July 14, 2013

Open access is flashpoint for hunters, landowners

A shooting in Starks last October highlights the tenuous -- and tense -- relationship when it comes to hunting on private property.

By Rachel Ohm rohm@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

STARKS - Kerry Hebert had dropped his wife and two children at a Halloween party at the Starks Community Center last Oct. 31. It was approaching dusk as he drove back home.

On Mount Hunger Road, which serves as his driveway, he stopped the van and got out to speak with a group of hunters.

Among the five were two brothers -- Burpey Pond, 72, and Robert Pond, 76 -- who were tracking a deer they had shot in nearby woods.

Hebert asked the hunters not to hunt near his home, and they began arguing. The argument turned into a fight. Burpey Pond and Hebert grappled and Pond lost three teeth. Robert Pond intervened and Hebert appears to have grabbed Robert Pond's rifle.

Hebert was shot in the side, the bullet breaking two ribs. He said, "You shot me," and drove off, Burpey Pond told police afterward.

Those details about the Oct. 31 shooting are from newly released police interviews and reports that for the first time publicly name the hunters and describe what happened that afternoon. The reports, from the Somerset County Sheriff's Department, were released this month after the Morning Sentinel filed Freedom of Access Act requests.

The confrontation itself wasn't unusual in a state where hunter access to private land is a tradition, but the shooting was. The new information details just how difficult it was for authorities to determine what happened and who was at fault.

In the nine months since Hebert was shot, neither he nor police have said much about it. More questions were raised last month after the police investigation was brought before a Somerset County grand jury, which decided not to indict the Ponds or Hebert. Grand jury proceedings are private.

Somerset County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney said she decided to take the case to the 23-member grand jury because police couldn't determine who was at fault, even though Hebert was shot from close range and authorities knew who was involved.

"There were two very different accounts and ultimately that is why we felt a grand jury should decide this case," Maloney said.

The case was also unusual because both parties were injured and because forensic evidence, twice submitted to the Maine State Police Crime Laboratory, corroborated pieces of both their stories, Maloney said.

Hebert, 57, a self-employed contractor and husband of Town Clerk Jenn Hebert, declined to comment on the new information.

In a prepared statement to the Morning Sentinel, Hebert said he was disappointed that the District Attorney's Office didn't pursue criminal charges against the Ponds and that there were "a number of discrepancies and inaccuracies" in the police reports.

Neither he nor his attorney, John Alsop, would explain further.

AN UNEASY RELATIONSHIP

The shooting highlights the tenuous relationship between Maine hunters and property owners when it comes to the centuries-old tradition of open access to private land.

Doug Rafferty, spokesman for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said that in the past people have been accidentally killed by hunters who misidentify targets, fail to consider whether anyone is in their line of fire, or fire a weapon too close to a home or camp.

In one of the state's best known cases in November 1988, 37-year-old Karen Wood of Hermon was hanging laundry in her backyard when she was shot by hunter Donald Rogerson, who said he mistook her white-palmed mittens for the tail of a whitetail deer.

(Continued on page 2)

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