The Question of Deadly Force

I had never blogged on this case before because I wanted to get as much perspective on it before I made a decision. As I typically do, I read everything I could and watched all the news footage I could find about this before formulating an opinion about it. Now I’m ready to post something I’ve been working on for a couple of days.

On May 11, 2004, then-57-year-old Harold Fish was ending a long hike in the Coconino National Forest in Northern Arizona (just north of a little town called Strawberry). The events of that day are known only to him, but the facts are that he met Grant Kuenzli at the end of the trail and shot him three times in the chest. As Kuenzli lay in the dirt, Fish tried all he could to help him–he put his backpack under Kuenzli’s head, covered him with a blanket to keep him warm, and flagged down another vehicle to help. He used his OnStar system to call for paramedics, and remained on scene to answer questions. He told investigators later that when two dogs charged him on the trail, he pulled his 10mm Kimber handgun and fired a warning shot, drawing Kuenzli from the top of the hill. He said Kuenzli then charged him in a rage, swinging his fists and swearing to kill him. He said he fired in self defense, because Kuenzli–a much younger and stronger man than Fish–made him fear for his life. Typically, a man guilty of murder (which can be loosely defined as the taking of a life without cause or justification) doesn’t stick around and try to help or explain to police what happened. But I’ll go another route to prove what I believe.

Linda Almeter, Kuenzli’s sister, described him as “an honorable, noble, responsible, caring, loving person.” She loved her brother and it certainly shows in the way she talks about him. Another friend said he was astonished when he heard Kuenzli had been killed, and started a petition in the town of Payson (where they were all from) to convince the Coconino County Attorney’s Office to prosecute Fish for murder. What was never brought up in trial, however, was a long line of incidents that proved Kuenzli’s behavior. That friend who started the petition, who said there was no way Kuenzli could have attacked Fish? His name is John McCauley, and he knew Kuenzli for a grand total of four months before he was killed.

The witness testimony that would have proven what Kuenzli was really like? It was challenged by the prosecution. The court suppressed any mention of prior bad acts, meaning testimony from witnesses who had seen Kuenzli behave in a way that would affirm Fish’s testimony that he’d felt threatened on the trail by Kuenzli’s posturing. In fact, there was quite a bit of very relevant witness testimony that was suppressed by the court, and it would have proven the point that Kuenzli did, in fact, have a raging, out-of-control temper.

Ernie Encinas, the Gilbert fire marshal who supervised Kuenzli as a fire inspector, said that Kuenzli would frequently lose his temper with everyone. He’d ball up his fists, bang them on the tables and other furniture, throw things, and scream at the top of his lungs while pacing back and forth. Encinas later said that when he heard the story and was asked to testify, he had no trouble picturing Kuenzli charging and threatening to kill someone. Steve Corich, director of security at Mesa Community College, said his run-in with Kuenzli stuck out above all others in his 26 years in his position: when Kuenzli was asked to take his dog (which was not on a leash) off campus, he started posturing, clenching his fists and screaming, making little sense. Clayton Hamblen, a Mesa court justice of the peace, once asked Kuenzli to leave his dog outside the courthouse before coming in for a hearing, and still says that Kuenzli stuck in his mind as the most hateful, angry individual he’d ever crossed paths with. He also described Kuenzli’s threatening posture, clenched teeth and fists, and a look that he described as, “I want to rip your throat out.”

Kuenzli had a history of PTSD, depression and anxiety disorders. He was on the anti-depressant Effexor when he met Fish on the trail. Many of his coworkers have since said that they were not surprised to hear that this had happened, because Kuenzli had a violent temper, one that they all believed would get him into serious trouble someday.

The prosecutor argued that Fish carried a high-powered handgun and kept it loaded with hollow-point ammunition though he didn’t need it. He also argued that Fish, who had an Arizona CCW license, should never have fired a warning shot at the dogs. He said that Fish knew when he pulled the trigger that Kuenzli would die. But Fish carried his Kimber when he hiked to protect against wild animals, not necessarily people. It is true enough that in training to obtain a CCW, you’re taught never to fire a warning shot; you’re taught to fire at center mass to take down the threat before you can be harmed or killed. I have this question, though: who wants to kill a dog? If it’s me, even though I’ve gone through CCW training and I’ve been attacked by a dog before, I’d have a hard time shooting a dog, too. As for knowing that Kuenzli would die, that’s hearsay, something that shouldn’t have been allowed into evidence. I see gunshot victims survive on a regular basis. I’ve seen them survive rounds from AR-15’s and arterial bleeding. Nobody can claim that Fish knew Kuenzli would die. The hollow-point bullet argument? Hogwash. I put hollow tips in my handgun. If you fire at a person with target ammunition, that round will go through their body and every wall and other object behind it, possibly harming or killing an innocent person. Hollow tips make that sort of scenario nearly impossible.

For those of us who believe firmly in the right to keep and bear arms, the decision to fire in self-defense is not an easy one. In my whole life, I’ve had to pull my weapon exactly once, and thank God never had to fire. Training and beliefs aside, the choice to do something that may result in another person’s death–even a person who is threatening you–is a choice nobody wants to make.

I have also studied Shaolin gongfu and Krav Maga for several years. Officially, my body is a dangerous weapon. I know quite well what I am capable of. Moreso, I know what others are capable of, and believe it or not, there are some people I would not ever, ever want to have to fight because I know they’d likely beat me to death. A person does not have to touch you to commit assault. Until you’ve had a person get in your face and threaten you or even take a couple of swings at you, you cannot understand how much fear that can produce. It doesn’t take much to do serious damage and injury to a person with your bare hands. Harold Fish likely had every reason to believe his life was in immediate danger on that trail.

It doesn’t happen often, but I cannot disagree more with prosecutors on this case. The question of deadly force here should have been asked before they wasted taxpayer money to try an innocent man.

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4 thoughts on “The Question of Deadly Force

  1. I believe this case was featured on American Justice, or one of those A&E type shows. I saw it.

    And I’m concerned that so much was ignored in the decision. The decision to use force to save one’s life is not only a difficult one, but of necessity must be done on the spur of the moment. You do not have time to think and re-think and draw up a pro and con list, you have to make an immediate assessment, because either way your life depends on your answer.

    Too many people in our society are so far removed from any sort of immediate and looming threat that they can’t conceive such threats exist, and such people make their opinions and legal decisions (when on juries) accordingly.

  2. This is an odd case. People who kill in self defense do exactly what the accused did or very close to it. They try to help the victim, notify the authorities, and they answer all questions. They don’t flee the scene. They don’t destroy evidence. They don’t tell lies.

  3. “No greater wrong can ever be done than to put a good man at the mercy of a bad, while telling him not to defend himself or his fellows; in no way can the success of evil be made surer or quicker.” –President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)
    I agree with your reasoning on HP ammo. I carried the most effective ammunition and the most effective firearm because I would rather live than die. However, most people (especially people who lived in cities all their life) look at the act of protecting yourself (including learning defensive skills, or, as they would put it, how to hurt someone) as a criminal act. Gunowners have been successfully demonized. Would it have turned out better had the dogs attacked the hiker and permanently crippled him? Some would have us take that path, but of course would not take it themselves. This is a shame and I hope it does not stand.

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