LIBBY – Authorities called it a hunting accident when a Colorado man was shot on property he owns south of Libby in November.
It didn’t take long for it to morph into a case where multiple online accusations tried to tie the shooting to a controversial proposed mine in the area, while alleging a cover-up by local law enforcement.
The hunter, who has pleaded not guilty to three misdemeanors in connection with the shooting, is an out-of-work miner, the accusations said. The gunshot victim was an “outspoken opponent” of the proposed Montanore Mine, and the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office was guilty of attempting to portray the hunter as a “hero” and failing to investigate the mine angle.
Alternative One, a citizens’ group that opposes the mine, went so far as to issue a news release earlier this month saying it had written to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder with a “chilling account” of the incident and requesting a criminal racketeering investigation into “the suspicious shooting … and subsequent cover-up.”
There is, however, one key person who doesn’t buy into a drop of any of this. His name is John Cleveland.
He’s the man who has questioned aspects of the proposed mine, and who Michael Wagner allegedly shot on Nov. 16 after pursuing a wounded deer onto Cleveland’s property off Libby Creek Road.
John Cleveland remains hospitalized in Denver, two months after a bullet from a .300 Winchester Magnum ripped through his right leg while he was scouting for animal tracks on his 1,000-acre property outside Libby.
Cleveland, 60, has been through three hospitals and eight or more surgeries – “My wife keeps track, I’ve lost count,” he says – with another key operation still a month down the road.
“The real issue is I’m missing 3 inches of my right femur,” Cleveland told the Missoulian from his hospital room in a telephone interview last week. “I’ll have orthopedic surgery in a month to address that. They’ll take a piece off my left hip, fashion it into a facsimile of a femur, attach it with bolts and screws and let it grow back together.”
Already uncomfortable with publicity surrounding the case, Cleveland consented to an interview only to make clear that he does not believe in the conspiracy theories being espoused online and by Alternative One.
“If Mr. Wagner were out to kill me, he wouldn’t have taken me halfway to the hospital,” says Cleveland, who was met by an ambulance and transported the rest of the way after the shooting. “He would have turned and walked away, and I’d be dead.”
“I don’t think there’s any cover-up on the part of the sheriff’s department, and I don’t think there’s any weird stuff going on here,” Cleveland says. “I think the facts speak for themselves. I don’t believe this conspiracy theory, that someone was paid by mine management to kill me. People who have that view are kidding themselves.”
As laid out in court documents that charged Wagner, 48, with negligent endangerment, unlawful hunting from a public highway and failure to obtain landowner permission for hunting, prosecutors allege this is what happened on Nov. 16:
Wagner, while hunting with his son, illegally shot and wounded a buck on Libby Creek Road, then passed a “no trespassing” sign to pursue the wounded animal onto Cleveland’s property.
An affidavit from Lincoln County deputy sheriff Brad Dodson says Wagner chased the blood trail through trees and crossed a creek, where he arrived at a clearing and “heard crashing ahead of him.”
“Michael said he saw movement the same color as the buck, put his crosshairs on it and shot,” according to Dodson’s affidavit. “Michael saw what he thought was the buck go down and went to where it was. Michael saw gray hair and realized he had shot a man.”
After helping Cleveland adjust the tourniquet Cleveland already had applied, Wagner returned to the road. He and his son drove to Cleveland’s cabin, then, on foot, followed Cleveland’s tracks into the forest. Wagner’s son, Brian, remained with the victim while Wagner returned to get the truck. He shot a lock off a gate in order to drive to the shooting scene.
The Wagners loaded Cleveland in the truck and began driving toward Libby, stopping along the way to ask a resident to call 9-1-1. That’s why an ambulance was dispatched, and intercepted the Wagner truck.
For the shooting to have been a plan to retaliate against someone who has spoken against aspects of the Montanore Mine, it seems obvious a lot of things had to fall inexplicably into place.
The buck would have had to appear on the road at the right time, Wagner would have to have intentionally wounded it, then hoped the animal would run onto Cleveland’s property.
Just as coincidentally, Wagner also needed Cleveland to appear in the right place on his 1,000 acres at the right time so he could be intentionally mistaken for the deer.
If the theory is that there was no wounded deer to begin with, then the alleged cover-up might well have to be expanded to include Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the U.S. Forest Service.
Both had officers on the scene during the Nov. 16 investigation. It was FWP game warden Tamie Laverdure who asked for help in locating the injured deer, according to the court documents, and Dodson who found and dispatched the animal.
The deer was photographed. The meat was distributed to the local food pantry. Some online posters have argued the killing of the buck constituted the destruction of evidence.
“The allegation of a cover-up is absolutely absurd,” Lincoln County Sheriff Roby Bowe told the Missoulian. “The allegation that the shooting had anything to do with the mine is crazy. I think this is just people trying to get their agenda out there, to further their cause and get some publicity. It’s just a crying shame.”
The 1,000 acres have been in Cleveland’s family for 125 years. His great-grandfather filed mining claims on it in the late 1800s.
“It’s an old-line Butte family on my mother’s side,” Cleveland says. “We have longtime ties to the area.”
Cleveland has spoken out over concerns about the proposed Montanore Mine, but says it would be ridiculous to label him anti-mining.
“I used to be a hard-rock geologist,” says Cleveland, who now works for a Colorado company involved in natural resource finance. “I started my career in mining.”
But he did have concerns about Montanore.
“I have made comments in opposition to what had been proposed as not being right,” Cleveland says. “I’m not opposed to mining per se, but I am opposed to certain aspects of Montanore Mine.”
Chief among them, Cleveland says, were how the mine proposed to deal with tailings disposal.
“I don’t want my water contaminated, and I don’t think that’s unreasonable,” Cleveland says. “But in Libby, if you express any kind of opposition, people assume you’re totally against mining, and that’s not necessarily the case.”
Cleveland had arrived from Denver the night before he was shot. He does say reports that he was hunting at the time of the shooting are inaccurate.
“I was opening up the cabin, and decided to walk around, scout things out and see where the tracks were,” he says.
He didn’t put on an orange vest because he wasn’t hunting, Cleveland says – just walking on his own property posted with “no trespassing” signs – and could have as easily been searching for a Christmas tree as big-game tracks.
Unable to put any weight on his right leg since he was shot, Cleveland hasn’t walked on his own since Nov. 16. He was initially taken to St. John’s Lutheran Hospital in Libby, and then transferred to Kalispell Regional Medical Center.
Among the four to five surgeries he underwent in Kalispell was one to place a temporary steel rod in the gap in his femur. He was moved to a Denver hospital after two weeks in Kalispell.
Some online posters have focused on an initial Libby newspaper account of the shooting that stated Wagner applied the tourniquet to Cleveland – which is not true – as evidence the sheriff’s office tried to turn the accused hunter into a “hero.”
What happened was Cleveland applied the tourniquet, then asked for Wagner’s help in adjusting it once Wagner reached him.
The news release from the sheriff’s office did not say Wagner put the tourniquet on Cleveland, but did say Wagner “helped apply” it.
“The Montanore connection is a logical and very probable one if you have any real knowledge whatsoever about those involved,” reads a comment to a story about the incident on one newspaper website. “The charges against the gunman are ridiculous, given that he nearly killed a man. Much, much more needs to be said about this incident, and I for one admire those who refuse to ignorantly accept a story full of holes and contradictions.”
However, one man who was involved – and has a 3-inch hole in his right femur to prove it – says the idea that the shooting had anything to do with Montanore is ridiculous.
“The facts tell the story,” John Cleveland says from his hospital bed.