Cheney Shoots Fellow Hunter in Texas Accident
Companion in Intensive Care With Upper-Body Wounds
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 13, 2006; Page A01
Vice President Cheney accidentally sprayed a companion with birdshot while hunting quail on a private Texas ranch, injuring the man in the face, neck and chest, the vice president's office confirmed yesterday after a Texas newspaper reported the incident.
The shooting occurred late Saturday afternoon while Cheney was hunting with Harry Whittington, 78, a prominent Austin lawyer, on the Armstrong Ranch in south Texas. Hearing a covey of birds, Cheney shot at one, not realizing that Whittington had startled the quail and that he was in the line of fire.
Whittington was treated on the scene by Cheney's traveling medical detail before being taken by helicopter to a Corpus Christi hospital. He was in the intensive care unit at Christus Spohn Health System and listed in stable condition yesterday evening.
Katharine Armstrong, the ranch's owner, saw what happened Saturday and told reporters yesterday that Cheney was using a 28-gauge shotgun, which shoots fewer pellets and has a smaller shot pattern than a 12-gauge shotgun, making it harder to hit the target. Whittington was about 30 yards away when he was hit in the cheek, neck and chest, she said.
According to Armstrong's account, she was watching from a car while Cheney, Whittington and another hunter got out of the vehicle to shoot at a covey of quail. Whittington shot a bird and as he went to retrieve it, Cheney and the third hunter discovered a second covey.
Whittington "came up from behind the vice president and the other hunter and didn't signal them or indicate to them or announce himself," Armstrong said, according to the Associated Press.
It was Armstrong's decision to alert the news media. Cheney's office made no public announcement, deciding to defer to Armstrong because the incident had taken place on her property. Armstrong called the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, and when a reporter from the paper called the White House, the vice president's office confirmed the account.
Cheney's office referred other reporters to Armstrong for a witness account, but after speaking to some members of the media yesterday afternoon, Armstrong stopped returning phone calls.
She told reporters that the small shotgun pellets "broke the skin" and that the blast "knocked him silly. But he was fine. He was talking. His eyes were open. It didn't get in his eyes or anything like that."
"Fortunately, the vice president has got a lot of medical people around him and so they were right there and probably more cautious than we would have been," she said. "The vice president has got an ambulance on call, so the ambulance came."
The International Hunter Education Association, which represents safety coordinators for fish and wildlife agencies and tracks incident reports by state, said on its Web site that hunting accidents in the United States have declined about 30 percent over the past decade. In 2002, the most recent year for which data were available, 89 fatal and 761 nonfatal incidents were reported. In 26 of the cases, including one fatality, the intended target was quail.
"The vice president visited Harry Whittington at the hospital and was pleased to see that he's doing fine and in good spirits," Cheney spokeswoman Lea Anne McBride said yesterday. Cheney returned to Washington last night.
"The vice president was concerned," said Mary Matalin, a Cheney adviser who spoke with him yesterday morning. "He felt badly, obviously. On the other hand, he was not careless or incautious or violate any of the [rules]. He didn't do anything he wasn't supposed to do."
White House aides said President Bush was notified about the incident, although he had not spoken to Cheney as of late yesterday afternoon. "The president was informed after the accident and received updates today," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said yesterday.
Whittington is well known around Austin, an old-school Texan whose friends include a retired Catholic bishop and who plays cards with a former Texas Supreme Court chief judge. Feisty and outspoken, he is a millionaire real estate investor who is known for a reformer's streak through his service on the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, which oversees the state prison system, and the Texas Funeral Service Commission.
"His dignified presence belies a fierce competitive spirit and antipathy toward government power," the Austin American-Statesman wrote in a profile of Whittington published last July.
Cheney, an avid hunter, usually visits the 50,000-acre Armstrong Ranch, settled in 1882, once a year. He also hunts regularly at sites in Georgia and South Dakota.
The Armstrong family has a long history in Texas Republican politics and has been close to the Bush family, as well as to the vice president.
Tobin Armstrong, Katharine Armstrong's father, was a Pioneer, an elite fundraiser for Bush. After Tobin Armstrong died last October, Cheney spoke at his funeral. Tobin Armstrong described previous outings with Cheney in an Associated Press interview in 2000: "We go out when the dew is still on the grass, and then hunt until we shoot our limit. Then we pick a fine spot and have a wild game picnic lunch."
His wife, Anne Armstrong, served as co-chairman of the Republican National Committee, White House counselor to President Richard M. Nixon, ambassador to Britain for President Gerald R. Ford, and co-chairman of Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. Bush put her on the board of Texas A&M University when he was governor, and she was on the board of Halliburton when the company hired Cheney.
Katharine Armstrong also was a Bush Pioneer, along with her now ex-husband, Warren Idsal, according to Texans for Public Justice, which monitors political fundraising.
As governor, Bush appointed Katharine Armstrong to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, which regulates hunting, among other duties. People familiar with the Saturday outing said that Cheney had obtained the proper seasonal license.
Some Cheney critics pointed out that this is not the first Cheney hunting controversy. Two years ago, the vice president was criticized for going duck hunting with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia soon after the court had agreed to hear Cheney's appeal in an lawsuit related to his energy task force. A month earlier, he had bagged about 70 stocked pheasants at a private shooting club in Pennsylvania.
"Cheney needs to start setting a less violent example by switching to target practice and leaving animals and people in peace," PETA President Ingrid Newkirk said in a statement.
"We'd advise him to pursue a less violent form of relaxation and get on with the important business of leading the country," Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, said in a statement.
Staff writer Sylvia Moreno in Austin contributed to this report.