A dangerous season revisited

ST. PARIS, Ohio -- October 30 will be the one-year anniversary of a night Ohio state wildlife officers Jeff Tipton and Adam Smith don't care to remember. It was the night their patrol vehicle was fired upon by poachers.

The officers were seated in their pickup truck parked along a field edge, on surveillance for illegal deer spotlighters. A vehicle pulled into the same field opposite the officers, and directed its headlights at the patrol vehicle.

"The suspect vehicle kept slowly working its way across the field toward us," Tipton said, "until it stopped about 100 yards away. Suddenly, a bullet shot through our windshield and passed between Officer Smith and me. Surprisingly, we never saw the muzzle flash or heard the gun go off, as it was raining hard that night.

"Once I realized what was happening, I bailed out of the vehicle and drew my sidearm, taking cover behind my truck. Then it started to dawn on me that the shot likely wasn't on purpose. At least it wasn't meant for us ... "

As Tipton later discovered, he was correct. With the rain obscuring the view, the poachers had fired at the patrol vehicle's LED light bar, positioned along the top, inside of the cab, thinking the reflection was deer eyes. The .17-caliber bullet passed through the truck's windshield and disintegrated upon hitting the rear window, leaving no exit hole.

Thankfully, neither officer was directly hit, but Smith -- less than five months out of the training academy -- did have some small pieces of glass penetrate his face. Quickly recovering from their initial shock, the two officers flipped on their vehicle's emergency lights, and the suspects fled.

The ensuing high-speed chase covered more than four miles from Johnson Township to Concord Township in Champaign County, where the suspects ran off the road, crashing their vehicle. As a result, three suspects were apprehended and taken into custody: Jesse Coffey, Todd Noel, and Jacob Shepherd, all from the small town of St. Paris, Ohio.

The three defendants were subsequently charged, found guilty, and fined by the local court, but the judge also used some creative sentencing. The poachers are required to do community service work in the form of speaking to students attending Hunter Education courses, telling of their running afoul of the law.

On Tuesday evening, Oct. 19, Noel and Shepherd did just that, speaking in their hometown of St. Paris to a group of about 40 young hunters and their parents.

Guns and alcohol ...
"It's embarrassing for me to have to stand up here and speak to you tonight," began 19-year-old Shepherd. "Just like many of you, hunting was and still is much of my life. But what I did about a year ago was stupid and uncalled for; alcohol clouded my judgment that night.

"I've hunted all my life," Shepherd said. "My grandpa got me started in the sport, showing me the way of the woods and the land. But I made a mistake, and now I'm paying for it.

"I can't legally hunt for five years now. All my firearms have been taken away from me, and I'm not allowed to acquire any new ones for the next five years. I also now have a felony conviction on my record. And all because we decided to do something stupid one night. We did what we did, that can't be changed, and now we have to pay the price."

Shepherd concluded, "So I'm here to say to you tonight, respect the sport of hunting. Because I've learned that if you don't, it can be taken away from you. And you won't realize what you've lost until it's gone ... "

Thirty-five-year-old Todd Noel was the person who pulled the trigger in the shooting incident.

"That night was proof to me that weapons and alcohol don't mix," he said. "I've been around guns and hunting my whole life, even spending three years in the military fighting for my country, and knew better. If you want to go hunt, go hunt. Or if you want to go drink, go drink. But don't do both together. It can be a deadly combination.

"I could be in much more trouble than I am now, had things gone differently that night. If that bullet had passed through the windshield of the truck just three or four inches to the left of where it did, I could have accidentally killed a state wildlife officer."

Both wildlife officers Tipton and Smith realize the shooting was not intended for them, and they harbor no animosity toward the three convicted men.

"All three have shown remorse and are paying for their mistakes," Tipton said. "And I know that speaking in front of the Hunter Education class was difficult for them."

The men will be speaking to a second Ohio Hunter Education class in November.

The sentencing ...

Todd Noel (the shooter) and Jesse Coffey (the driver) each received 65 days in jail, with the possibility of 18 months in prison if they violate probation; 300 hours of community service, to include speaking at Hunter Education courses and talking to the news media; a $300 fine; five years of community control (probation); and a five-year revocation of hunting privileges.

Jacob Shepherd received 50 days in jail, with the possibility of 17 months in prison if he violates probation; 300 hours of community service, to include speaking at Hunter Education courses and talking to the news media; a $200 fine; five years of community control (probation); and a five-year revocation of hunting privileges.

In addition, the three men forfeited two .22-caliber pistols and a .17-caliber rifle to the state of Ohio, Division of Wildlife.

"It was the scariest night of my 15-year career as a state wildlife officer so far," Tipton said. "And not so much for the bullet coming through the windshield, but the ensuing vehicle chase. After it was all over, I bet I didn't sleep an hour that night."

W. H. "Chip" Gross is a frequent contributor to ESPNoutdoors.com, and a former Ohio state wildlife officer himself. He can be reached for comment about this story through his Web site, www.chipgross.com.