Hiker Shot at South Mountain was on "Max Delta" Trail, Lawyer Says

A hiker shot at South Mountain Park in February had been on a maintained trail just south of a public shooting range, the man's lawyer says.

The bullet passed through the right leg of Thomas Sawyer, 35, and lodged in his left thigh. He's recovering. But his lawyer, Garvey Biggers, warns the range's proximity to hiking trails is a danger to all park visitors. He supplied the above photograph of a city warning sign, reportedly taken from a few feet away on the Max Delta Trail. It appears to be scarred by a bullet hole.

"He went down like a bighorn sheep," Biggers says of Sawyer, who's hired him to look into the situation.

Phoenix police seem to support the notion that the trail, which a report on the incident states is open "for anybody to hike on" poses a hazard because it's down-range from shooters.

See also: -No Serious Violations at Gun Range Where 9-Year-Old Fatally Shot Instructor

The 16,000-acre park is the largest municipal park in the country and a paradise for hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians. It's also a convenient spot to go shooting: The Phoenix Rod and Gun Club has operated a public range at the base of South Mountain for pistol and rifle shooters since 1948.

Sawyer, who lives in a mobile-home park adjacent to the gun range, was shot while hiking at about 10 a.m. on February 21. He remained conscious while treated initially at the ranger station at 10919 South Central Avenue.

The victim "did admit to hiking in the area of the private gun club located just east of the police academy," the police report says. "The park ranger on scene stated that he thinks [Sawyer] was hiking in an area that was closed off to hikers due to the gun club and the academy."

A portion of the range is used by Phoenix police, but no officers were shooting that day. Several members of the Phoenix Rod and Club were at the range, but Sergio Luna, in charge of range safety, told police "nobody was doing anything unsafe and nobody saw anybody on the mountain that caused them to cease fire on the range."

But that wasn't the whole story. A week later, police officers hiked to the area where Sawyer had told them he'd been hiking. According to their supplemental report, the officers noted a sign "at the top ridge of the mountain stating not to go past that area, which is northeast of the sign, because of the gun range."

The report goes on to say:

"However, there is a trail, named Max Delta Loop, that is west of the sign and does go east and west behind the gun range. We all did walk that area that goes past the range and is down range from where shooters are shooting at targets. The trail is an open trail for anybody to hike on. It is unknown how far it is from the gun range up to where the trail is but it is a very long distance...

"It is believed that the bullet that struck [Sawyer] was a ricochet from the private gun club."

While Sawyer admitted in his short interview with police that he was "in the area" of the gun club, that doesn't contradict with the fact that he seems to have been on a well-used trail.

The report is only seven pages -- much thinner than many shooting reports we've read. It looks like the police wrote this one off as a typical wilderness mishap, as if Sawyer had been struck by lightning instead of a bullet.

The range can be seen in the left-lower part of the above picture -- hard to say if it's "very long," especially in relation to how far a bullet may travel. But with a bit of Googling, we found a relevant, January 4, 2008, post made to a page on the Phoenix Rod and Gun Club. In addition to esoteric complaints about the club, the anonymous writer had this to say:

"This club is an accident waiting to happen. The Public Range shoots directly inline with the Max Delta Trail on South Mountain City Park. Hikers, joggers, and horseback riders are subject to direct fire from this range and ricochets. It is a miracle that someone hasn?t been shot out right or seriously injured (thrown from a spooked horse by a ricochet)"

Sawyer, an experienced hiker, had climbed to the top of the trail on the morning he was shot. He had ear buds in his ears, a bottle of water in one hand, a phone in the other, and was about ready to text a buddy, Biggers told New Times.

"He gets to the top, takes a swig of water, goes to text -- his legs cramp. He immediately falls to the ground. He's like, 'Shit, what the hell?' He's writhing on the ground," Biggers says.

He called his father and told him he was suffering from severe cramps. Then he noticed he was bleeding. "Adrenaline took over" and he ran down the trail to the bottom of the north side of the mountain, the lawyer says.

When Biggers and his team went to the site to investigate, they found a blood spot that was apparently missed by police. People at the gun range were shooting while Biggers was on the "designated trail," he says.

Someone at the range yelled at them with a bullhorn, "Cease fire! Get off the mountain!"

Then the shooters started up their plinking again, he says.

Biggers estimates the gun range is 1,800 meters (just over a mile) from the ridge, and the shooters' targets are typically placed 100-200 yards out from their firing line.

"Nobody knows who fired the gun," he says. "I haven't made a claim. I don't know who to make a claim against."

Sawyer was lucky, to an extent -- the bullet passed within half an inch of his femoral artery. But he's struggled to walk normally since being shot, and is a long way from being able to go hiking again.

Sawyer has some sciatic nerve damage in his right leg. The bullet's still lodged in his right leg, Biggers says.

His client "never considered himself at risk as long as he was on a hiking trail, because the city of Phoenix would never put him at risk... Everybody at South Mountain is at risk, if a bullet can travel more than 1,800 meters."

Gregg Bach, spokesman for Phoenix Parks and Recreation, says as long as people remain in "designated areas, we feel that's safe."

He's unaware of any investigations into the safety of the area being done by the parks department, he adds.

John Bombardier, president of the Phoenix Rod and Gun Club, declined comment for this article.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.