The fatal shooting of a USDA Forest Service law enforcement officer by coyote hunters in Jasper County remained under investigation today by state and federal wildlife authorities.
"At this point, charges, if any, have not been determined," said spokeswoman Melissa Cummings of the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division. "It is still under investigation and we are working with the Forest Service on this one."
The officer, 37-year-old Christopher Arby Upton of Monroe, Ga., was shot and killed about 11 p.m. Friday while patrolling in the Ocmulgee Bluff Equestrian Recreation Area of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest.
The man who shot him, Norman Clinton Hale, 40, of McDonough, Ga., was hunting coyotes with a high-powered rifle equipped with night-vision equipment. He was accompanied by another man, Clifford Allen McGouirk, 41, of Jackson, Ga., authorities said.
According to the their accounts of the incident, Upton was behind a berm, using binoculars, and the binocular lenses apparently looked like eyes through the men's night-vision scopes. They later told investigators they mistook Upton for a coyote and shot him. They subsequently dialed 911 to report the shooting and are cooperating with investigators.
Coyotes are a nuisance species in Georgia and there is no closed season, Cummings said. They may be hunted year-round, and at night, with no bag limits-and the equipment the men were using is legal for such hunts.
Steven Ruppert, special agent-in-charge for the Southern Region of the Forest Service, said in a letter to employees today that the incident has been a terrible tragedy.
"We are all aware of the inherent risk and danger of this job," he wrote. "Ability, training, and experience, however, cannot protect us in all situations even though we do the right thing. Chris was doing his job and doing it well."
Law Enforcement Col. Homer Bryson of Georgia's Wildlife Resources Division said the officer was killed instantly-and blamed the tragedy on the failure of the shooter to properly identify his target before pulling the trigger.
The accident marks the 32nd accident and eighth hunting related fatality in Georgia for the 2009-2010 seasons, according to Department of Natural Resources records.
The eight fatalities included-in addition to Upton's death-two deaths attributed to natural causes (stroke and heart attack), one "mistaken for game" shooting, one accidental, self-inflicted shooting, a rattlesnake bite and two falls from deer stands.
By comparison, Georgia's 2008-09 hunting season yielded 34 hunting accidents with four fatalities. Two of those cases involved heart attacks and two were due to falls from tree stands. There were no fatal shootings, but state authorities did investigate six people who were shot by other hunters in cases where people were mistaken for game; and six cases of accidental self-inflicted gunshot wounds.
One of victims among those 2008 shootings was a Georgia game warden, Cpl. Curtis Wright, who was shot in the lower chest with a 7 mm magnum rifle by a deer hunter 70 yards away. He survived his wounds but has since retired.
The deer hunter who fired the shot, Lynn Jeffers, eventually pleaded guilty to negligent use of a firearm, hunting without hunter education certification, hunting without a license and hunting without permission. He received four years of probation plus fines and was given first offender status, according to DNR records.
During the 2007-08 season, there were five shooting fatalities, of which four involved children or teenagers. During 2006-07, there were no fatal shootings and the single reported fatality involved a fall from a tree stand.
Most hunting accidents occur during deer season, which attracts the most participants. Typically, about 350,000 people hunt in Georgia each season.
Upton, a 4-year veteran of the Forest Service, previously worked as a game warden for the U.S. Marine Corps and as a game warden and pilot with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. He is survived by his wife, Jessica, and a 4-year-old daughter, Annabelle.