Sheriff Begins Investigation into Shooting on Lower Waitsburg Road
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The Walla Walla County Sheriff’s Department is currently investigating an incident in which two students were shot at while running on Saturday.
The students, sophomores Joseph Heegaard and Ryan Jacobsen, were running barefoot along Lower Waitsburg Road near the intersection of Robison Ranch Road. Heegaard said they heard two loud cracks while they were running and stopped shortly after to put their shoes on.
“As I bent down to tie my shoes, I heard the ping of a bullet hit the rock behind me,” he said. Recognizing the sound from his experience hunting, Heegaard said he then heard a loud crack from the gun being fired.
“When I heard that crack, I was like, ‘Oh shit, Ryan, that’s a gun. Run!'” he said. “We peaced out like cheetahs.”
Two more shots hit the ground in front of them before they started running, and Heegaard said he heard two more hit the ground while they were running, though Jacobsen only heard the last two fired in the air. Heegaard said he did not think the shooter was trying to hit them, because the first two shots seemed like warning shots.
The students met with Dean of Students Chuck Cleveland on Monday and filed a report with Cleveland for the county sheriff’s office. Cleveland notified the sheriff’s office on Tuesday morning, and a sheriff’s deputy went out with them to the site of the incident on Tuesday afternoon. Heegaard said they spoke to several local families to gather information.
“I think they handled it really well,” said Heegaard, referring to both the dean and sheriff’s offices.
Based on the information they gathered, Heegaard said the deputy felt that the shooters may have been teenagers, rather than local landowners. Chief Operations Deputy Barry Blackman said he could not confirm or deny this information, but that the investigation was ongoing.
“This could be anything from pure negligence to a bad practical joke to outright malicious intent,” he said.
Because the incident involved firearms, Blackman said the sheriff’s office is taking it seriously.
“We’re forging full speed ahead to get this resolved,” he said.
Although the shooting occurred Saturday afternoon, the sheriff’s office was unaware of it until Tuesday morning. Blackman stressed that students should report crimes and other incidents to dispatch at (509) 527-3265 as soon as they happen.
“There may have been information out there that we missed because of the delay in reporting,” he said.
Heegaard confirmed that the pair was on Lower Waitsburg Road, a public county road, when the shooting occurred. The nearest private road, Robison Ranch Road, belongs to the Robison family, who are alumni of Whitman College and used to allow students to run on their property, until an incident with their dog raised liability concerns.
Cross Country Coach Scott Shields said he agreed that the shooters were most likely teenagers, not landowners.
“Every time there’s been a problem with runners on private property, the farmers have always just contacted Whitman first,” he said.
While Heegaard and Jacobsen are not members of a Whitman athletic team, the Lower Waitsburg Road route is frequented by cross country runners and cyclists. The shooting incident has raised concerns for other students who exercise in the area.
Cory Rand, one of the men’s cross country captains, said the Lower Waitsburg route is often used during practice, as well as on individual runs.
“I was going to run there yesterday,” said Rand, who has decided to avoid the area until more is known about the shooting. “It’s real weird. Creepy.”
Senior Molly Blust, who is a captain of Whitman’s cycling team, said that Lower Waitsburg Road is one of the team’s top routes for rides. She said she emailed the team asking them to avoid the route for now until more information is available.
“I’ve never heard of any run-ins, but hearing of one definitely changes your view of that route,” she said.
Cleveland said this is the first report his office has received of students being shot at while running. He sent an email to the student body on Monday urging students to avoid the area for exercise until more is known. Shields said he is encouraging runners to use other routes.
“There’s plenty of other places to run around Walla Walla,” he said.
Heegaard said he usually runs on Lower Waitsburg Road three times a week and has never had a problem. He plans to continue running there in the near future.
“The incident was really unsettling. I’ll definitely be more conscious,” he said.