Hunter charged in shooting death goes to trial

Correction 6/16/21: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated charges for a 2018 hunting death in Grand County. The man identified in that incident, Randall Wolfswinkel, was charged with two misdemeanors — prohibited use of a weapon and hunting in a careless manner.

A man charged with criminally negligent homicide in connection to a deadly hunting incident last fall pleaded not guilty in Grand County District Court on May 27, setting his case for trial in October.

Harry Watkins, 52, is accused of shooting and killing 26-year-old Simon Howell of West Virginia on Nov. 9 while they were hunting outside Kremmling.

Few details about the incident have been publicly provided, but 14th Judicial District Attorney Matt Karzen indicated in November that the charges were brought because prosecutors believe Watkins’ behavior was reckless.

“The rules of hunting safety exist to keep this exact kind of tragedy from happening,” Karzen said in a news release announcing Watkins’ charges. “Complacency and lack of discipline is all it takes for someone to be killed.”

However, Watkins’ attorney, David Jones, described the case very differently. Over the phone, Jones said that Watkins made a reasonable mistake that a majority of hunters would make if put in the same situation.

Jones said that Howell had taken off his orange hunting vest and was wearing a red shirt when he climbed onto a dead elk. From Watkins’ stance behind the scope, Jones said, Watkins believed he was shooting at the elk as it was attempting to get up.

“This was an accident and it’s not appropriate to make him a murderer for a reasonable mistake,” the defense attorney said, adding that his client has been traumatized from the incident. “We wish this had never happened.”

Jones said he is confident the facts and the circumstances of the case will come out in Watkins’ favor.

On May 27, Watkins entered a not guilty plea via his attorney, moving the case forward for a 10-day trial this fall. Judge Mary Hoak set the trial for Oct. 25 through the first week of November with a motions hearing on Sept. 9.

According to Colorado statute, the maximum penalty for criminally negligent homicide includes one to three years with the Department of Corrections, unless there are mitigating or aggravating factors, and two years of mandatory parole.

Howell’s death occurred two years after the last fatal hunting incident in Colorado, which also happened in Grand County.

In November 2018, Ernest Ackerly, 43, of Centennial died after he was accidentally shot while his hunting party was preparing to head into the nearby forest off County Road 41. Investigators determined the rifle discharged while it was being loaded.

The man loading the rifle, Randall Wolfswinkel, 46, was charged in June 2020 with two misdemeanors — prohibited use of a weapon and hunting in a careless manner.

Wolfswinkel pleaded guilty in July 2020 and was sentenced to three years unsupervised probation, 300 hours of community service, a gun safety class and a $5,000 charitable donation.

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