By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 17, 2006
CORPUS CHRISTI, Tex., Feb. 16 -- The sheriff's department responsible for investigating Vice President Cheney's shooting of a Texas lawyer has closed its investigation and decided no criminal charges are warranted, according to a report released Thursday.
The Kenedy County Sheriff's Department report largely corroborates the accounts of the shooting given by Cheney and Katharine Armstrong, whose family owns the 50,000-acre ranch where the incident occurred. Cheney shot Harry Whittington, 78, a prominent Austin lawyer, while hunting quail last Saturday afternoon.
The report, written by Chief Deputy Gilbert San Miguel Jr., quotes Cheney and Whittington as saying the shooting was an accident. They said no one was drinking alcohol during the hunt, according to the report. Interviewed in his hospital room in Corpus Christi, Whittington expressed concern only that the incident would hurt hunting's image in Texas, the report said.
"Mr. Whittington did speak of the incident and explained foremost that there was no alcohol during the hunt and everyone was wearing the proper hunting attire of blaze orange," the report said. "Mr. Whittington again reiterated that this incident was just an accident."
Hospital officials have declined to say whether Whittington was given a blood alcohol test when he was admitted.
In his first public comments on the shooting, President Bush said Thursday in Washington that he is satisfied with Cheney's account of what happened. "I thought the vice president handled the issue just fine," he said. "I'm satisfied with the explanation he gave."
Whittington developed an abnormal heart rhythm Tuesday when a birdshot pellet moved in his chest. His condition improved Thursday at Christus Spohn Memorial Hospital, where he was listed in stable condition, hospital officials said. David Blanchard, the hospital's director of emergency services, said he is confident Whittington will continue to recover. "We feel very confident to reasonable medical certainty that there is no other pellet or birdshot that poses a threat to Mr. Whittington," he told reporters.
Cheney discussed the incident publicly for the first time Wednesday in an interview with Fox News, and he took blame for the shooting. Previous statements by Armstrong, who witnessed the shooting, indicated that Whittington may have been to blame.
"You can't blame anybody else," Cheney said. "I'm the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend."
The vice president did not release any word of the shooting at the time, deferring to Armstrong, who called reporters in Texas on Sunday morning. Cheney defended his decision, saying his first concern was for Whittington's health.
The sheriff's 2 1/2 -page report says that San Miguel began his investigation at the Armstrong Ranch at 8 a.m. Sunday, 14 1/2 hours after the shooting occurred. Cheney told San Miguel that a hunting party of seven, riding in three vehicles, was looking for quail in a pasture when dogs located a covey. Whittington, interviewed in his hospital room, told San Miguel that he hit two birds in that covey. Then a hunting guide, Bo Hubert, discovered a second covey. Cheney, who had not shot any birds in the first covey, walked 100 yards with Pamela Pitzer Willeford, the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein, to try his luck with the second. He carried a 28-gauge Italian-made shotgun.
Whittington told the sheriff's department that he looked for his downed birds and then walked over to the hunting vehicles. Armstrong, the report said, then told him to join Cheney and Willeford in their hunt for the second covey. So Whittington followed after them.
Armstrong had told reporters earlier this week that Whittington "came up from behind the vice president and the other hunter and didn't signal them or indicate to them or announce himself."
Meanwhile, quail had been scared from the second covey. Cheney told the sheriff's department that a single bird flew behind him and he followed the bird by line of sight in a counter-clockwise direction, not realizing Whittington had walked up from behind and had positioned himself approximately 30 yards away. Standing on a small hill, Cheney fired down, spraying Whittington's face, neck and chest with birdshot. "Cheney told me the reason Harry Whittington sustained the injuries to his face and upper body," the report said, "was that Mr. Whittington was standing on ground that was lower than the one he was standing on."
After interviewing Cheney on Sunday, San Miguel returned to the ranch on Tuesday to see the pasture where the shooting occurred.
The incident has been a big topic among the many hunters and gun enthusiasts in this region. Ken Tuggle, manager of the Corpus Christi Pistol & Rifle Club, said he could not believe that a blast at 30 yards from a 28-gauge shotgun, which shoots fewer pellets and has a smaller shot pattern than a 12-gauge shotgun, could pass through a hunting jacket and a shirt and that the pellets could become embedded near a victim's heart. "It's hard to fathom," he said.
But George Gongora, a photographer for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, conducted a test earlier this week, firing pellets similar to the ones Cheney used at a target. He said he was convinced that the pellets, which he estimated were moving at 1,400 feet a second, could tear through clothing and skin.
Other hunters questioned why Cheney was shooting down at a flying bird. "The idea behind quail hunting is that you have to hit the quail when it's about five to 10 feet in the air," said Wade Wilson, a South Texas hunting guide. "Quail don't fly very high. But nobody should be shooting down."