Fish and Wildlife Warden Matthew Wells turned on his lights and siren
to pull over some would-be poachers in a pickup truck, he didn’t
expect to become a target.
But within seconds, Wells testified today, the man standing in the bed of the truck dropped his spotlight, pulled a handgun and opened fire.
feared for my life,” Wells said during the preliminary hearing for
Shawn Eugene Hof Jr., accused of attempting to murder Wells in the
early-morning hours of Aug. 22, 2016.
Wells was on routine patrol that morning on Redwood House Road, which intersects with state Highway 36 near Carlotta. He was above the road, looking through binoculars, when he spotted a vehicle traveling “less than 5 miles per hour.”
“I saw the occupants of the vehicle using a hand-held light,” Wells testified under questioning by Deputy District Attorney Adrian Kamada. Wells said he drove down to the road and waited about 45 minutes before the vehicle in question passed by.
“I saw a vehicle with its headlights on,” he recalled. “I saw a subject standing in the bed of a pickup truck and operating a hand-held light from the bed of the truck.” Wells said he believed the person scanning the forests and fields with the light was searching for “eyeshine” reflecting from deer or other wildlife.
The warden pulled onto Redwood House Road and turned on his lights and siren. He was about 10 yards behind the pickup truck when the spotlight disappeared and was replaced by something else.
“I saw a flash and heard the report of what I thought was a firearm,” Wells testified. “I observed what I believed to be a handgun in the hand of the subject who was in the bed of the pickup truck.”
He estimated the person fired six shots at his vehicle. Then the shooter jumped through a sliding window into the cab of the truck, but the gunfire didn’t stop.
“I observed and heard what I recognized as several more gunshots,” Wells testified. “They appeared to be coming from the passenger side of the vehicle.”
Wells dropped back but continued to follow the pickup truck, which he said sped up to about 50 mph on the curvy gravel road. He eventually found the truck about 1 mile from Highway 36. It had crashed into a redwood tree. Wells said he waited about 10 minutes for backup, then he and a sheriff’s deputy approached the wrecked pickup. Its only occupant was a tiny pitbull puppy.
The alleged shooter is Hof, 25, who was a fugitive for nearly a year before turning himself in last month. A $20,000 reward had been offered for his arrest. He is charged with attempted murder and a slew of weapons charges, including the so-called “Use a Gun and You’re Done” allegation that could mean up to life in prison if he’s convicted.
Defense attorney Paul Gallegos indicated during his questioning that if Hof was the shooter, and he has been identified by only a person who also has been charged, then his intent was not to kill the officer but slow his pursuit.
The admitted driver and owner of the pickup truck is Fortuna resident Thomas Wheeler, who told investigators he and Hof were looking for deer when the officer tried to pull them over. Wheeler gave a taped statement to Humboldt County sheriff’s Sgt. Greg Musson later the same day.
At first, Musson testified today, Wheeler denied any involvement and stuck to the story he told Fortuna police. He had filed a false report with FPD claiming the truck was stolen. Eventually, though, Wheeler admitted he was driving and Hof had fired at the officer’s vehicle.
“I didn’t know he was going to start shooting at the cops,” Wheeler said during the recorded interview, which was played in court today. He said Hof didn’t start shooting until he climbed into the cab, which contradicts Wells’ testimony.
The tape recording was mostly unintelligible to those in the courtroom audience. But a few statements were clear, such as “He just blind-fired out the window,” and “He said he was trying to shoot the radiator,” and “He was just trying to scare the officers hoping they’d back off.”
Whoever the shooter was, he missed the warden’s vehicle completely. No bullet damage was found on the truck, though Wells testified that at the time he thought it was being hit. Seven .45-caliber bullet casings and one .45-caliber bullet were found within a one-mile range on the road and roadside.
According to Wheeler, Hof seriously injured his leg in the wreck and was having a hard time walking. He begged Wheeler for help, saying “Don’t leave me out here.”
The two men apparently referred to one another as brothers, but that’s not their connection. Musson testified that Hof’s father and Wheeler’s mother were dating, and both were killed some time ago in a car wreck on Highway 36.
“They became close after that,” Musson said.
Wheeler told investigators he and Hof managed to make it to a housing subdivision in the wee hours of the morning. They were confronted by a suspicious resident, who later told law enforcement that one of the men, the one who appeared to be hurt, said his name was Shawn. But the man was unable to identify Hof in a photo lineup. In fact, as Gallegos pointed out, he thought another person in the lineup resembled “Shawn” more.
Wells also could not identify Hof as the man who fired from the back of the truck. That’s despite, as Gallegos pointed out, Wells cited Hof for spotlighting in October 2013 and also pulled him over another time for a traffic violation on Redwood House Road.
The hearing was expected to continue Thursday morning before Judge Dale Reinholtsen, who will determine whether there is enough evidence to warrant a trial.
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