Jury Acquits Turkey Hunter Who Shot DNR Ranger

A year ago on opening day of turkey season, DNR Ranger Leon Tucker was shot by a turkey hunter. Here’s the outcome of that case.

Brad Bailey | April 2, 2002

The worst day in DNR Law Enforcement Ranger Leon Tucker’s life started out as an ordinary day.

On March 24, 2001, opening day of Georgia’s turkey season, Leon and rangers Darrell Watson, Patrick Dupree, George Tharpe and Greg Moody met around 5:30 a.m. near a church in Echols County near the Lanier County line. At 6:30, rangers Tharpe, Tucker and Watson left the church in Leon’s vehicle and headed north on Highway 135 toward Naylor. They intended to check a private tract off Grand Bay/River Road in Lowndes County. The other rangers headed south on Highway 135. The weather was crisp and clear, and there was no clue of the disaster about to occur.

Tharpe, Tucker and Watson pulled off on a 2-track road where they encountered two hunters. The hunters were checked and found to be in compliance with hunting regulations.

The rangers continued down Grand Bay/River Road a short distance and pulled off on another 2-track road, where they stopped, got out of the vehicle and began to walk toward an area that had been found to be baited on March 16.

After walking several hundred yards, they passed a light-tan, extended cab pickup and then began to follow boot tracks down the road. They heard a hunter calling a turkey and walked closer until they saw a turkey decoy in the road. They waited several minutes about 40 yards from the decoy, scanning the area for the hunter, and discussing how to best approach the area. They decided that one ranger should circle behind the hunter’s location.

Leon decided to go, since he was most familiar with the area. It was nearly 7 a.m. Leon was wearing his uniform, with a black DNR jacket covered with a Realtree pattern Bug Tamer.

Approximately 40 yards away hidden off the side of the road sat a 42-year-old man, at the time, and his daughter, 20 at the time, both of Valdosta.

The man told GON that his daughter was not hunting, but she had come along to observe. It was her first time in the turkey woods.

He said he had been in the area the day before and had seen birds. He and his daughter had set up around 6 a.m. and had heard a gobbler, and he was calling to the bird.

“About an hour later I saw what looked like a white head coming through the woods. I saw something white bobbing up and down like a turkey walking, and it was coming closer to my decoy,” he said. “It looked like it fanned out and its head was bobbing up and down. I knew it was a turkey. I have hunted for 10 or 12 years.”

His daughter would later tell investigators that she, too, saw a turkey and saw it go into strut.

The hunter took aim and pulled the trigger of his Remington 870, which was equipped with an extra-full turkey choke, setting off a 3-inch magnum load of No. 5 shot.

The victim’s view — on the morning of March 24, 2001, Cpl. Leon Tucker was walking down this woods road in Lowndes County toward a turkey decoy set in the road. A hunter and his daughter were sitting in the woods to the right just beyond the decoy. This is the view Leon had at the moment he was shot.

Twenty-eight yards away, Ranger Leon Tucker was standing in the middle of the woods road when the shotgun fired. The shot charge ripped a path through brush along the woods road and then centered Leon about waist high. Pellets punctured his upper thighs, groin, lower abdomen and hands. A 6-inch section of his femoral artery was essentially blown away. The massive loss of blood would later trigger a stroke.

“I didn’t know what had happened,” said the hunter. “When I shot, I knew I was shooting at a turkey. I had watched it for 30 or 40 seconds. When I saw that it was a man, it scared the devil out of me. I went right to him, and my daughter ran to get the truck and call 911.”

When rangers Tharpe and Watson heard the shot and a yell, they immediately began walking toward the area. When the shot was followed almost immediately by a distraught yell, they realized that something had gone wrong, and they began to run toward the area.

As they rounded a curve in the road, they saw the hunter kneeling over a body in the road. According to Watson’s report, when the man saw them approaching, he yelled, “Let’s get help, let’s get help. I shot him.”

As the officers came closer, they recognized the man on the ground as Leon. The man kneeling over him was the hunter, ironically, an acquaintance. The hunter was reportedly crying hysterically and trying to console Leon Tucker, who was laying face down on the road and groaning.

The shooter’s view — this photo, taken by DNR law-enforcement officers with the Critical Incident Reconstruction Team (CIRT) to recreate the shooting, shows the view from where the hunter sat. The shot he took at what he said he thought was a gobbler was taken through the brush in the left of the photo. The 12-gauge, 3-inch magnum load of No. 5s struck Leon, who was standing 28 yards away in the road.

The officers radioed rangers Dupree and Moody to advise them of the incident. Immediately they ran for their vehicle to transport Leon out of the woods. On the way out the woods road, they encountered the hunter’s truck, driven by his very-upset daughter. The daughter’s cellular phone was used to notify 911 to send an ambulance.

When the officers moved Leon to place him in the back of the hunter’s vehicle, they uncovered a large amount of blood. At this time they discovered that Leon had two folded sheets of notebook paper with a hand-drawn map of the area in his hand — the paper had been punctured by shotgun pellets and was smeared with Leon’s blood.

The officers drove back to Grand Bay/River Road to Highway 135 onto Highway 84 in Naylor. There they met a Lowndes County Deputy Sheriff who advised them that an ambulance was en route to take Leon to the South Georgia Medical Center, located approximately 18 miles away in Valdosta. They continued toward the hospital and met the ambulance about eight miles down the road. Leon was transferred into the ambulance. When the medical technicians saw Leon, they knew they both needed to ride in the back of the ambulance to provide immediate attention. Ranger Tharpe slid in behind the steering wheel to drive the ambulance to the hospital.

Ironically, the surgeon that later worked on Leon was in the woods that morning turkey hunting. He was paged about the critically injured hunter being rushed to the hospital, and he hurried out of the woods himself.

The damage to Leon was extensive. To repair the destroyed femoral artery, an artery was “harvested” from his lower leg to splice the destroyed femoral.

“It was touch and go there for awhile about whether he was going to make it or not,” said Howard Hensley, region Law Enforcement captain at the time.

Across the state, the DNR family pulled together for Leon.

“The initial report was that he was not going to make it,” said DNR spokesperson Beth Brown.

Within 45 minutes of hearing about the shooting, DNR Law Enforcement Col. Ron Bailey and Lt. Col. Eddie Henderson were aboard a DNR helicopter heading for the South Georgia Medical Center.

Within hours of the shooting, the DNR Critical Incident Reconstruction Team (CIRT), headed by Sgt. Keith Byers, was being assembled to investigate the shooting. That afternoon they marked evidence, took measurements, marked the path of the shot, performed visibility tests and photographed the area.

On April 16, four DNR officers returned to the scene at 6 a.m. to do a detailed reenactment of the shooting.

In late April, the case was turned over to a grand jury, which indicted the hunter, charging him with felony misuse of a firearm while hunting. This statute (16-11-108) was known as the Pritch Morgan bill when it was passed by the Georgia Legislature in 1989 at the request of sportsmen.

The 2-day jury trial took place Nov. 6-7 before a jury of 12 people who were not hunters. The defense attorney had consistently struck potential jurors who indicated that they were hunters.

For two days, the jurors were presented extensive details about how the shooting took place. The prosecution stressed the hunter’s negligent behavior; the defense emphasized that the shooting had been an accident. The jurors listened to emotional testimony from Leon Tucker when he took the stand.

On Nov. 7, after deliberating less than 10 minutes, The jury returned its verdict: The hunter was acquitted.

“The verdict was quick,” said Brad Shealy, senior assistant District Attorney who prosecuted the case for the state. “Some of the jurors thought that he really saw a turkey,” he said. “They thought it was an accident.

“Our position was that (the hunter) should have seen that it was a man, who obviously does not look like a turkey. He failed to identify his target before he pulled the trigger, and the result was that a person was shot. We argued that hunters have a responsibility to identify their target, but the jury didn’t accept that.

“One problem with the code section,” said Shealy, “is that it requires a gross deviation from standard care, not just negligence, to convict. The defense hit on that, which probably played a part.”

According to Shealy, the hunter walked away from the shooting without criminal penalty.

Today, a year after the accident, Leon is taking physical therapy twice a week. He works out with weights, walks on a treadmill and rides a stationary bike, attempting to rehabilitate damaged legs. He has recovered from the stroke caused by the massive loss of blood. He told GON that he is “doing pretty good,” but when he stands for any length of time, one of his feet swells painfully, and he has other medical problems. He still carries numerous shot pellets in his body.

After 21 years as a conservation ranger, Leon was forced to take disability retirement due to his injuries.

Leon said that he was surprised by the jury’s decision, but he declined to comment further about the trial. He also chose not to talk about the day that he was shot.

“I hate it that it happened,” said the hunter. “But it was just an accident. I think there were two wrongs: I was wrong for shooting him, and he was wrong for not calling out or wearing orange. I’ll put it this way, I don’t know anyone who will walk up on a decoy.

“Thank God I didn’t kill him.”

The hunter suggested that similar shootings might be avoided in the future if turkey hunters didn’t sit on the ground. “One thing is, don’t sit on the ground,” he said. “Sit on a stool or something. If I had been up another eight inches, I’d have been able to see better.”

DNR Sgt. Keith Byers, who headed up the DNR investigation and sat through the trial, discounts the notion that the hunter saw a turkey.

“He insisted that he saw a turkey fan out. That’s totally impossible. What he saw was the white piece of paper Leon was carrying. I was involved in the re-enactment, and I think that’s what he saw.

“The bottom line is that he did not identify his target. I don’t care what Leon was wearing, it is the hunter’s responsibility to identify his target.

“Every hunter has the power of life and death in his hands. If you consciously take aim and pull the trigger, you are responsible for what you have done — and if you have killed someone, or caused bodily harm, that’s negligence,” said Byers.

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