A grand jury has freed Benjamin Paul Harrell, who was indicted last fall in the death of Robert Eugene Mills, of Weston, at a campground near Troy.
Harrell was arrested at the scene of the Nov. 25 shooting at Grizz Flats campground and booked for murder, two counts of first degree assault, menacing and first degree criminal mischief.
He was released on $250,000 bail following his Nov. 27 arraignment, at which time the charges were reduced to manslaughter in the first degree.
Wallowa County District Attorney Mona K. Williams said the grand jury convened on June 14 in Enterprise to review evidence garnered in the investigation:
"They were not able to determine that Mr. Harrell was not justified (in shooting Mills)," Williams said.
Williams also gave the Chieftain the first official account to be offered of events the night of the shooting.
Mills, with three other men, and Harrell, with his wife, Dr. Mary Harrell, were camped at Grizz Flats on Nov. 25, Williams said. Mills' party was there to fish and Harrell and his wife, of Yakima, Wash., were planning to attend a black powder shoot the next day.
They were the only two groups at the campground that afternoon, she added.
Mills and fellow fisherman Jerrod Mitchell got into Mills' pickup to drive over to the restroom, located near the campsite chosen by the Harrells, Williams said. While Mitchell was in the restroom, Mills walked over to the Harrells' camp and, Harrell later told deputies, invited them to go to the bar. The Harrells declined and later said that nothing about the conversation seemed hostile.
Williams said that Mitchell also said nothing seemed amiss and, being in the restroom, heard nothing of the conversation.
When Mitchell came out of the restroom, both men got in Mills' truck and, at that point, Mills turned and drove straight through the Harrells' campfire, Williams said. He them made a circle and headed straight back toward the Harrells' pickup - and Harrells' wife, who was behind it.
At that point, Harrell fired six shots with a semi-automatic rifle at Mills, inflicting fatal wounds. Williams said that the remaining members of Mills camp heard the shots, ran over to see what had happened, and then called law enforcement.
Harrell vowed the shooting was in self-defense, as he believed his wife's life to be in danger, and Williams said the evidence at the scene seemed to corroborate that:
"When the reconstruction was finished ... it did look like it would have struck the vehicle behind which Mrs. Harrell was standing," Williams said.
This was a particularly challenging case to investigate, Williams said. To begin with, the last of the day's light was taken up with caring for Mills who was still alive when they arrived at 5:30 p.m., but died later at St. Mary Medical Center in Walla Walla.
Deputies and state troopers on scene had to wait until the following morning to take pictures, Williams said, but during the night, two inches of fresh snow covered all the evidence.
The reconstruction, a full analysis of tire tracks, broken glass, shell casing location, and other physical evidence, was finally accomplished, but witness versions of what happened differed slightly, Williams said.
The case was investigated by the Wallowa County Sheriff's Office, the Oregon State Major Crimes Team, Walla Walla Police Department and Walla Walla County Coroner's Office.
In a case where self-defense is claimed, the state has to prove that is was not self-defense, in order to proceed with a prosecution, Williams said. Effectively, the state must prove a negative and five of a seven-member grand jury must concur with the prosecution.
In this case, that didn't happen, though the jury did not offer a vote count, Williams said.
Self-defense is defined as defense of oneself or of another person, Williams said.
The charges will be dismissed and, barring the discovery of new evidence, will not be pursued further.