Harry Watkins and Simon Howell had hunted together for several years in densely timbered, steep terrain outside Kremmling.
Watkins, a 52-year-old from Pennsylvania, and Howell, a 26-year-old from West Virginia, were avid, experienced outdoorsmen. The annual Colorado elk hunt was a highlight of their season.
On Nov. 9, one of the hunters in their small party shot an elk. Howell and Watkins were among the hunters tracking the wounded, bleeding animal.
What happened next is unclear. Howell was shot and killed. Watkins has been charged with criminally negligent homicide in his friend’s death.
Public records requests sent from The Colorado Sun to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Grand County Sheriff’s Office and the 14th District Attorney’s Office were denied. So official details about the very rare hunting-related homicide charge are not available.
“The rules of hunting safety exist to keep this exact kind of tragedy from happening,” reads a written statement from 14th District Attorney Matt Karzen, who filed the single felony charge against Watkins on Nov. 19. “Complacency and lack of discipline is all it takes for someone to be killed.”
Watkins’ attorney, David Jones, said the charge means his client acted unreasonably given the circumstances.
“We don’t feel he acted unreasonably,” said Jones, who described Watkins and Howell as friends and annual hunting buddies. “This was a truly unfortunate series of events. Based on everything he had in front of him, it was reasonable to fire.”
Jones, who is still waiting for investigation information from Karzen’s office, provided Watkins’ perspective of the day.
The hunting party — which Jones said was “three or four” hunters — had radios and was working together to track the wounded elk. Watkins saw the animal through thick trees, Jones said.
“He saw the antlers. He saw the brown. He saw the animal was down in the woods,” Jones said. “The problem was that his buddy had taken off his orange and was kneeling next to the downed animal. (Watkins) saw that the animal was about to get up and he fired. That’s what caused his buddy’s death.”
Jones said Watkins is an experienced hunter and knew the terrain around Kremmling and hunted there annually, usually with Howell. He said Howell did not call on the radio to say he was approaching the animal.
“The communication that the elk was down was never called out on the radio and (Watkins) didn’t know his buddy had found the elk,” Jones said. “He’s horrified. He’s been horrified since it happened.”
Karzen, who read a preview of this story in the Sun’s Outsider newsletter, offered a response to Jones late Thursday.
“No reasonable person fires a rifle at something without being 100% certain what they are shooting at, even more so if you know other people are in the area,” Karzen said. “It’s a gun, not a toy.”
Hunting deaths in Colorado involving firearms are uncommon and accidents resulting in serious criminal charges are even more rare. But they didn’t used to be.
In the decade before Colorado required mandatory hunter education for all hunters in 1970, fatal hunting accidents reached more than 10 a year and the state counted more than 200 non-fatal accidents a year. Now all Colorado hunters born after 1949 must undergo both classroom and rifle-shooting education and more than 900,000 hunters have taken a hunter education course in the state. Since 2000, the state sees about 500,000 hunters a year and averages about one annual fatal hunting accident. (Colorado Parks and Wildlife counts hunting accidents as incidents involving a firearm or an arrow and not a medical issue.)
The last hunting death by gun in Colorado also was in Grand County.
Ernest Ackerley, a 43-year-old father of five from Centennial, was shot north of Granby on Nov. 5, 2018, by a long-time friend. The friend was loading his rifle in a trailhead parking lot when the gun discharged.
The investigation into the death of Acklerly involved an accidental discharge, “as opposed to a targeted, intentional discharge,” said Leslie Hockaday with the 14th District Attorney’s Office in an email.
The District Attorney’s Office charged Ackerly’s friend with hunting in a careless manner and prohibited use of weapon, “after close consultation” with the Ackerly family, Hockaday said. But the case was settled before a trial.
Ackerly’s family, Hockaday said, “supported the charging decision and the negotiated resolution of that case, which although not dispositive, is important to the healing process.”
Howell’s death, DA Karzen said, involved the “intentional discharge of an aimed firearm, as opposed to an accidental discharge.”
That is a “critical distinction” between the deaths of Howell and Ackerly, he added.
Howell, who had a sprawling family and equally large collection of friends he called brothers, had years of experience hunting and fishing. His obituary said “his finest days were spent deep in the woods with his family and friends” and noted that “at a very young age it was evident that Simon was a skilled marksman.”
States closely guard the application details of hunters who apply for hunting licenses, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife declined to share where Watkins received the hunter education certificate required to hunt in Colorado.
Agency spokesman Randy Hampton said everyone in Howell’s hunting party had received hunter education, but not in Colorado.
On Nov. 9 in the rugged terrain of the Gore Range, Watkins failed to follow the most basic directive in hunter education: “know your target.”
Karzen apologized for the lack of information publicly available about the shooting. He used a felony summons instead of an arrest warrant for Watkins, which means there is not an arrest affidavit supporting the charges against Watkins in the court file. Watkins is scheduled to appear in Grand County Court on Dec. 22.
“The stuff in our DA file we always hold while the case is pending,” Karzen said, citing potential risks to his case by releasing information before a trial.