Bearing Witness

This is a story about three camouflaged hunters, two big guns, two dead cows, one bear, and a stray bullet.

It happened on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation, about 200 miles from Phoenix, and is now being told in Maricopa County Superior Court. A jury has been asked to decide if Phoenix fire captain Paul Hobel should get any money for what was a near-tragic shooting accident.

The lawsuit is a head-scratcher: Hobel is claiming that an Orem, Utah, man -- Paul Zamboni -- showed a "conscious disregard" for basic hunting-safety rules when he shot at a moving bear, missed badly, and instead hit Hobel in the stomach, seriously wounding him.

Zamboni has suggested the shot ricocheted off something before striking Hobel -- who may have survived only because the bullet was deflected by his $3.99 Boy Scout-type belt buckle.

"One of the key rules of hunting is, know your target and what's beyond it," Hobel's attorney, Paul Rudolph, told the eight-person jury during opening statements last week. "It was an accident that could easily have been prevented had Mr. Zamboni followed basic hunter-safety rules."

Trouble is, for days after the accident, Zamboni apparently didn't even know Hobel had been in the area, much less that he'd blasted the firefighter with a .300-caliber bullet.

"You've heard the phrase, 'Smart as the average bear,'" Zamboni's attorney, Chris Henrichsen, told the jury during his opening remarks. "Well, the name of the game in bear hunting is to be concealed. Don't be seen, don't be heard and, certainly, don't leave your scent."

Hobel, Paul Zamboni, and his father, Gary Zamboni, did such a good job of this, Henrichsen argued, that neither hunting party knew of the other's existence until too late.

The bare essentials:

On April 28, 1997, the Phoenix resident parked his pickup on a dirt road in the remote Clover Camp area, and walked by himself about a mile to a wooded area. He was one of 13 people with permits to hunt bears in a 200-square-mile parcel (that's bigger than the city of Mesa) during a two-week window that was ending the following day.

Hobel, who is now 50, has been hunting since he was a boy. During this hunt, he'd noticed a pair of cow carcasses up the dirt road, and suspected a hungry bear might be attracted to the potential meal.

Hobel grabbed his rifle, found a hidden spot in the brush about 130 yards from the dead animals, and sat down. It was about 5 p.m. on a bright, clear spring day. He later recalled hearing nothing around him but the sounds of ravens circling overhead. Because bears are sensitive to color, Hobel wore black hiking boots and a gray-and-white camouflage outfit.

He had picked the right spot. Within 15 minutes, what Hobel later called a "scraggly red bear" stepped up to the mother lode, in the form of bovine carrion. (Actually, it was a brown bear, which hunters often dub "red" because of its reddish-brown fur.)

Hobel said he quickly decided that the animal wasn't large enough for him to bag.

About 200 yards from where Hobel sat, Paul and Gary Zamboni had been hiding behind a large log for about two hours. The Utah men also were loaded for bear -- in their case, about a hundred yards from the cow carcasses. Then 19, Paul Zamboni had been hunting with his dad since he was 12, but hadn't yet killed a bear.

Hobel watched the bear eat for a few minutes, then stood up to leave the area. A shot rang out. Paul Zamboni had fired, but missed the feeding bear, which instantly took off in the opposite direction from Hobel.

"This is where things get ugly," Hobel told the jury last week.

He said the bear changed direction suddenly, and ran toward him, as he watched in silence: "I see him coming through the trees, and I can see his face."

Hobel testified he decided to take cover behind a tree. He never got there. Within what he later estimated was three to 12 seconds after the first shot, "I heard the crack, I felt the sting, and I think I knew I was hurt."

A bullet from Paul Zamboni's powerful Winchester rifle had hit him in the gut, perforating a bowel. The shot had missed the bear by a good 30 yards.

Hobel says he fell to the ground unconscious, probably for more than an hour. Meanwhile, the Zambonis have testified in depositions, they walked in the direction of the shots, thinking Paul Zamboni may have hit the bear. But it wasn't to be found. The pair have said they neither saw nor heard Hobel.

After an hour or so, father and son left the area to return to their camp. Paul Zamboni finally did get his bear -- a different one -- at the campsite, where it had been rummaging.

When Hobel came to, he yelled for help, then lifted himself up and walked the mile to his pickup truck, where he called 911. He drove nine miles to a ranger's station, and later was taken by helicopter to a Scottsdale hospital for emergency surgery.

He was in the hospital for five days, and returned to work within a month. He's now an arson investigator.

The Zambonis have said they didn't learn about the accident until days afterward, when another hunter told them about it. The proximity of the dead cows seemed too great to ignore. Gary Zamboni contacted Paul Hobel to express his apologies, and called twice after that to check on his recovery.

In April 1999, Hobel filed a lawsuit, arguing that Paul Zamboni had been civilly negligent at Clover Camp. He's not seeking a specific amount of money.

In testimony last week, Hobel said he's suffered from irritable bowel syndrome and other maladies since the accident. But he admitted he's recovered sufficiently to return to his lifelong passion of hunting.

During cross-examination, attorney Henrichsen asked Hobel, "This could happen to anyone who's hunting, whether it's on your end or the shooter's end, right?"

Hobel paused for several seconds.

"I don't really know," he said. "I'd like to really tell you I wouldn't do that, but I'm not 100 percent sure."

The attorney asked Hobel if he'd been aware of the risk when he sat camouflaged in an area that might have been frequented by other hunters.

"Yeah, I know there's a risk to a lot of things," Hobel replied. ". . . You can be shot in a grocery store."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin