Near miss: Professor dodges bullet.... really
The clash between traditional rural culture and sweeping development in Albemarle County took a precarious turn Saturday, December 3, when a bullet ripped through an Ivy home, shattering a window and narrowly missing its owner.
“I was sitting at my computer at about 3pm grading papers,” says Joe Miller, a UVA history professor who lives on Dry Bridge Road, “when I suddenly heard a crash and was covered with glass shards.”
Miller lives with his wife and their six-year-old son in a modern home designed by architect James Tuley. His first thought was that one of the massive windows had simply given way. “We’d been having some structural issues,” he says, “because of all the glass.”
Instead, when he swiveled around to survey the splintered window just four feet behind his chair, he saw a terrifying sight: a perfect hole surrounded by radial fractures.
“I thought, “Oh my God, that was a bullet,” he says.
Crackling gunfire is a common occurrence in the rural areas of Albemarle, where deer hunting with guns is allowed mid-November through December. But this time, says Miller, a bullet hit too close to home– literally.
“Please tell me what we can do to reduce the absurd risks that careless and trigger-happy hunters pose to the residents of this beautiful, wooded county,” he wrote in a December 4 letter to county supervisors Sally Thomas and Brian Wheeler.
Thomas says she’s trying to get more information about the incident from police and game wardens before determining whether any action needs to be taken.
The bullet in Miller’s home, says Thomas, is “a symptom of the fact that we have residential development in what is supposed to be rural area.”
The conflict is further complicated, she explains, because hunting is the most efficient way to keep the deer population from growing out of control. But there is another way. Subdivisions in Albemarle often hire bow hunters, she says, who can acquire special licenses to hunt in residential areas at any time of year. But hunting deer with rifles– which can propel a projectile more than a mile– has a long history in Albemarle, and it’s a tradition that likely won’t go quietly.
County spokesperson Lee Catlin says both the county and the state have a slew of laws in place to make hunting safe.
The county ordinance prohibits discharging a firearm within 50 feet of a highway or discharging a firearm across any primary or secondary road. State law requires hunters to have permission from the owner of any property on which they want to hunt, and hunting in any area officially designated residential is also verboten.
But Miller says he’d like to see stricter laws regulating hunting near rural housing developments.
“Ivy looks wooded, but the area is nearly completely built in now,” he wrote. “There are very few shots that are safe– not for the deer, but for the residents.”
In November 1997, that danger was driven home when Albemarle County resident Janice Garrison was killed in her yard by a bullet from a high-powered rifle while her husband was standing nearby.
An investigation revealed that Glen Scott Snow had been hunting in the woods by the Garrisons’ property that day. An opinion issued by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2000 reveals that Snow, who had previously been convicted of felony possession of a controlled substance, was convicted of felony possession of a firearm.
But despite a plea agreement that required Snow to turn over his weapon for ballistics testing, he failed to do so, and his prosecution never went beyond a sentence of 37 months in prison, followed by a 36-month probation. Snow was never charged in Garrison’s death, which is still considered an open homicide case.
Despite Miller’s recent experience and Garrison’s death, Sergeant Kenneth Dove, game warden for the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, calls such an incident a “very rare occurrence.” He likens hunting to driving a car.
“We depend upon other people to obey the law and to use care, courtesy, and good judgment,” Dove says.
Miller, who called 911 immediately after his own bullet incident, says he assumes the bullet that entered his home was fired accidentally.
The Albemarle County police officer in charge of the investigation, Larry Claytor, was unavailable for comment at press time.
Forensics on the bullet– which split in two, with a half landing on either side of Miller– will take several weeks to complete, Dove says, though he judges it was of a large caliber that could be consistent with a hunting rifle. Because the bullet didn’t lodge in the room, police cannot determine its trajectory, which requires two points of impact.
Despite his close call, Miller says he’s not opposed to hunting– in fact, he sees a need to cull the deer herds that besiege his property each year. But he says firing guns near houses is not the answer.
“I welcome the bow hunters, a sensible and sporting lot on the whole, who help to keep the deer from eating us out of house and home,” he wrote in his letter to Thomas. “But we really must ban hunting with high-powered rifles in neighborhoods, before one of our children is found dead in the back yard. The odds of others escaping as fortunately as I did are dropping every day.”
<img src="/images/issues/2005/0449/news-bullethole.jpg"> <BR>A bullet crashed through this 56” x 92” window.<br>PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
<img src="/images/issues/2005/0449/news-miller.jpg"> <BR>Joe Miller dodged a bullet in his Ivy home. <br>PHOTO BY HAWES SPENCER