Just before dusk, Glen Preston was walking down a rarely used camp road when he heard a branch snap. He looked up and saw a deer’s front legs as it stepped into the road 75 yards away. Then he saw the deer’s face and antlers. He looked down to cock his gun and when he raised his eyes, he saw a flash of white. Thinking it was the deer’s tail, he fired.
“I heard this ungodly, terrible sound,” Preston told me. Then his voice broke and he took a ragged breath. “You’ll have to excuse me for a minute. It’s been a long time, but it’s just like it happened yesterday.”
“So I heard this real weird, real high-pitched strange noise like I’d never heard before in my life. His fiancé was standing right beside him and I couldn’t even see her because she was dressed in all navy blue. It was her that was making the noise.”
On Nov. 9, 1987, Preston, then 23, killed Harvey Smith III, a 31-year-old New Hampshire man headed to his camp in Roque Bluffs. Wearing a brown coat and beige hat, Smith had leaned over to move a log that blocked the road. When the shot hit him, Smith fell forward, saying, “I’ve been hit. Oh, my God.”
In the past quarter century, hunters in Maine have killed 22 people, including five in the past decade, the last in 2006. With more than 200,000 hunters, that’s a remarkable safety record and a striking contrast to the toll before a nationwide safety crusade. From 1932 to 1941, with half as many hunters, 131 people died in Maine hunting homicides, including 21 in 1935 alone.
I’m heartened by the gains in safety, but haunted by how tragic hunting fatalities are for the victims, shooters, families and even investigating officers. Their stories replayed in my mind this week because I met a woman whose husband was shot by his friend in the early 1960s. In their small town, she often saw the man who had killed him. She both hated and felt sorry for him because he, too, suffered.
As Gary Anderson, who was Maine’s safety officer for 25 years, once told me, there are always two victims. One person’s life ends in a moment; the other relives that moment for the rest of his life.
“If this person is a normal person, they’re going through a hell of a lot of torture,” Anderson said. “It’s something that they would not have done for the world and they would give the world to take that instant back.”
Do you punish the shooter or pity him? Maine has done both. In the 22 fatalities since 1982, seven hunters were acquitted of manslaughter and eight were convicted, most after pleading guilty. Four were never charged because the shootings were ruled accidental. Another pled guilty to driving deer and a teenager’s charges were dismissed in a plea bargain. The penalties imposed ranged from community service to five years in jail for a hunter who shot a logger and left him to die.
State law was changed in an effort to hold hunters accountable after Karen Wood, mother of young twins, was killed while wearing white mittens to hang laundry behind her Bangor house Nov. 15, 1988, Donald Rogerson never denied he killed her, but testified he’d fired at a white “flag” — the tail of a deer. The jury deliberated two days and acquitted him of manslaughter.
Justice is difficult to define in hunting homicides, much less achieve. Jurors and judges see a defendant who didn’t set out to commit a crime, unlike a person who robs a store. The agony of the hunter – Rogerson’s cries of, “Oh, no, oh, no, oh, no,” could be heard 300 yards away – touches everyone. As one judge remarked when he freed a defendant, “he has already been sentenced by a court higher than this.”
Maine’s last hunting fatality took place on Dec. 7, 2006. Timothy Bean, 51 of South Paris shot 18-year-old Megan Ripley in a wooded area near her Paris home. He pled guilty to manslaughter on May 7, 2007, and was sentenced to 30 days in jail and two years probation. He paid $5,000 to the Victims' Compensation Fund, which covered the cost of Ripley's funeral. The fact that Bean took responsibility for Megan’s death and that Ripley’s family forgave him were factors in his sentence. At her funeral, which Bean attended, her family asked others to pray for him.
“I can't imagine what it must be like for him every single day,” Megan’s mother, Jeri Ripley, told a reporter later.
If Bean’s days are anything like Glen Preston’s, you wouldn’t want to imagine them. When I talked to Preston in 2002, he’d spent 16 years wondering how he made such a terrible mistake. “They do claim that if a person wants to see something bad enough,” he said, “that his mind will see it.”
When we want or expect to see something, like a deer in the hunting season, the odds of a mistake go up. And even if a hunter knows he hit a person, he may still believe he fired at an animal. Preston has a vivid memory of the deer he saw on Nov. 9, 1987, even though he’s painfully aware it was only a tragic illusion.
Before his trial began, Preston already had judged himself. He lost weight until he was “just skin and bones.” He fell into a deep depression. A year to the day after he killed Smith, Preston shot himself.
“Thank the good Lord, it just grazed the side of my stomach,” he said. “I just hated myself for taking someone’s life.”
His 17 months in prison cost him his wife, his home and everything he had. Eventually, Preston remarried and rebuilt his life. But he swore he’d never pick up another gun and had a warning for those who do.
“Tell them to close their eyes, shake their head and look again,” Preston says. “Make sure you see what you’re seeing. Because your mind can play tricks. And it can really be a tragic trick. Like it was for me.”