Dick Cheney hunting incident
On February 11, 2006, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney shot Harry Whittington, a 78-year-old Texas attorney while participating in a quail hunt on a ranch in Riviera, Texas. Both Cheney and Whittington called the incident an accident.
The incident was reported to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times on February 12, 2006, by ranch owner Katherine Armstrong. The Bush administration disclosed the shooting incident to the public the afternoon of February 12. Local authorities released a report on the shooting on February 16, 2006, and witness statements on February 22.
On February 14, 2006, Whittington suffered a non-fatal heart attack and atrial fibrillation due to at least one lead-shot pellet lodged in or near his heart. Cheney did not speak publicly about the incident until February 15 in an interview with Fox News. Early reports indicated that Cheney and Whittington were friends and that the injuries were minor. Whittington later clarified that he and Cheney were not close friends but acquaintances.
Day of shooting
The shooting was widely reported to have taken place on Saturday, February 11, 2006, based on the public statements of Katherine Armstrong, owner of the 50,000-acre (200 km2) Armstrong Ranch. However, in her written statement to the Sheriff, she said that the shooting happened on February 12. Harry Whittington said shortly after the incident, "Accidents do and will happen – and that's what happened last Friday (February 10)."
Time of shooting
The Secret Service said that they gave notice to the Sheriff about one hour after the shooting. Kenedy County Sheriff Ramone Salinas III states he first heard of the shooting at about 5:30 pm from Captain Charles Kirk, and Salinas implies that he received 'official' notice from the Secret Service at about 5:40 pm.
The time of the shooting was not stated by Cheney.
Cheney had a televised interview about the shooting on February 15. On February 22, the Sheriff's office released statements from Katherine Armstrong, Sarita Hixon, Pamela Pitzer Willeford, Oscar Medellin, Gerardo Medellin and Andrew Hubert. Cheney's statement and all six of the other hunting party members' statements specify that Cheney, Whittington and Willeford had first shot birds together in a covey. While Whittington was searching for a downed bird, Cheney, Willeford and a guide walked towards another covey about 100 yards (91 m) away. Whittington approached to within 30 or 40 yards (27 or 37 m) of the shooters, at which point a single bird flew up, around and behind Cheney in the direction of Whittington. Cheney shot at the bird and hit Whittington.
Armstrong, the ranch owner, claimed that all in the hunting party were wearing blaze-orange safety gear and none had been drinking, and that at lunch they drank beer, which contradicts her later statement that "there may (have been) a beer or two in [the lunch coolers], but remember not everyone in the party was shooting." Cheney has acknowledged that he had one beer four or five hours prior to the shooting. Armstrong said she never saw Cheney or Whittington drink until later at the house where Cheney had a few cocktails. Armstrong did not actually see the incident happen, believing that the reason Cheney's security detail was running was that Cheney had a heart problem, but Cheney described her as an eyewitness in his Fox interview.
Secret Service agents and medical aides, who were traveling with Cheney, came to Whittington's assistance and treated his birdshot wounds to his right cheek, neck, and chest. An ambulance standing nearby for the Vice President took Whittington to nearby Kingsville before he was flown by helicopter to Corpus Christi Memorial Hospital in Corpus Christi.
At the scene:
- Dick Cheney (shooter)
- Harry Whittington (victim)
- Pamela Pitzer Willeford (eyewitness)
- Oscar Medellin (outrider, between Cheney and Willeford, flushed the bird)
- "Secret Service personnel" were reported to be with the two shooters and Oscar Medellin
In a car at an unstated distance away from the shooting:
- Katherine Armstrong, owner of the ranch
- Sarita Storey Armstrong Hixon, Armstrong's sister
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department report
On February 13, 2006, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (an agency once headed by Armstrong) issued an incident report. According to the report, Cheney "was swinging on game", i.e., turning to track it with his shotgun. The summary of the incident given was:
Whittington downed a bird and went to retrieve it. While he was out of the hunting line, another covey was flushed and Cheney swung on a bird and fired, striking Whittington in the face, neck and chest.
The report cited clear and sunny weather at the time of the shooting.
Whittington was injured in the face, neck, and upper torso. Whittington was reported to be in stable condition at Corpus Christi Memorial Hospital and had been moved from intensive care to a "step-down unit" on Monday. Doctors decided to leave about 30 birdshot pellets lodged in his body rather than try to remove them. One of these pellets still affects his voice today. Each pellet is less than a tenth of an inch (2.5 mm) in diameter.
On February 14, 2006, at 0630 hours, Whittington suffered a minor heart attack and atrial fibrillation due to the shot pellets lodged in or near his heart, as well as a collapsed lung. He was immediately moved back to the intensive care unit. At about 0900 hours, Whittingon underwent a cardiac catheterization test to detect blocked or leaky arteries. From the test, doctors found a single lead pellet.
Hospital officials said Whittington was alert and stable and that he did not experience chest pain or other symptoms of a heart attack. Doctors reported signs of inflammation, and Whittington was treated with anti-inflammatory drugs.
Whittington was subsequently discharged from the hospital on February 17, 2006. At a press conference, he said: "My family and I are deeply sorry for everything Vice President Cheney and his family have had to deal with. We hope that he will continue to come to Texas and seek the relaxation that he deserves."
Though the shooting occurred on Saturday, February 11, news of it was not released until after 2 PM, eastern Standard Time on Sunday, February 12. Kathryn Garcia, a reporter for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, broke the story at 1:48 PM after receiving an 11 AM call from Katherine Armstrong, the owner of the ranch where the shooting occurred. Armstrong had notified Cheney earlier in the morning that she was going to inform the news media about the incident. She said Cheney agreed. Armstrong said that Whittington did not announce his location, and this led to the incident.
According to White House Press secretary Scott McClellan, news at the White House about the shooting "... was coming in to people back here, all the way at 3 AM in the morning [Sunday] and beyond." McClellan would not state when the President first learned that Cheney had shot Whittington. When McClellan was asked if Andy Card had told Karl Rove that Cheney was the shooter, McClellan said: "... we still didn't have all the details at that point and additional details were coming into Andy Card at even three am in the morning and beyond."
The White House did not disclose the accident until a press conference on Sunday afternoon. McClellan said he did not know that Cheney had shot someone until that Sunday morning. He remarked that he did ask the Vice President's office to release the information earlier. He said: "I think you can always look back at these issues and look at how to do a better job."
On February 15, Cheney agreed to comment publicly about the accident on the Fox News Channel. He had previously avoided reporters by leaving an Oval Office meeting with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Cheney visited Whittington in the hospital on Monday, February 13, and at other times, telephoned him.
On the Fox News interview, Cheney accepted full responsibility for the accident.
Cheney acknowledged that White House Counselor Dan Bartlett and Scott McClellan "urged us to get the story out". Cheney said he was more concerned about accuracy and felt that Armstrong was the best person to make the announcement.
Secret Service spokesman Eric Zahren said that about an hour after Whittington was shot, the head of the Secret Service's local office called the Kenedy County sheriff to report the accident. Kenedy County Sheriff Ramon Salinas III receiving a call of 'official' notice from the Secret Service 8–10 minutes after a Saturday, February 11, 5:30 p.m. phone call from Captain Charles Kirk. Kirk had called Salinas while en route to the Armstrong Ranch to investigate a possible hunting accident. The ensuing official investigation was performed by the Kenedy County Sheriff's department and published in an Incident Report written by Chief Deputy Gilberto San Miguel Jr, a Supplement Report written by Salinas and several witness statements.
After Salinas finished his call with the Secret Service, Kirk called Salinas a second time to report that he couldn't get any information about the shooting at the Armstrong gate. Salinas told Kirk: "that it was fine and I [Salinas] would contact someone at the Ranch". Multiple news sources reported that local law enforcement officers were initially barred by United States Secret Service agents from interviewing Cheney.
After dismissing Kirk, Salinas called a Constable Ramiro Medellin Jr to ask for information about the accident. None of the police reports say why Salinas thought to call Medellin, or where Salinas thought Medellin was. In that first call to Medellin, Salinas reports Medellin saying only that he would call Salinas back. Medellin called Salinas back and said that "This is in fact a hunting accident" and that he [Medellin] had spoken with some of the people in the hunting party who were eyewitnesses and that they all said that it was definitely a hunting accident. Salinas says he [Salinas] also spoke with another [unnamed] eyewitness and he[the witness] said the same thing, that it was an accident. Salinas states in his report: "After hearing the same information from eyewitness and Constable Medellin, it was at this time I decided to send my Chief Deputy first thing Sunday morning to interview the Vice-President and other witnesses."
On Sunday morning, Kenedy County Chief Deputy Gilbert San Miguel Jr. interviewed Cheney and other members of the hunting party. He said that Cheney characterized the incident as a "hunting accident".
On Monday, Miguel and Lt Juan J Guzman went to Spohn Memorial Hospital to interview Whittington. Whittington requested not to be recorded 'due to his voice being raspy', but agreed to supply a written affidavit as soon as he returned home to his office. Whittington characterized the incident as an accident and said no alcohol was involved and that everyone was wearing proper hunting attire. Whittington described shooting at the first covey of quails, searching for a bird, then being sent by Katharine [Armstrong] to shoot the second covey. At that point, "a nurse came into the room and asked Guzman and Salinas to hurry up so Whitington could rest". The officers then left telling Whittington "I [Miguel] would give him a call in a few days to get the written affidavit". There is no public record of the promised affidavit being taken or released.
The Kenedy County Sheriff, Ramon Salinas III, has since cleared Cheney of any criminal wrongdoing in the matter.
Bush appointed Katharine Armstrong a commission member of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Steve Hall, education director for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said that the department would classify the shooting as an error in judgment by Cheney.
The news of the shooting wasn't released to the press for 21 hours until 1:48 p.m. (07:48) Sunday, February 12. Kathryn Garcia, a reporter for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, broke the story after receiving a call from Armstrong at 11am, after confirming it with the White House and hospital.
Questions have been raised regarding the shooting, even as Kenedy County Sheriff's Office documents support the official story by Cheney and his party.
Re-creations of the incident were enacted by George Gongora and John Metz, a photographer and producer respectively for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Also a hunter re-created it according to the Whidbey News-Times. All tests seemed to prove that the distance was much closer than the 90 feet (27 m) claimed. Local quail hunters have also argued that the range was closer, while others, such as forensic expert Jon Nordby, confirm the plausibility of the official reports.
The time of the shooting was estimated by Cheney and the other members of the hunting party to be variously between 5:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. In the Kenedy County Sheriff's Report, Officer Ramone Salinas III states that he first heard news of the shooting from a Captain Charles Kirk at about 5:30 p.m. Captain Kirk had heard of the shooting prior to that phone call. In Salinas's statement, Salinas says he received official notice from the Secret Service 8–10 minutes after the 5:30 p.m. phone call. The Secret Service is reported to have said that they gave notice to the Sheriff about 1 hour after the shooting, which would put the time of the shooting at approximately 4:40 p.m., 50–80 minutes before the entire hunting party's recollection.
In popular culture
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The incident, nicknamed Quailgate in the media, was the subject of jokes, satire and public ridicule. A number of these made reference to other controversies involving Cheney.
David Letterman began his Monday show on February 13, 2006 with "Good news, ladies and gentlemen, we have finally located weapons of mass destruction ... it's Dick Cheney," and adding that "We can't get bin Laden, but we nailed a 78-year-old attorney." His Top 10 list was devoted to "Dick Cheney's excuses" and included "he thought the guy was trying to go gay cowboy on me."
Al Franken, not yet a U.S. Senator, was a guest on Letterman's program a short time later. He asked people in the studio audience to raise their hands if they had ever shot anyone. He then asked people in the studio audience to raise their hands to indicate if they thought they would accompany a friend to the hospital after shooting him. Franken went on to suggest that Cheney's delay in going to the hospital may have been because he wanted to wait until all signs of his having been drinking passed.
Jay Leno also had a piece on The Tonight Show in which he pretended to host a game show with footage of George W. Bush and Pervez Musharraf that was taken during Bush's visit to Pakistan. Towards the end of that segment, the sound of loud bird calls were played, and Leno asked Cheney to take care of the problem, with footage of the Vice President shooting a gun then shown.
Texas Monthly won the 2007 Best Cover Line of the Year Award from the Magazine Publishers of America for its January 2007 cover captioned, "If You Don't Buy This Magazine, Dick Cheney Will Shoot You in the Face."
Jon Stewart popularized the phrase "Cheney's Got a Gun" (a play on the 1989 Aerosmith song "Janie's Got a Gun") on The Daily Show soon after the event. Stewart and the Daily Show's correspondents repeatedly accentuated their disbelief of the absurdity of a sitting vice president shooting a 78-year-old man in the face while hunting quail which are raised in a pen and released mere seconds before they are shot. Stewart, for instance, pointed out that Whittington had been the first person to be shot by a sitting vice president since Alexander Hamilton, and that while Aaron Burr's fatal shooting of Hamilton was during a duel over issues of honor and political maneuvering, Whittington "was mistaken for a bird." Correspondent Ed Helms, reporting supposedly from Corpus Christi Hospital, said that Whittington's condition had been upgraded from "stable" to "stable, but still shot in the face by Dick Cheney." The show also used graphics from the video game Duck Hunt. After Whittington's post-discharge press conference, Stewart noted that Cheney's power was such that upon shooting someone, the victim would apologize.
The incident is mentioned in The Sopranos' season six episode, "Remember When," where Junior Soprano, living in a mental care center after shooting his nephew (which he confused with an old enemy because of his deteriorated mental state), writes a letter to Cheney asking for help, saying that they are "both powerful men" who were brought low "by unintentional incidents involving gunplay".
In the beta for the video game Halo 3, a medal called "Cheneymania" was awarded for killing 10 opponents with a shotgun without dying.
On his first show after the incident, Stephen Colbert, host of The Colbert Report, confessed to having been involved in a hunting accident of his own over the weekend, then proceeded to show an edited version of Brit Hume's interview with Dick Cheney, featuring Colbert in place of Cheney. Colbert later mentioned the hunting incident in his appearance at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner in 2006.
The incident has been parodied three times in the comedy Family Guy:
- In the season 4 episode "Petergeist", Cheney shoots Peter at point-blank range several times while hunting, and after says "I'm sorry, I thought you were a deer"
- In the season 5 episode "Boys Do Cry", Cheney guards the President's house with a shotgun, and while sleeping says "18% approval ratings ... I'll give you 18% of my foot in your ass" in reference to the drop in approval ratings to 18% which followed the shooting.
- In the season 5 episode "Meet the Quagmires", Death says to Peter that "Dick Cheney shot "Supreme Court Justice Scalia" in a hunting accident and the bullet went right through him and killed Karl Rove and Tucker Carlson", referencing the incident.
South Park parodied the incident in the season 10 episode "Mystery of the Urinal Deuce". Cheney attempts to shoot a crossbow to kill Stan and Kyle but misses, leading him to exclaim: "Dang it! I missed again!"
American Dad! parodied the incident in the season 11 episode "Blagsnarst, a Love Story" when Roger takes aim at a helicopter and states: "... I just have to pretend I'm Dick Cheney and that helicopter is my friend's face."
In Boston Legal, attorney Alan Shore points to the incident on several occasions to show how the legal system is selective in how it looks at violent incidents involving high profile individuals.
During a Saturday Night Live skit, Kristen Wiig as Diane Sawyer mentions the incident during a mock interview regarding Cheney's accomplishments as vice president in which he denies feeling any regrets for the situation. In a later sketch, former President George W Bush (Will Ferrell) shows surprise when then Vice President Joe Biden did not own a shotgun, remarking "What kind of Vice President are you?"
President Obama also joked about this subject. In his speech for the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner on May 9, 2009, he said Mr Cheney was 'very busy working on his memoirs, tentatively titled, How to Shoot Friends and Interrogate People, a humorous allusion to the self-help classic How to Win Friends and Influence People. President Obama also joked about the incident in his final White House Correspondents' Association Dinner as President, in 2016, when he thanked his Vice President Joe Biden "for not shooting anybody in the face".
Cheney was criticized for his handling of the matter. According to polls on February 27, 2006, two weeks after the accident, Dick Cheney's approval rating had dropped 5 percentage points to 18%.
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