HUNTING  TRUTHSThe Trouble with Harry

                                                                  by   Michael  Hammerschlag


        Printable     MediaChannel      Feb 24, 2006

One could  hear the whoosh of the media juggernaut, swollen by lust and outrage at years of dissembling, as it deflated watching Republican stalwart Harry Whittington gave his Oscar-worthy checkout speech, dressed to the nines, apologizing to Dick Cheney for getting in the way of his shotgun. Game, set, match. “The story is now over. He comes out looking like a million bucks… and the story ends with that”, crowed conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer on Fox All Stars. “The Vice President made a terrible mistake in that he shot the guy when there wasn’t much news,” opined moral authority Robert Novak on Hannity+Colmes. “It really has.. run it’s course.”

But even a cursory examination of the shooting shows appalling misstatements, a shoddy investigation, and serious doubts about the official version of events, most barely covered by the major media who have turned away en masse.


While the press obsessed over the delay in reporting the story, the more important issue was the delay and complete breakdown in the investigation- first a 14½ hour delay in taking any statement, the ranch turning  away deputy Captain Kirk (I kid you not) at 5:40pm and waiting till 8am for the Veep to explain events to authorities- long enough, says Alan Dershowitz for alcohol to totally clear the system. In the Brit Hume interview, Cheney admits to having a beer at lunch. "I did ask the hospital spokeswoman Sunday whether there were any blood alcohol tests taken," said Times Caller reporter Kathryn Garcia (who broke the story) in a 15th interview, "and she laughed and said she was not aware. Today it was again asked in a press conference, and they said 'NO COMMENT' this time." Presumably shooting someone while under the influence is a serious offense in Texas (where MADD is based), but if Cheney had understandably downed a few drinks afterward, that would have been a valid reason to duck officials. Doug Thompson claims Secret Service agents saw him drunk.


The first witness, Katharine Armstrong told multiple stories that contradicted Cheney’s (“a less than ideal spokesperson”, says Newsweek). What she was most determined to do was shift blame to the victim, who “didn’t announce he was coming”, true, but still outrageous to anyone who has ever handled a firearm. It’s always the shooter’s fault- it’s his job “to know where other hunters were and not shoot in their direction,” says Sam Cook in a Duluth News Tribune op-ed. Defenders of the realm obediently repeated the propaganda that Whittington was at fault, but some conservatives were outraged. She was firm on alcohol: No one in the hunting party was drinking alcohol, witness Katharine Armstrong said. "No, zero, zippo and I don’t drink at all," she said. "No one was drinking." MSNBC had another statement from Armstrong  “There may have been beer available during a picnic lunch that preceded the incident. There may be a beer or two in there," she said. Willeford also admits to having a glass of wine at the lunch 4-4½ hours earlier- strangely, sister Sarita Armstrong returns to the sheriff to add an additional statement that none of the 5 member shooting group that afternoon “had consumed any alcohol”, although Cheney and Willeford admit it that Wednesday. Guess it depends on what the meaning of “afternoon” is.

 First of all, she (Katharine) was an eye-witness. She'd seen the whole thing,” said Cheney in his Fox interview. But she really wasn’t, being 100 yards away in a car, the length of a football field. A Daily Globe+Mail writer said  She said on Sunday that the birdshot 'knocked him silly, but he was fine. He was talking. His eyes were open.'   By contrast, Mr. Cheney described Mr. Whittington as ‘laying on the ground, bleeding.  He did not respond when spoken to, though he was conscious and breathing.’" But "the first thing that crossed my mind was he had a heart problem," she told the Associated Press, when Secret Service agents raced by her to the accident, so she didn’t know what was happening.


According to Whittington's statement in the sheriff's report, after he went to find the birds he shot, Cheney and Willeford took off to join a second hunting group (with Armstrong ranch cowboy/guides Michael Hubert and Oscar Medellin), that had found another covey of quail. Harry went back to Armstrong's car, then traveled 100 yards towards the second group before getting shot. It was dangerous to have 2 groups that close together, and reckless to break up the group, and obviously Cheney simply forgot that Harry had separated, or even where he was shooting, because to hit Whittington, he had to be shooting towards the Armstrong car  into the setting sun. Even at 100 yards, that “could put an eye out”, says Austin shotgun shell dealer John Gill. Indeed, Whittington’s sight was probably saved by his hunting glasses, since shot hit inside the bridge of his nose. "Cheney and the other hunter should have stopped hunting when Whittington broke out of the line,” says Newsday. "If he'd been in the military, he would have learned gun safety," snapped Sen. Chuck Hagel.


Both sisters Armstrong say Whittington returned to look for the bird before approaching the second group, but Whittington and his guide, Geraldo Medellin, searching for the bird, say he proceeded towards Cheney from the car. “Katharine had told him to go and shoot the second convey. So, at that time, he proceeded to join the hunters…”, stated the Sheriff’s Report. Within an hour of the shooting, the temperature outside plunged 20°, as it must have inside Mr. Cheney.

  -Whittington's Injury- Parks+Wildlife Accident Report

Then there were the questions about the claimed 90 ft. distance: A test shotgun blast with the same ammunition from 90 feet on a lifesize human cutout by  Corpus Christi Caller-Times photographer George Gongora shows a spread from the waist to the top of the head, whereas the filled in damage profile of the Parks-Wildlife accident report shows impacts from the mouth to mid-chest entirely on the left side (actually right- they somewhow inverted the first diagram) in a far more concentrated pattern. This would indicate a much closer distance, although many shotguns have a choke that controls the spread. A normal spread pattern at 90ft is a 44” circle, almost 4 ft. Even fully choked, the spread circle at that distance is 26”, whereas the Parks-Wildlife drawing of Whittington shows a tight circle of about 13-14”, meaning Whittington was shot from a much closer distance.


That 28 gauge 7½ load birdshot shotgun shell holds only 308  1/11” pellets *(3/4 oz. at 410/oz), so at 200 pellets, Whittington received 2/3 of the blast, very difficult at 90 feet, and only if hit belly center mostly choked and spread over half the body. Harry was hit entirely on the upper right side, but not by a circular swath- his arm and upper face are almost untouched. "I don't think it was that far," says a Dallas hunter. A later report said he had up to 100 pellets in him, but frankly having gibberish range like 6-200 is designed to confuse, and the evangelical doctor may be trying to protect Cheney, Whittington's obvious fervent intent. He also said, "the number of pellets doesn't matter."

              * some say it has 262 pellets, making % striking Whit higher 76%

Alex Jones, radical documentarian, also recreated the incident. He thinks that Mr. Cheney shot Mr. Whittington at much closer range, though many have justifiably pilloried his methodology.  He claimed a 90 ft. test shot allegedly penetrated only 3mm into a watermelon (video) and mostly didn't penetrate the clothes of a dummy. Whittington was reportedly wearing at least 3 layers of clothes (orange vest, a shirt and light jacket); the 2.4mm lead pellets had to penetrate those and his chest to lodge in his heart and liver.  A Whidbey Is. Wa. hunter also recreated it with a roast, with a "20 gauge, a step larger than Cheney’s (with) a shell packed with 25 percent more shot and powder." I only put one shirt on 'Chuck Roast.' I shoot from exactly 30 yards, at which point the shot has lost half its energy. Result: Six pellets leave marks on the shirt, but only two enter the roast, and then only about one-eighth inch.
“It sounds unusual that it would be able to penetrate the skin so deep,” says Gill.
Basically, bird shot (7 1/2, for example) can only be guaranteed to be lethal to a range of about 15 ft, beyond 30 ft, or so, the wounds may look severe, but be relatively superficial due to the lack of penetration of individual pellets,” says Indiana ballistics analysis firm Athena Research on their site. However, Dr. Robert McFarlane, a cardiologist and longtime hunter, said it is plausible for birdshot to penetrate the skin and reach the heart from the described distance. “Some pellets have more energy,” says the Dallas hunter.


Mr. Cheney claimed in the Fox interview that he was swinging the gun to the right: "but the bird flushed and went to my right, off to the west. I turned and shot at the bird, and at that second, saw Harry standing there." The other witnesses confirm this, 4 days later. But the sheriff's report says "there was a single bird that flew behind him and he followed the bird by line of site in a counterclockwise direction" which would be turning  to the left. Physics Forum member Edward say that $4-11,000 Italian Perazzi Brescia shotgun "Cheney was using has two barrels with one mounted above the other. (over and under). Some of these guns have an auto safety, some don't. Once the hammer is cocked the trigger can be pulled to a stop and the first barrel will fire. The second barrel cannot fire until a selector switch is moved, the trigger must now be pulled further back to fire the second barrel." The lower first barrel is usually set to shoot in an open spread.


Whittington was cavalierly treated throughout, forced to wait 30-50 minutes for an ambulance rather than be driven to meet it, and endure a 30 minute car trip to a small hospital when there was an air ambulance standing by, then transferred to a Corpus Christi hospital, taking another 30-45 minutes; 3 hours to reach a decent ICU at 8:19pm. He left the ICU only as a PR stunt to make Cheney seem less liable for what was being portrayed as just a “humorous accident”, joked about by Scott McLellen. He was a 78 year old shot in the face and neck and heart with up “to 200 2½ mm pellets”, and reported as stable, which means he wasn’t dying, yet. The day after transferring, he had a heart attack.


Kenedy County Sheriff Ramon Salinas III cleared Cheney almost instantly, before any proper investigation, and failed to interview the shooter in time to see if he was drunk or request a breathalizer test. Instead of investigating personally, he accepted hearsay statements from the former Sheriff Ramiro Medellin (a ranch hand living at the Armstrong ranch with brother Geraldo Medellin), and waited till morning to send his deputy, despite a prompting call by the Secret Service that evening. "We've known these people for years. They are honest and wouldn't call us, telling us a lie," Salinas said.


Deputy Gilberto San Miguel Jr. didn't interrogate 4 of the witnesses, waiting 4 days before requesting affadavits from them, which were provided by Friday- 6 days after accident (Cheney and Whittington never provided one). He failed to tape Whittington's statement Monday because "his voice was raspy," then allowed himself to be ushered out early by a nurse. The report doesn't nail down location, position, and direction of travel, making amorphous statements like "to the west of me" meaningless, because of the lack of reference. Whether Secret Service agents obscured Cheney’s vision or their very existence, isn’t mentioned except once by Hubert.


The sheriff was admittedly “overwhelmed” at the media hurricane that engulfed him. “We made all the requests for all the documents, but there’s nothing,” said the Caller-Times  Nancy Martinez, “there’s no 911 tapes, radio transmissions, faxes, e-mails, correspondence between Secret Service” because Salinas said ‘they called me at home’… You go after the paper trail, and there’s no paper here. The way they handle the way small communities do it, which is unheard of to the MSM. It’s unheard of to us.”


The sheriff claimed he didn’t have to worry because it was an accident, but any accidental shooting is negligent by definition. The question of how negligent may never be answered because of a botched investigation and consumate lack of media interest. One sobering realization; with Cheney's omnipresent Secret Service detail, if Harry had shot Dick, he would have likely been riddled with far more than a load of birdshot.

The media have been chillingly pliant: MSNBC purged Armstrong’s comments about “may have been beer” on their website until Cheney verified it in his Fox talk, conforming their facts to imperial utterances. And the story about the shotgun test was scrubbed off the Cheney archive page of the Times-Caller website, and their video of it cropped to show only the upper chest area and face of the test target, where Whittington was actually hit, with Gongora helpfully adding that it was hit by 200 pellets (but on an 4-7 times bigger area!). Really, 200, exactly, just like Whittington?


 That must be that “accuracy” that the Vice President was looking for in delaying the story. (And why haven't we heard a peep from Harry?)

                                                                                         text  Copyright 2006©Michael Hammerschlag       

Michael Hammerschlag's commentary and articles ( have appeared in the Seattle Times, Providence Journal, Columbia Journalism Review, Hawaii Advertiser, Capital Times, MediaChannel; and Moscow News, Tribune, Times,  and Guardian. He broke the first comprehensive story on media mistakes in the 2000 election, and spent 2 years in Russia as the empire collapsed, and has covered Presidential campaigns.






AP Discrepancies in Veep Story-  

 Was he drunk?

Washington Post Blog Dan Froomkin- Controversies and Doubts