A Johnson County judge on Thursday fined an Iowa City man $855 Thursday for accidentally shooting a U.S. Marine with an air rifle for a minor violation of the Iowa City code that did not carry a threat of jail time.
Philip Olson pleaded guilty in April to violating an Iowa City ordinance prohibiting the firing of toy guns and slingshots, a simple misdemeanor. Olson turned himself in in October and was later accused of accidentally shooting US Marine Lance Cpl. Gabe Heefner in the head, leaving him seriously injured.
Heefner was in Iowa City visiting his grandparents and friends who attend the University of Iowa while on leave from the Marine Corps a week before his first deployment to Okinawa, Japan. He was driving down Highway 6 when he was hit in the head by the projectile fired from the airgun.
Olson and Nile Heefner, Gabe Heefner’s father, took the stand Thursday before Olson’s sentencing.
Olson discussed a recent divorce and other family issues that preceded the shooting. He said that he had recently bought the .22-caliber Gammo Swarm air rifle to get rid of the squirrels that he said were ruining his yard.
Olson admitted to having “38 confirmed kills” of squirrels in his backyard with the BB gun.
Olson tearfully said he believes buying the rifle was one of a series of poor decisions. He said choosing to shoot the squirrels, especially the little one in an oak tree in her backyard that got lost that night, was the worst decision she ever made and one she regrets.
“I wasted my life and the life of an innocent young man,” Olson said.
As Heefner took the stand, he described the night he received “a phone call that nobody wants” about his son being in a car accident in Iowa City, which he later learned was the accidental shooting. She said that she thanks God that her son survived.
Heefner looked directly at Olson during his testimony and said he knew he meant no harm and that both his own family and Olson have been hurt by the tragedy.
Olson said he knows there is no one to blame for what happened but himself and that he hopes and prays that Heefner recovers from his injuries.
Addressing Nile Heefner, Olson said: “I’m so sorry and embarrassed.”
In addition to the Iowa City municipal charge, Olson pleaded guilty to violating four Iowa Department of Natural Resources laws, including an unlawful attempt to capture a squirrel; not paying a wildlife habitat fee; fire a firearm on a highway; and hunting without a license.
For these charges, Olson was fined a total of $450.
Iowa City Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Schwickerath requested the maximum sentence under city code, $855 without jail time, while Leon Spies, Olson’s attorney, requested the minimum sentence for his client.
Spies argued that while this was a terrible accident, no injury was intended and that the other fines and knowledge of what he did would be enough of a deterrent for Olson.
Schwickerath said the city is not seeking restitution, but Heefner’s family is receiving assistance from the Crime Victims’ Compensation Program.
Magistrate Karen Egerton said what concerned her was that Olson admitted that shooting squirrels in his backyard with the BB gun, even though he knew it was illegal to do so, was not a one-time event. She said there could have been hundreds of shots in total.
Egerton described Olson’s actions as a disregard for the law, which caused “the complete destruction of (Heefner’s) family”. He acknowledged that the charges do not directly address Heefner’s injury, but only address the fact that Olson illegally fired the air rifle.
“Good people make mistakes… but your actions have consequences,” he said.
Johnson County Prosecutor Janet Lyness told Press-Citizen in November that she thinks the Iowa Code should be changed as a result of the shooting.
Nile Heefner told the Press-Citizen after the sentencing hearing that he hopes some kind of change will happen as a result of his son’s injury.
‘Nothing is easy anymore’: Nile Heefner describes his son’s recovery
Heefner said his son’s life has changed dramatically since October, and he and his family are still mourning Gabe Heefner’s inability to walk unassisted; his memory loss; his inability to use his left arm and what he described as problems regulating body temperature and feelings of hunger. Heefner said his son also suffered a pulmonary embolism, which was treated when he was flown to Chicago for care.
“Nothing is easy anymore,” said Nile Heefner.
Codi Heefner, Gabe’s mother, and Nile Heefner have maintained an ongoing blog on CaringBridge.com since the incident and tracked their son’s condition.
The latest blog post from June 5 provides more details about his son’s recovery, including his physical issues and memory loss. The post said Heefner “is working hard” and still goes to therapy five days a week.
The post said that Heefner is progressing to walking only with close supervision, but is still walking slowly.
The post said his left hand still won’t open on its own, which has been disheartening and frustrating for Heefner, and he’s starting to realize more and more what he’s lost.
The post said that Heefner’s short-term memory loss has been heartbreaking to witness. Her parents have had to tell her what happened to her several times because she forgets the details of the accident.
“It’s been heavy as we had to answer some of his questions, and recounting it isn’t easy for us to relive or for him to hear, but I think it’s better for him to know why he is the way he is now,” the post read.
Nile Heefner thanked several people in her testimony for helping her son both on the night of the shooting and during his care at various hospitals. This included the two witnesses who initially tried to help Heefner, the responding police officer, her son’s care team at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab in Chicago, and staff from the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and the Hospital Northwestern Memorial in Chicago.
Heefner said UIHC helped save her son’s life. She said the family hopes Heefner can overcome her injuries and live a long and full life.
George Shillcock is the local government and development reporter for Press-Citizen covering Iowa City and Johnson County. He can be reached at (515) 350-6307, GShillcock@press-citizen.com, and on Twitter. @ShillcockGeorge