Although a Butler County judge said St. Clair Twp. has not proven errant bullets shot through an elderly woman’s living room window came from the Lake Bailee firing range, the court battle will go on.
After a bullet allegedly flew five feet from 88-year-old Berneice Wright’s face while she was watching television in her living room, the township passed an emergency resolution to temporarily shut down the shooting range at Lake Bailee Recreational Park & Gun Range. The trustees subsequently filed an action in Butler County Common Pleas Court, seeking a permanent injunction to force the owner of the gun range to take safety precautions.
After a three-hour hearing, Judge Jennifer Muench-McElfresh said she sympathized with the neighbors near the shooting range on Gephart Road, but did not find strong enough evidence to blame the business for the incident.
“While the court certainly recognizes and believes that protecting innocent persons from gunshots that run amiss is of great importance to the public interest, the court cannot make the connection that the bullets that hit Miss Wright’s home or the other witnesses… that those came from Lake Bailee,” McElfresh said.
Wright’s daughter Pam Hubbard told the Journal-News she cannot believe what has happened and says at first she was “extremely angry, then confused and now so disappointed in the judicial system.”
“How is it right that my mother who has lived in this house for more than 50 years without any issues, now has to fear for her life even while sitting in her living room,” Hubbard said. “How is it right that all the people who also live on that road who have had incidents should be fearful and how is it right that a person simply driving down the road or driving a school bus on that road should be in danger of stray bullets.”
Some of Wright’s neighbors have also complained about stray bullets peppering their properties.
Despite the setback, the township’s lawyer Gary Sheets said they will not drop the case.
Lake Bailee owner Jesse Von Stein has always maintained it is physically impossible for a bullet to travel that distance, through natural and man-made obstacles, and hit Wright’s house how it did. He said the trustees are wasting their time.
“I don’t know whether they’re just ignorant, or vengeful,” Von Stein said. “The judge told them there wasn’t any proof. I don’t know how much plainer it can get.”
Sheets said they are no longer going to try and prove the bullets came from the range — the township doesn’t have the money to pay experts for that, he said — but they will continue the fight to try and get the court to ensure the range is safe.
“The judge ruled that we didn’t prove the bullets that hit the houses out there on Gephart Road came from the range so she denied the (temporary restraining order),” Sheets said. “But I don’t think she said in the same breath that the range is safe… So we’re going to focus on whether the range is safe according to the applicable standards.”
Sheets said he is considering amending the complaint to add the Ohio Department of Natural Resources as a defendant so that hopefully through the course of the litigation they can get to the bottom of the range safety issue and the township’s right to enforce standards.
“I’m trying to get the standards established for the township, do they have any authority to do anything, is the range in compliance, if the range is not in compliance, what needs to be done to bring it into compliance,” Sheets said. “That’s the main focus of the trustees, having a court or somebody declare it’s safe, or it’s in compliance.”
Von Stein told the Journal-News in July he was re-installing overhead baffles on the two gun ranges that had been removed one year ago. Von Stein also invited the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife out to the property to make safety suggestions. The baffles were recommended — but not required — in a letter from the ODNR shooting sports coordinator who made the site visit.
Von Stein said he still intends to sue the township over this issue for slander and other claims because they have made allegations with no proof. As for the safety question.
“We run a tight range…,” he said. “We’ve already got ODNR saying it’s great, we’ve got the NRA (National Rifle Association) saying it’s great,” he said. “Those are the two big dogs. I don’t know what else I could do (as a safety precaution) other than sit and hold somebody’s hand.”