Forest Service worker involved in Idaho cobalt mine permits faces felony gun charges - East Idaho News

Forest Service worker involved in Idaho cobalt mine permits faces felony gun charges

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CHALLIS (Idaho Statesman) — A U.S. Forest Service worker in central Idaho is in jail on a $1 million bond after SWAT teams were called in to help end a six-hour armed standoff between him and police last month at his home in Challis.

The incident occurred when police arrived to arrest Curtis Lee Caton, 47, a geologist and mineral administrator on the Salmon-Challis National Forest, at his home over a report that he shot a handgun toward people in vehicles in two separate events on the same night.

Caton was charged with three felonies: unlawful firearm discharge at an occupied vehicle, assault with intent to murder and malicious injury to property. He also faces one misdemeanor count for resisting police.

Amy Baumer, spokesperson for the Salmon-Challis National Forest, declined to answer questions from the Idaho Statesman about Caton, citing a policy against disclosing employee information. She would not say how long Caton has worked for the U.S. Forest Service, address his roles and responsibilities in the Central Idaho region, or state whether he remains employed by the federal agency in light of his May arrest.

Josh Johnson, the Idaho Conservation League’s Central Idaho director, told the Statesman that Jervois Mining USA, which owns a cobalt mine in the Salmon-Challis National Forest, directed the environmental group to Caton as the designated U.S. Forest Service contact for the project. Caton also was listed as the U.S. Forest Service contact in an approval document from summer 2023 that allowed Jervois to pursue additional exploratory drilling for more cobalt deposits near the mine site.

Caton remained in custody Tuesday at the Lemhi County Jail in the city of Salmon. His preliminary hearing is scheduled for July 1.

If convicted on the four charges, Caton could face up to 35 years in prison and more than $100,000 in fines, not including possible restitution to the victims.


Police said Caton fired several 10mm rounds from a handgun near three minors in a vehicle in the remote area of Bradbury Flat in Custer County, according to a police probable cause affidavit. The kids reported seeing a silver Toyota Tacoma at a campsite in the area at about 10 p.m., and sheriff’s deputies later found 10mm shell casings at Bradbury Flat and a 10mm handgun in Caton’s home.

Approaching midnight, the parents of at least one of the kids discovered the silver Toyota pickup truck in the driveway at a home in the 330 block of East Summit Circle in Challis, the affidavit read. They called 911 dispatch after an individual standing near the truck fired several 10mm rounds at their vehicle, including some that struck the driver-side door, pierced the interior and also shot out their back window, police reported.

At no point did the couple enter the property as they tried to read the truck’s license plate, they told police. Neither of the parents was hit as they left the area and met sheriff’s deputies at a nearby fire station, according to the affidavit.

Police officers arrived at Caton’s home shortly before 1 a.m. and spoke with him, the Custer County Sheriff’s Office wrote in a news release about the incident. Several local news outlets reported on the incident the day of Caton’s arrest.

RELATED | Challis man arrested after weekend standoff allegedly wore body armor, had AR-15 style rifle 

At one point, Caton answered his door while wearing body armor and holding an AR-15 assault-style rifle and made a statement to Custer County Interim Sheriff Levi Maydole along the lines of, “This is how it is now,” as he motioned to the tactical gear, the affidavit read. Then Caton kicked the door shut, police said.

Caton’s wife was safely evacuated from the home, the affidavit said. Caton’s adult daughter also lives at the home, according to the court filing. A 23-year-old woman was eventually released from inside during negotiations with Caton that extended into the early morning hours, police said in the news release.

The SWAT team from Bonneville County arrived as police worked to set up a perimeter around the Caton home, alongside a separate multi-county police tactical team based in Southeast Idaho, police said.

About six hours into what the Custer County Sheriff’s Office described as a standoff with the suspect, Caton agreed to exit his home without further incident. He was arrested and booked into the county jail.

“I am thankful we were able to reach a peaceful resolution without any loss of life or serious injury in our community,” Maydole said in the news release. The end result showed the value of “collaboration with our local and regional law enforcement partners who can assist rural counties such as ours, which do not possess the manpower or resources necessary to handle these types of incidents on our own.”

The Jervois Mining USA-owned cobalt mine in the Salmon-Challis National Forest, has had operations suspended since March 2023. | Ian Max Stevenson, Idaho Statesman


Jervois, based in Melbourne, Australia, worked to open the cobalt mine in fall 2022 at the Idaho site — what would be the only primary cobalt mine in the U.S. But by spring, operations were suspended as global cobalt prices collapsed.

Cobalt is contained in rechargeable lithium-ion batteries and seen as critical to the climate-driven transition away from fossil fuels to more sustainable energy sources. The element also is used in munitions and high-grade alloys for aerospace, drawing interest in the mine from the U.S. government to help establish a reliable and fully domestic supply chain.

The U.S. Department of Defense last year awarded $15 million to Jervois to spend on additional exploration activities for other deposits near the existing mine, which rests in the Idaho Cobalt Belt — the largest known unmined site for the rare metal in the nation. Those drilling operations are active and ongoing while the mine remains at a standstill, Matt Lengerich, the mine’s executive general manager, told the Statesman.

Lengerich confirmed prior work between Jervois and Caton on the Idaho cobalt mine project.

Lengerich said he was unaware of any potential impacts to mine permits that involved Caton, including whether his recent legal issues could lead to reversing past approvals or delay any cobalt mine activities going forward. He referred further questions about Caton to the U.S. Forest Service.


After his initial court appearance, Caton was transferred to the jail in neighboring Lemhi County as a matter of usual course, because Custer County’s jail has a third of the space for those in custody, Lemhi County Deputy Lonny Miller, who works in detention, told the Statesman by phone.

The magistrate judge in the case issued a no-contact order between Caton and the parents of the minor. The parents have each been subpoenaed to testify in Caton’s pending criminal case.

Last week at a court hearing, Caton’s defense attorney, Justin McCarthy, asked that the judge reduce his client’s initial $1 million bond and also move Caton back to the Custer County Jail in Challis so he can be closer to his family while the legal process plays out. At the request of Custer County Prosecuting Attorney Justin Oleson, Caton’s bond has gone unchanged. He remains at the jail in Salmon, Miller said.

Reached by phone at his office, McCarthy declined to comment to the Statesman about the case.


Caton, who previously lived in Kamiah in North Idaho, had a prior arrest for a violent incident, court records showed.

Caton physically attacked his neighbor in late 2018 after the neighbor lit off a firework in his own backyard, a Lewis County deputy reported. Caton entered the property and punched his male neighbor several times before throwing him to the ground by his throat and placing him in a choke hold, leaving the neighbor with injuries to his face, head, neck and chest, according to the court record.

Three women at the neighbor’s home who witnessed the incident also said Caton shoved them as he left the property, the police report read. Officers questioned Caton at his home shortly after, and he was witnessed with dried blood on his right hand but denied it was blood, the deputy wrote.

Caton told the deputy he heard an explosion and went to investigate, when he had an AR-15 assault-style rifle pointed at him, according to the report. He said the three women laughed at him when he entered his neighbor’s backyard.

The deputy doubted Caton’s story and placed him under arrest on suspicion of misdemeanor battery. The charge was later dismissed at the city prosecutor’s request on an agreement that Caton serve probation, for which the length of time was not defined in the court record.

Caton waived his right for his latest criminal proceedings to the required timeline after charges were filed for a preliminary hearing and Caton is set to make his next court appearance on July 1.