Update: Findings released re November hunting fatality on Lopez - Salish Current
March 8, 2024
Update: Findings released re November hunting fatality on Lopez
Nancy DeVaux

Like other trails in the area, the path from the parking area to Watmough Beach winds through forest. (BLM Oregon and Washington)

March 8, 2024
Update: Findings released re November hunting fatality on Lopez
Nancy DeVaux

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At dawn on the morning of Nov. 18, the parking area at Watmough Bay on the south end of Lopez Island was crowded with hunters. 

Around 8:45 a.m., shots were fired that could be heard from the parking/restroom area approximately 120 yards downhill from where a hunter had been sitting. A projectile had hit and killed James Richard Smith, 53, of South Prairie, who had come with four friends to Lopez to hunt deer that weekend.

After months of waiting for information, the Salish Current on March 7 received in response to a public records request to San Juan County 193 pages of the complete sheriff’s report on the hunting fatality. Statements from half a dozen deputies, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officials and a number of witnesses were included in the report.

Deputies described arriving at the site while CPR was being done on the victim by other hunters while waiting for emergency medical services to arrive. In a statement, the victim’s brother said the two had been hunting separately but were in contact via two-way radio. When the shots were fired, the brother asked James if he had made the shot and James responded that he had been shot.

His brother ran to his side and started yelling for help, and the aid unit was called.

EMTs arrived and conducted CPR until approximately 10:17 a.m., when the victim was pronounced dead.  There was a single buckshot pellet wound to his upper right chest.

Piecing together what happened

Several people mentioned a truck that had left the scene shortly after the shots were fired. The first deputy to arrive had questioned the two men in the truck (identified as brothers) who said they had not been hunting that morning but had driven up to the area and saw how crowded it was and decided to catch the ferry back to the mainland.

After witnesses mentioned seeing the red truck leave, deputies drove to the Lopez ferry landing, where they questioned the two hunters and allowed them to board the ferry to Anacortes.

Another hunter interviewed at the site reported that one of the two men in the truck had told him that one of them had fired shot at a deer that morning but had missed. The San Juan deputy sheriff called the Anacortes Police Department and asked them to intercept the hunters at the dock in Anacortes and retrieve their firearms. 

Hunting is seasonally allowed in national monument land (in yellow) under BLM management on the southeastern corner of Lopez Island. (BLM of Oregon and Washington)

An incident report from WDFW said that department officers arrived in Anacortes on the afternoon of the 18th. The investigator determined that a camouflage Benelli Nova 12-gauge shotgun had recently been fired.

At this point, officials believed that the firing of the shotgun was done with negligence, causing the death of another person. A search warrant request stated that two men were seen fleeing the area and had lied to deputies about their involvement. The warrant, obtained from San Juan County Superior Court Judge Kathryn Loring, stated that there was probable cause for manslaughter in the second degree.  

Members of the San Juan County and Snohomish County sheriff’s departments went to the Granite Falls home of the truck owner. He turned over his bag of hunting gear and voluntarily went to the police department to be interviewed. He acknowledged that he had taken a shot at a deer and missed. The incident report stated that during the interview the suspect cried, demonstrated remorse and vowed that he would never go hunting again.

Conclusion: an accident

The next day, WDFW officers and the San Juan County sheriff met on Lopez to recreate the scene. They located where Smith had been sitting and where the shooter had stood. They determined that the distance from shooter to victim was approximately 93 yards, and that the location of the victim could not be seen from the shooter’s location. 

“Based on the evidence through witness/suspect statements, physical evidence obtained, and reconstruction of the scene, evidence is not sufficient to support a ‘Gross Deviation’ from a reasonable person standard,” the investigation concluded. “The evidence suggests the shooter would not have been able to see the victim at the time the shot was fired. The victim was likely struck by a ricochet round off a tree. The final determination of this case suggests an excusable homicide of an accidental manner.”

Seventeen hunters were identified by name as “involved persons” in the report, and several Lopez residents were also interviewed in the investigation. 

A Lopez resident found a shotgun shell the next day, marked where it was on the ground without moving it and reported it to the sheriff.

The day before the accident, another Lopez resident had called the sheriff’s office to report suspicious behavior of hunters camping in a field across from her home.

Hunting is allowed in the San Juan Islands National Monument, which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, but was one of the more controversial subjects in developing the resource management plan that was adopted in 2023. Hunting in the monument is managed solely by WDFW. 

— Reported by Nancy DeVaux

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