Skip to comments.Inside the Shooting at the Ranch
Posted on 02/19/2006 6:18:08 PM PST by wjersey
What really happened in the brushy South Texas wild that day? How one shot turned a genteel quail hunt into a political crisis?
The delicate and the dangerous meet in the ranch lands of South Texas. In the winter, quail gather in the soft gold of prairie sedge, but snakes, scorpions and wild-boar-like javelina lurk too. In 1999 a fourth-generation South Texas rancher named Tobin Armstrong testified before Congress that he sometimes found illegal immigrants dead of dehydration in the unforgiving brush of his 49,300-acre ranch. It was there that Vice President Dick Cheney, out with a hunting party that included Tobin's daughter Katharine, accidentally sprayed attorney Harry Whittington with birdshot. What took place in the hours before and after the Feb. 11 shooting is a largely mundane tale that became extraordinary when, for days, Cheney seemed unwilling to tell it. The Internet is still excreting rumors.
So, what did happen?
Gentility and blood sport are old friends, but the mix of the wealthy and the rustic at Armstrong Ranch that weekend was exceptional. Tobin's grandfather started the ranch on family land in 1882, after he won a $4,000 bounty for capturing outlaw John Wesley Hardin. The Vice President was hunting with not only his friend Whittington, who has advised Texas Governors and plays a monthly card game with the likes of a retired state supreme court justice, but also Pamela Pitzer Willeford, the ambassador to Switzerland. Tobin died in October, so his wife Anne Legendre Armstrong, a former ambassador to Britain and a longtime Cheney friend, played host. For all that, Armstrong Ranch is countrified rather than ostentatious. At the entrance is a utilitarian "bumper" gate, so named because you nudge it open with your vehicle. Guests usually stay in wooden ranch dwellings near the main house, which are furnished with antiques but few frills.
Katharine Armstrong initially told a Texas reporter that there had been "zero, zippo" drinking that Saturday. But Cheney later said on Fox News that he had had "a beer" at lunch. The meal had been served under an old oak, and the hunt--which had begun that morning--didn't resume until midafternoon. In addition to the grandees with their guns--Cheney's an elegant, Italian-made 28-gauge shotgun, Whittington's a 20-gauge--the party included several guides and dogs. Because of the breadth of the terrain, they got around in old jeeps and other vehicles. According to the local sheriff's report, it was about 5:30 p.m., as the sun was giving way to the gloaming, when the dogs located a covey of quail. Moments later, a guide named Oscar Medellin found another covey. When the dogs flushed the first covey, Whittington fired a lucky shot that hit two birds. As he went to find the downed birds, the report says, Cheney and Willeford moved toward Medellin's covey.
After searching for his birds for a bit, Whittington returned to the vehicle where Katharine Armstrong was. She "told him to go and shoot the second covey," the report says. Whittington walked toward Cheney and Willeford but, as Armstrong later told reporters, didn't announce his presence. "Your first responsibility is to let the other guy know where you are," says Texas A&M professor Dale Rollins, a quail-hunting expert. But Cheney too had a responsibility to know where Whittington was. "It's critical, especially with more than two hunters, to stay in a straight line," says Rollins. Cheney turned toward the setting sun to fire at a bird from the covey Medellin had discovered--and that was the shot that felled Whittington. The ambulance that always accompanies Cheney took his friend to a small hospital 42 miles north, and he was then flown to a big Corpus Christi medical center.
According to Cheney, Katharine Armstrong suggested--and he agreed--that she be the one to make the incident public. Cheney was traveling without a press aide, and anyway, the thinking was, she had witnessed the shooting. Armstrong is also a well-connected G.O.P. lobbyist, and she doubtless wanted to help shape the story. It was decided that she would approach Jaime Powell, a reporter she knew at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. But why wait until the next morning to call? Cheney later said his first concern was ensuring that Whittington's children were notified about the accident and getting accurate information about his condition.
Cheney was in for a fitful evening; he was "just crushed," another guest told the New York Times. The paper says the hunting party somberly ate roast beef for dinner and got periodic reports from two guests who had gone to the hospitals along with Whittington's wife Mercedes. The Secret Service notified local authorities, and a traveling aide to the Vice President gave a heads-up to the White House Situation Room. Bush adviser Karl Rove called Armstrong between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. to ask about Whittington--who, like Armstrong, is a friend of Rove's--and learned of Cheney's role in the accident.
At about 8 a.m. Sunday, a Cheney aide called strategist Mary Matalin, who regularly advises the Vice President. The aide read her a statement about the accident that Cheney had considered releasing before he decided to encourage Armstrong to go to the Caller-Times. But the statement "didn't say much of anything," Matalin says--not even that Cheney was the shooter. Matalin then spoke with a second aide and with Cheney's family and heard different versions of what had happened in the shooting. She decided no statement should be released amid the confusion. Matalin spoke with Cheney, and, she says, they agreed that "a fuller accounting, with an eyewitness," would be preferable.
So Armstrong finally phoned the paper, which posted the story on caller.com at 1:48 p.m., 20 hours after the shooting. It could have taken five minutes to get the story out. A communications official can tell a White House operator from anywhere on the planet, "I need to make a wire call," and within minutes, the operator will call back with wire reporters on the line, ready to flash the news around the world.
Wildlife officials say the most common cause of hunting accidents is a shooter's swinging on game outside the safe zone of fire, as Cheney did. But as generic as the incident was, there are some unanswered questions about that day. For instance, why hasn't the Secret Service released its report? And why hasn't the local sheriff released the text of the depositions his office conducted? There is also a small and geeky but persistent debate over whether Cheney might have been closer to Whittington than 30 yds., the figure in the sheriff's report. Some gun experts say from that distance, it would be unlikely that birdshot could penetrate Whittington's clothes and chest wall. Others agree with Jon Nordby, an analyst with Final Analysis Forensic of University Place, Wash., who says, "It is certainly possible, and I've seen it. I had a case where a BB went through a jacket at 90 ft. and through the pericardial sac and caused death."
Fortunately, that wasn't the result of this mishap. Three days after the shooting, Whittington, who turns 79 next month, experienced a minor heart attack caused by a piece of birdshot that lodged in or near his heart. But by Friday he was well enough to leave the hospital. A lifelong Republican who is also respected by Democrats for helping reform Texas' prison system, Whittington needled reporters as he left. "This past weekend encompassed all of us in a cloud of misfortune and sadness that is not easy to explain, especially to those who are not familiar with the great sport of quail hunting," he said. Whittington was dressed immaculately, as usual, but had bruises and pellet wounds where he had been shot. "Accidents," he said, "do and will happen."
The MSM just can't stop digging their hole deeper and deeper.
Blah, blah blah blah, blah!
In your dreams, Time. In your dreams.
Mary Jo Kopechne could not be reached for comment.
I presume Cheney and company were on the up and up and used steel, not lead, birdshot!
Time is so criminally irresponsible these days they obviously no longer employ fact checkers.
A beer. At lunch.
The nation will be shaken, I say SHAKEN to its foundations as a result of this unbelievable, unimaginable, horrifying Constitutional crisis!
MAIN PRESS PLANS ANOTHER WEEK OF CHENEY SHOOTING COVERAGE
Time only wishes it were a political crisis.
The writers should look in the mirror. Amazing, utterly amazing, but unfortunately not surprising.
Can you imagine how this would have played had Cheney made the announcement?
"In an unusual move, Cheney made the announcement. "He was just trying to get the first story out himself," said a democrat college professor who has nothing to do with the shooting. "This is classic spin--who's going to dispute what the vice president says? Why didn't the witness give out the story first, instead of the shooter? Do we allow criminals to report their crimes first?"
A much more honest statement is that the reporting on this has been a media crisis....there is no political crisis except in the minds of the old media loser leftists who write garbage like this.
LOL. You could write for the MSM.
Sheesh, what'd I ever do to you? ;)
Oh brother, more "Controversy, Crap & Confusion" from the MSM, quite tiresome!
she doubtless wanted to help shape the story
what part was shaped, I wonder?
They deserve the attacks BIG TIME.
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.