For almost five years, now, I have been haunted by events just west of Red Deer on Nov. 29, 2009, and what has been dragging on behind them ever since.
At 4 p.m. that day, 13 km west of Bentley, Herbert Stanley Meister, 57, of Lacombe saw what he thought was a deer at 300 metres, a very long shot away, fired once, missed, shot again and soon was shouting “I shot a guy.” Meister’s second shot from his .270 rifle had hit one of his two hunting companions in the abdomen and, despite Meister’s application of CPR, Philip Moore, 55, of Bentley, was pronounced dead on arrival of an EMS team.
Meister was perhaps too hastily charged with criminal negligence by discharging a firearm and causing death, simply because he was also charged with being in possession of a weapon while being prohibited by court order. That second charge was soon withdrawn by the Crown because, at the time of the fatal shooting, the prohibition order had expired.
Finally, on Nov. 6, almost a full five years later, the criminal negligence charge was withdrawn and Meister, now 62, pleaded guilty in Red Deer provincial court to careless use of a firearm and unlawful possession of a firearm. Judge John Holmes sentenced Meister to 60 days jail time to be served intermittently on weekends and to a two-year-less-a-day conditional sentence involving eight months house arrest, eight with a curfew, and eight without, plus a lifetime weapons prohibition.
At the end of her victim impact statement, Jayne Moore, the victim’s widow, turned to Meister and said she forgave him. Bless her, but the rest of us wonder why the case took so long, and what lessons we are missing because the guilty plea meant no trial, no testimony, no cross examination.
For starters, there is little agreement on what is the difference between a “hunting accident,” which seldom results in any charges, and the dropped charge, “criminal negligence causing death by a firearm,” serious stuff carrying a minimum sentence of four years, up to life imprisonment.
For the record, criminal negligence is doing or omitting to do anything that is your duty to do, that “shows a wanton or reckless disregard for the lives or safety of other persons.” In a hunting accident context, the deceased often contribute to their own demise.
From the agreed statement of facts, informed scuttlebutt, etc., a picture forms of what happened here. As I suspected five years ago, the three gents were “pushing bush,” and Moore was a “driver,” trying to move the deer toward the “stander,” Meister. Moore, apparently, did not know Meister well and had not previously hunted with him. Not being licensed to possess firearms, Meister had probably never taken the excellent Firearms Safety Course and exam you have to pass to get licensed.
Time of that very long shot was 4 p.m., with just an hour left of legal shooting light: the sun would be below the treetops and there would be deep shadows for anyone watching westward for deer to come out of the bush.
Nobody involved was wearing any blaze orange or scarlet.
Meister probably had a scope on his rifle, but I suspect he did not use binoculars, which have superior light-gathering capabilities to even the best rifle scopes. The Alberta Conservation and Hunting Education Manual for the mandatory course and exam every new Alberta hunter must take and pass says flatly: “Never use a scope sight as a substitute for binoculars.” Meister may never have taken that course or exam either. His counsel submitted that Meister was not expecting the victim to be in the area where he shot: “He wasn’t supposed to be there, and the deceased was wearing a camouflage jacket.” Well, camo is legal and “drivers” notoriously wander off course.
Holmes wasn’t buying it either: “because the hunters were not wearing bright colours to be more visible to one another, Meister should have taken even more care.”
His honour called the incident a tragedy, then zeroed in on its cause: “The accused ignored the cardinal rule of gun safety — having a clear view before you shoot. It was gross stupidity on his part, resulting in the death of his hunting partner.” Holmes added he hunted when he was younger, and “you are always taught to know what you are shooting at before pulling the trigger.”
I have known Judge John a long time; I was a law partner of and hunted with his dad, Justice Jack. Later, John became a law partner of mine and we occasionally discussed similar personal experiences of never hunting again with someone who was careless with firearms or disregarded the laws governing hunting and firearms.
The victim, Philip Moore, probably did not know but, speaking for myself, I’d never go hunting with someone if I even suspected he was under a firearms prohibition order, particularly if it had just expired.
Bob Scammell is an award-winning columnist who lives in Red Deer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.