Rare stiff sentence for “hunting accident”
DOYLESTOWN, Pennsylvania––Kenneth Troy Heller, 52, of Warminster Township, Pennsylvania, was on July 7, 2021 sentenced to serve from seven to 20 years in prison for a so-called “hunting accident” that on October 24, 2020 killed 18-year-old Jason Kutt at Nockamixon State Park, Bucks County.
The unusually stiff sentence for a “hunting accident,” in a heavily pro-gun, pro-hunting state where the courts have historically favored hunters over victims, may reflect an ongoing shift away from pro-hunting cultural attitudes, following a multi-decade steep decline in hunting participation.
Jason Kutt, of Sellersville, a Philadelphia suburb, “was watching the sunset with his girlfriend,” reported Leif Greiss of the Allentown Morning Call, when Heller shot him in the back of the head from more than 500 feet away.
Heller testified, wrote Greiss, that “He believed he was shooting at a groundhog, despite a prohibition of hunting groundhogs in in the park.”
Thought he might have killed screaming girlfriend’s dog
Chief prosecutor Chris W. Rees played Kutt’s girlfriend’s 911 call, in which she described watching Heller “walk away even after she screamed for help. A 911 operator was teaching her how to perform CPR over the phone so she could try to save Kutt’s life,” Greiss wrote.
Heller was finally “taken into custody on December 31, 2020,” Greiss continued, while according to testimony, Kutt’s girlfriend feared all the while “that her boyfriend’s killer might try to harm her, too.”
The girlfriend, according to testimony, continues to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Heller claimed both that he didn’t hear the girlfriend screaming and that he “thought she might be a pedestrian angry he was hunting in the park, a situation he had previously encountered,” Greiss wrote.
Later, Greiss said, “he thought he may have killed someone’s small dog.”
But even after realizing he had killed Kutt, Heller did not turn himself in.
Shot stepson while hunting without permits
The Heller conviction came as John Varndell Jr., 41, awaits sentencing scheduled for August 9, 2021 in Port Huron, Michigan––another heavily pro-gun, pro-hunting state where the courts have historically favored hunters, but also another state where the times may be changing.
Varndell was July 2, 2021 convicted on multiple counts for killing his 11-year-old stepson Zachary Rock while the two were hunting without licenses, with four other men, in rural Clay County.
“Varndell was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, felon in possession of a firearm, felon in possession of ammunition, two felony firearms second offense charges, and [of being] a habitual fourth violent offender,” reported Laura Fitzgerald of the Port Huron Times Herald.
Smoked dope before the hunt
Prosecutor Joshua Sparling also mentioned that Varndell failed to have anyone in the hunting party wear orange, smoked marijuana before the hunt, fired multiple rounds in the dark woods when he could not clearly see the target, and “failed to comply with the regulations of the Department of Natural Resources youth hunt, including failing to keep Zachary within arm’s reach the entire day and firing a gun when only children are allowed to fire a gun,” Fitzgerald summarized.
Varndell reportedly used a handgun belonging to the victim’s mother, Heather Rohn, who subsequently divorced him, Fitzgerald recounted.
Alabama charge raised to capital murder
At least three other hunters who allegedly killed someone in egregious “accidents” are apparently still facing trial in other heavily pro-gun, pro-hunting states where there are, nonetheless, indications that while being a licensed hunter means being licensed to kill animals, killing humans––and especially killing children––is beginning to be taken much more seriously.
In Jefferson County, Alabama, the county grand jury in December 2020 increased the charge pending against Joshua Stewart Burks, 36, for killing 11-year-old Troy Ellis on May 1, 2020, from reckless manslaughter to capital murder.
“Obed Ellis, Troy’s father and a football coach at Mortimer Jordan High School, was also injured in the shooting,” reported Carol Robinson for the Alabama Media Group.
Mistook 11-year-old hunter for a turkey
“Father, son, Burks and another man began turkey hunting at daylight,” Robinson recounted, “on Ellis’ hunting land. The hunt was organized by a group that sponsors hunts for wounded veterans. Ellis was acting as a guide. Burks, an amputee, is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and was a middle school teacher and coach in Mobile County, but lost his job following the incident. It was Burks first time ever to go hunting.
“The Ellis family in July 2020 filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Burks and Kyle Eugene Henley, who acts as a guide for the nonprofit hunting organization, America’s Heroes Enjoying Recreation Outdoors, which was also named as a defendant in the suit,” Robinson said.
Alleging that Burks had taken numerous pain pills, and was “likely not capable of safely handling a firearm,” the lawsuit was settled out of court in October 2020, Robinson said.
South Carolina hunter shot father & daughter
Also apparently still pending is a case against Sean Peterson, 31, of Colleton County, South Carolina, who in July 2020 was charged with two counts of negligent use of a firearm while engaged in hunting after gunning down Kim Drawdy, 30, and his daughter Lauren Drawdy, 9, on the last day of the 2019 deer season.
“If convicted of the misdemeanor, he faces up to three years in prison for each count,” reported Sara Coello of the Charleston Post & Courier. “Investigators with the state Department of Natural Resources said the three hunters were trying to drive deer near Walterboro on New Year’s Day.”
Driving deer, meaning to chase deer toward other hunters to be shot, is among the most dangerous of hunting practices, and is discouraged by most wildlife agencies.
Shot hunting buddy beside dying elk
In Colorado, Pennsylvanian hunter Harry Watkins, 52, was on May 27, 2021 reportedly arraigned for criminally negligent homicide.
Watkins on November 9, 2020 allegedly shot Simon Howell, 26, a hunting buddy from West Virginia, as Howell knelt beside a dying elk their four-member party had shot near Kremmling, in Grand County, Colorado.
“Public records requests sent from The Colorado Sun to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Grand County Sheriff’s Office, and the 14th District Attorney’s Office were denied. So official details about the very rare hunting-related homicide charge are not available,” wrote Colorado Sun reported Jason Blevens,
“In the decade before Colorado required mandatory hunter education for all hunters in 1970, fatal hunting accidents reached more than 10 a year and the state counted more than 200 non-fatal accidents a year,” Blevens mentioned. “Now all Colorado hunters born after 1949 must undergo both classroom and rifle-shooting education and more than 900,000 hunters have taken a hunter education course in the state. Since 2000, the state sees about 500,000 hunters a year and averages about one annual fatal hunting accident” per year involving a firearm or an arrow.
Hunting is “get out of jail free” card
Hunting advocates cite similar statistics from almost every state. The decline in hunting accidents, however, only mirrors the decline in hunter numbers and days spent afield per hunter. Days spent afield per deer hunter, for example, have fallen from as many as 17 at peak circa thirty years ago, when most deer hunters also engaged in hunts for other species, to fewer than three, or little more than a single long weekend.
The total number of hunters in the U.S., meanwhile, has fallen by about 30% in the past two decades.
And hunting remains almost a “get out of jail free” card in many regions for anyone who happens to shoot someone else dead. Only about 40% of fatal “hunting accidents” result in any criminal charges at all against the hunter, the ANIMALS 24-7 archives on nearly 300 hunting fatalities indicate.
When hunters are charged, moreover, the penalties on conviction remain significantly lighter than for other types of accidental homicide––with fatalities inflicted by dogs who run amok a notorious exception.
$1,000 fine for killing grandson
Donald Howe Sr. of Edina, Missouri, for example, on April 22, 2020 pleaded guilty in Knox County Circuit Court to a misdemeanor count of hunting on private land without permission, in exchange for which counts of second-degree involuntary manslaughter and unlawful possession of a firearm filed against him were dropped. Howe was fined just $1,000.
Howe, 75, on November 17, 2019 fatally shot his grandson Andrew Howe, 17, also of Edina, while hunting with a rifle he was prohibited from owning, having pleaded guilty in 2007 to felony driving while intoxicated.
Nine months for killing woman in Maine
Donald Howe killed his grandson about six weeks after Robert Trundy, 40, of Hebron, Maine, was sentenced to seven years in jail, with all but nine months suspended, plus four years on probation, for fatally shooting Karen Wrentzel, 34, also of Hebron, while illegally hunting on her property.
Trundy was initially also charged with failing to provide aid to a person and failing report a hunting accident, for which he could have received up to five years in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.
Those charges were dropped after Trundy agreed to plead guilty to a single count of manslaughter.
“According to a police affidavit filed by Maine warden Anthony Gray,” reported Jon Bolduc of the Lewiston Sun Journal, “Trundy said he could see what he thought was the ‘ass of a deer with a tail, skinny legs and a possible glimpse of what he thought could have been part of a head or antler of a deer.’”
But previous Maine hunter who shot a woman got 17 days
The case reminded Bolduc of the December 7, 2006 death of 18-year-old Megan Ripley near Paris, Maine. Neighbor Timothy Bean, 51 at the time, shot Ripley in the chest with a muzzleloader from 277 feet away as she stood on her father’s posted property.
Her parents, Troy and Jeri Ripley, had retired to the location after Troy Ripley served 20 years in the U.S. Army, including 15 years in Special Forces.
Bean pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 2007, after telling investigators he thought he was aiming at the rear end of a deer, was sentenced to two years in prison with all but 30 days suspended, and actually served just 17 days,
Troy Ripley told Bangor Daily News reporter Scott Thistle in December 2015 that while he had not had any subsequent trouble with Thomas Bean, he had caught Bean’s brothers tearing down his “No Hunting” signs and draining a latrine into his property.
And the Maine hunter who killed Karen Wood walked
Both the Karen Wrentzel and Megan Ripley “hunting accidents” and aftermath also echoed the November 14, 1988 fatal shooting of Karen Wood, 37, the mother of twin girls who had just celebrated their first birthday, by Bangor hunter Donald Rogerson.
Wood had momentarily stepped into her own back yard in Hermon, Maine, near twilight, wearing white-palmed mittens that Rogerson––130 feet away––apparently mistook for deer’s tails.
“News reports at the time indicated that Wood may have been hanging clothing on the line in her back yard, or may have headed into her back yard to warn hunters that there were houses nearby,” recounted Bangor Daily News reporter John Holyoke in 2008, on the 20th anniversary of Wood’s death.
“A grand jury refused to indict Rogerson in 1989,” Holyoke continued, “but a year later another grand jury did hand up an indictment.
“The trial was held in October 1990. A jury deliberated for 9½ hours before finding Rogerson not guilty of manslaughter.”
No real safety improvement
Wood’s husband, Kevin Wood, mentioned to Holyoke that when the jury acquitted Rogerson, “A friend and his wife were at a junior high school soccer match. The verdict was announced over the loudspeaker, and the crowd cheered.”
Disgusted with the blame-the-victim attitude of much of the community, Kevin Wood relocated with his daughters to Iowa.
Paul Jacques, then a state legislator from Waterville, Maine, and later deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, told Holyoke that, “For years up until that time, the penalty for accidentally killing someone while hunting was $200,” whereas the penalty for poaching a moose was a fine of $2,000.
Maine hunting safety regulations were strengthened a little after Rogerson killed Wood, but not enough to either prevent the deaths of Ripley and Wrentzel, or impose meaningful penalties on Trundy and Bean.
The death rate from accidental shootings while hunting dropped from 67 over the 20 years preceding Wood’s death to 13 over the next 20 years, while the number of hunting licenses sold increased slightly. However, a decline of more than 80% in the actual number of days hunters spent in the field would appear to negate any impression of improvement.