Judge: No evidence errant gunshot came from Butler County gun range

A Butler County judge has found no evidence a bullet that landed inside a woman’s St. Clair Twp. home came from a shooting range one mile away.

After a bullet allegedly flew five feet from 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 Tuesday, Judge Jennifer Muench-McElfresh said she sympathizes 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 said her neighbors’ homes and properties have been also been peppered by gunfire allegedly from the range.

Lake Bailee owner Jesse Von Stein said his business takes all safety precautions required by law and it would have been physically impossible for the bullets that entered Wright’s home to come from the shooting range.

Wright’s children, Pam Hubbard and Rudy Wright, were visibly upset after the ruling.

“It’s not their mother sitting in that chair so they don’t have to worry about it,” Hubbard said. “It’ll happen someday, a bullet will come out of there and it will kill somebody. Then we’ll all be back here for a different reason.”

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Although Von Stein won this preliminary step in the court process — the case is on a trial track — he said he isn’t happy.

“I think the evidence spoke for itself and now I’m going to sue them…,” Von Stein told the Journal-News. “We run a safe operation, probably better than 99 percent of the ranges out there. That’s fact. I don’t want anybody hurt, but when a municipality bullies me after I tell them and show them the facts and they choose not to listen and they violate my civil rights, that is wrong.”

The township’s trustees declined to comment after the hearing, but Trustee Judy Valerio from the witness stand denied the board has any vendetta against the shooting range or its owner. She said trustees took the action they did because their residents’ safety is paramount.

“I told Jesse, and he knows this, I do not want to put you out of business, all I want you to do is make the gun range safe,” she testified. “I said what can you do to make it safe. His reply was nothing, he told me that several times.”

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.

The township’s solicitor Gary Sheets said the point in this case — he would not comment on the whether the township will go forward with the case — is not that a bullet would have a difficult time navigating the various man-made and natural obstacles between the range and Wright’s house — an issue both sides have debated vigorously. The crux, he said, is Von Stein needs to make sure no projectiles are able to escape the property at all.

“For plaintiffs it’s not really whether or not we have proof that those bullets that hit the house actually came from the range,” Sheets said. “It’s this evidence bullets are leaving the range. … if they came from the range that’s evidence that the range isn’t capable of holding the bullets that are fired there. And something needs to be done.”

McElfresh held a hearing on the case in July and she said she found testimony from those witnesses “particularly persuasive.” The range manager said only handguns were being fired at the range that day, not weapons capable of reaching a great distance. The deputy investigating the incident also said he heard gunfire coming from the area behind the range when he was there.

Von Stein’s attorney Rick Hyde also addressed another prong in the test the judge had to use in considering the shut down request, whether the closure would harm others.

“What about the people that belong to the gun club out there…,” Hyde said. “This is the United States of America. We shouldn’t have to come here and fight for our right to operate a shooting range just because they think it might be possible something might happen.”

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