Turkey Hunter Survives Being Shot in Face; Virginia Game & Inland Fisheries Investigating
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
Note: A shorter version of this story ran in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star on April 23, 2020.
Most turkey hunters with Facebook accounts likely have seen the graphic image posted by 28-year-old Jarrod Ballard of Cool Ridge, West Virginia, shortly after he was shot in the face while hunting on Army Corps of Engineers property in Giles County, Virginia.
Ballard’s bloodied face showed where a pellet struck him in the forehead with another penetrating his nose and burying deep into his sinus cavity.
The shooting incident – I detest calling it an accident – is under investigation. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has filed for a deadline extension until May 4 to complete its report into the shooting, which occurred April 11, the opening day of the state’s spring gobbler season. The agency did not give a reason for the delay in completing the report.
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries released an arrest report of April 17, 2020 showing Michael R. Ragland was arrested for the offense of reckless handling of firearms, which is covered by section 18.2-56.1 of the Code of Virginia. The charge had an (A) noted next to the specific code, which likely means the offense will be considered a Class 1 misdemeanor unless prosecuting authorities raise it to a Class 6 felony. For conviction on a Class 1 misdemeanor, the penalty is confinement in jail for not more than 12 months and a fine of not more than $2,500, either or both. It looks like the case will be heard in Giles County District Court.
The law also states that if this offense is committed while the person is engaged in hunting, trapping or pursuing game, the trial judge may, in addition to the penalty imposed by the jury or the court trying the case without a jury, revoke such person's hunting or trapping license and privileges to hunt or trap while possessing a firearm for a period of one to five years
Ballard & Helms Share Story
Ballard and his hunting partner Benjamin Helms, a Hinton, West Virginia, resident shared their story about the incident. Ballard, a Marine Corps veteran and experienced hunter, and Helms are coworkers at the federal prison near Beckley, West Virginia.
The two men parked at the Bluestone Wildlife Management Area’s Shanklin’s Ferry gate well before sunrise. From there, it was about a 1.1-mile walk along the famed Mary Ingles Trail to the Virginia state line. Once in Virginia, they walked nearly another mile to a favored vantage point where Ballard liked to listen for daybreak gobblers.
Early morning proved uneventful in terms of locating birds, Ballard said. As many hunters do, the duo formulated a plan to slowly hunt their way back. About a half-mile from the state line, they heard a gobbler sound off. They moved along the ridges, attempting to intercept the turkey. It didn’t work.
"Once we didn’t hear the gobbler anymore, we sat at a big old oak tree for about 20 minutes, then got up and planned on slowly heading in the direction of the truck,” Ballard said. “We still had about another half mile to go to reach the border.”
Ballard said they began walking down a little saddle between the hillside ridges and then started walking along a bench.
"It was open timber in there. There was a couple blown down pines without limbs or anything. I took a few more steps and that’s when I was shot,” Ballard said.
"We had made some calls, but weren’t calling while we were moving,” Helms said. “We walked at least 200 yards through open woods from the last calling position at the base of a big tree. We were walking and debating which direction for the hunt to go from here on out when the man shot,” Helms added.
"I heard the shot and blacked out. I was out for a couple seconds. I picked myself up and saw my buddy on the ground a couple feet from me. He saw the blood running down my face and knew I’d been shot,” Ballard said.
Photos: From left - Helms and Ballard
Hit with Sledgehammer
Ballard wasn’t sure how badly he had been hit. "I was losing so much blood. I was trying to feel around my head to assess how bad it really was; what was there and what wasn’t. I felt a lot of pressure in my nose, the left side of my face was numb. I couldn’t feel my teeth with my tongue. It felt like I’d been hit in the face with a sledgehammer,” Ballard said.
Helms, after ensuring Ballard wasn’t in immediate danger, said he confronted the alleged shooter, calling out, “Quit shooting. Unload your weapon and place it on the ground.” Helms said he berated the shooter for his alleged carelessness and demanded to see his drivers and hunting licenses so he could photograph them with his smartphone.
The DGIF confirmed that the alleged shooter is a 67-year-old West Virginia Resident. His name is being withheld pending completion of the investigation report and review by appropriate judicial authorities.
"I just remember thinking it was surreal. I didn’t think this was really happening,” Helms said. “I knew there had to be justice of some sort; I had to figure out who he was.”
According to Helms, the man said the two hunters “were creeping around over there” and that he had heard a hen in the area. “I had disbelief that he would shoot at something he couldn’t see or identify. I still don’t get it. I told him, ‘You’re not supposed to be shooting at a hen, anyways.’ I felt anger. I know he didn’t wake up that morning and say, ‘I’m going to go out and shoot someone today.’ I was mad at the sheer stupidity of the whole situation,” Helms said.
Helms said the man wasn’t combative and never attempted to flee. “He seemed stunned, probably feeling disbelief as well. His hands were shaking,” Helms said, adding, “I’m not going to lie. I was yelling at him pretty good. He said this has never happened to me in either 25 or 29 years – I can’t remember which - of hunting.”
"To say the least, it was a tense situation,” Ballard said.
Helms said it appeared the man had cleared fallen leaves from the base of a tree, a common practice for hunters not wanting to rustle leaves as they adjust their position. “It was just him sitting up against a tree, no decoys, no vest,” Helms said.
The shooting occurred just after 10:30 a.m., according to Helms. Getting the desired data took a few minutes. Helms said he then advised the shooter to leave the woods. His priority was getting Ballard back to their vehicle. The paper towel Ballard was using as a compress to try to slow the bleeding was soaked.
"It felt like a million years,” Ballard said. “I was bleeding so bad. I just wanted to get out of there.”
Helms toted the guns and gear while guiding his friend out of the woods. Cell phone coverage was poor and it wasn’t until they were near the truck at 11:10 a.m. that Ballard could call his wife Toni to explain the situation. She called 911.
"As we were driving down the road, I kept thinking, I need to keep him awake. I couldn’t let him pass out,” Helms said.
An ambulance met them on the road and took Ballard to Summers County ARH Hospital in Hinton where a decision was made to air-evacuate him on a stretcher to a hospital in Charleston. Ballard said the reason was because he had lost a lot of blood and his oxygen levels were extremely low. He said his attending physicians decided to leave the pellets in his head. "They said it would do more harm than good trying to get them out,” Ballard explained.
Helms soon after met with DGIF Conservation Police Officer Mark Shaw, the agency’s 2018 Conservation Police Officer of the Year, and Senior CPO Wes Billings. The three returned to the scene to reconstruct the scenario.
Lucky? Unlucky? Both?
Ballard knows he is now among that group of people who have been simultaneously unlucky and lucky.
Here is what Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has released, officially, so far. The shotgun used in the shooting was a Harrington and Richardson, single shot, 12 gauge. The distance between Ballard and the shooter was 30 yards.
The investigating officers would not confirm the type of shotshell used, but Helms said he saw a green hull, high-brass 2.75-inch shell that was collected as evidence and surmised it was a fairly common shell loaded with lead shot. Ballard said he was told it was number 5 shot.
Ballard said he’s grateful on two counts: first, he wasn’t shot with a magnum load of copper-plated or dense tungsten or similar shot; second, he is mindful that some shotguns designed to fire exceptionally tight patterns for turkey hunting would have likely resulted in many more pellets hitting him. The actual result is bad enough, but the outcome could have been much more catastrophic. He added that a few pellets hit his groin and turkey vest, but none of these penetrated his skin. Although, not confirmed, he believes some small branches may have deflected some pellets.
I'll report on the results of the investigation and whether or not any charges are filed.
Most accidental shootings are wholly preventable. There is a lesson here for anyone using firearms. In one of his Facebook posts, Ballard wrote, “The moral of my story is please always be sure of your target and what’s beyond it. I can’t stress that enough. Do not shoot at movement.”
That is a lesson taught in every hunter education course. It is one of the first principles of firearms safety. If you’re a hunter and don’t know them by rote, maybe it is time for a refresher course.
Please, be safe out there.
Footnote: The forests and river valleys in and around Giles County are some of the prettiest you can find. The county bills itself as “Virginia’s Mountain Playground.” The New River runs through it for 37 miles. The county has more than 50 miles of trails running along the Appalachian Trail and the Great Eastern Trail. Giles County also has 92.4 square miles of Jefferson National Forest.
For more about the Mary Ingles Trail (not to be confused with Mary Ingalls, the author's sister), check out her story. Ingles was living near what is now Blacksburg, Virginia, when she and other family members were captured by the Shawnees in 1755 and taken hundreds of miles northwest into Ohio. She eventually escaped, walking through Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia. The story tells how she used her memory to follow the Ohio, Kanawha and New Rivers back to her home.