Hiker shot on South Mountain trail; attorney says shot came from gun range
So should hikers be concerned the next time they hit the trails on South Mountain?
Gunshots are often heard from the South Mountain trail where 35-year-old Thomas Sawyer said he was shot, while hiking in February.
"Like if you've ever had a muscle spasm, that's what it felt like, then I dropped to the ground, lifted up my shorts and thought my hamstring exploded," said Thomas Sawyer.
Sawyer said he was hiking the Max Delta Loop Trail around 10:30 a.m. on a Saturday, he didn't immediately realize he was shot.
"I was like I don't know what's wrong; something's wrong with my legs," said Sawyer.
The bullet went all the way through his right leg and lodged in his left leg. He manages to make his way down the mountain and to a ranger station where he called for help.
There are two gun ranges north of the trail at the base of South Mountain. One belongs to the Phoenix Police Academy; the other is a private gun club called the Phoenix Rod and Gun Club.
Investigators say no one was shooting at the Police Academy at the time.
According to a police report, detectives believe the bullet that hit Sawyer came from the gun club, as does Sawyer's attorney Garvey Biggers.
"We know for a fact there were three competitions going on, all ages were shooting that day, from children to adults... so if you have an inexperienced shooter, you could easily lose control of your weapon," said attorney Garvey Biggers.
Sawyer's legal team says the range is exactly 540 meters from where Sawyer says he was on the trail.
Is it possible for a bullet to travel 540 meters?
"Yes, no doubt about it," said Biggers.
A Phoenix Police Detective, who went to the private gun club that day, said it's unknown which firearm discharged the bullet, or where the discharge occurred.
An attorney for the Gun Club issued a statement in part that says they are investigating; he questions the hikers location, and how a round from the range could have hit him. He cites the police report where Sawyer told them he was hiking "in the area of the private gun club," and a photo Sawyer sent to the park ranger with a sign that said "Shooting Range Danger, Keep Out." A Park Ranger told authorities he thought Sawyer was hiking in a restricted area.
"No, I was not off trail," said Sawyer.
Not only does Sawyer deny being off the trail, but his attorney says Sawyer's GPS puts him exactly on the trail at the time of the shooting.
"The Park Ranger asked him where he was; he sent him a picture of the danger sign, so he could let him know that was the area. So he was on the trail, never close to that sign, but in the area. Then the Park Ranger came out and said he was in an unauthorized area," said Biggers.
FOX 10 hiked the trail and saw the same danger sign, with the bullet hole in it, as we stood on the marked Max Delta Loop Trail.
While FOX 10 was there, gunfire echoed through the area. People at the gun range were firing into berms that face the trail. It's where Sawyer claims he was when he was shot on the Max Delta Loop.
Police say they did not find any evidence of where Sawyer was shot, however according to their own police report they say Sawyer was shot on February 21. Investigators did not hike the trail to look for evidence like blood until February 28; seven days after the shooting.
The National Weather Service said it rained three times that week. Records show Phoenix Police did not interview Sawyer or collect his clothes for evidence until March 2.
"(I am) Not happy with the way the Phoenix Police Department has handled it, because it feels like they're hiding something, feels like they're protecting somebody, doesn't feel like they're doing the job they would do for one of their own," said Biggers.
A ballistics expert said ranges must be designed so bullets cannot leave the property. He said if it's possible for a shooter to accidentally elevate his firearm, and the bullet leave the range, then it's an unsafe design and should be corrected or closed down.
Biggers also isn't happy about the investigation the officers did at the gun club that day. According to the police report, an officer spoke with Range Safety at the club and several unnamed shooters who said nobody was doing anything unsafe, and nobody saw anyone on the mountain.
"They could have secured the guns, gotten names, got serial numbers off weapons, got rosters or logs of people who checked in," said Biggers.
Phoenix Police did not talk on-camera, but they said Sawyer's lawyer filed a complaint about the handling of the investigation and it has been resolved.
They also sent a statement that said "What happened to Mr. Sawyer was very unfortunate and I understand his frustration, especially with his questions unanswered. The case has been "pended" by the investigator which means more information is needed to continue at this point."
Police say Sawyer is holding some key evidence, the bullet that is still lodged in his left leg. Doctors were unable to remove it.
"I have a hard time walking; I have a lot of pain on both legs... I don't know if this is ever going to be the same," said Sawyer.
The Max Delta Loop Trail remains open. The director of Phoenix Parks and Rec say there have been no other incidents of people being shot on that trail. Parks and Rec say as long as people are hiking in designated areas, they are safe.