.”

Owens says before voters hit the polls, she wants them to know that the office of coroner is not just an administrative position.

“There are many different hats that go with this job. I have all of the different pieces of it. I’ve got the medical piece. I’ve got the investigative piece and that’s my specialty, the medical-legal investigation. And then there is the administration.”

And while Owens is a Democrat, she says her political views do not factor into her job duties.

“We do what’s right for every community member that comes through this office, whether they’re Republican or Democrat, or independent or whatever, right? Because that’s the oath that we took. That’s what we do in this field. And again, like I said, if you don’t love it, you shouldn’t be in it. And if you don’t know what you’re doing, you shouldn’t be in it.

Gretchen Parsons - BoiseDev Managing Editor
Gretchen Parsons - BoiseDev Managing Editor
Gretchen Parsons is BoiseDev's managing editor. Contact her at [email protected].

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