Published: September 16, 2008
In The Region
DURING the Sundance Kid skit at Wild West City, a western-style theme park in northern New Jersey, all is quiet until the bad guys ride into town. At “high noon,” the sheriff and his deputies face off against the villains, and the guns start blazing. Good guys fall, bad guys fall, and when the performance ends, the actors bounce up and the audience of parents and children applauds.
At least that’s how it’s supposed to go. But one day back in 2006, at the end of the performance, all the actors stood back up, except one. He remained on the ground, a trickle of blood running down his forehead. Believing he had fallen, park officials had the actor, Scott Harris, taken to the hospital. It was only after he underwent CT scanning that doctors realized he had been shot with a real bullet. Another actor, who fired at Mr. Harris, had inadvertently loaded his gun with .22 caliber bullets instead of blanks.
Mr. Harris, 39, is now partially paralyzed, unable to walk or say more than a few words at a time.
The shooter, whose name was withheld because he is a juvenile, pleaded guilty in May 2007 to causing bodily injury with a deadly weapon. He was sentenced to six months’ probation.
This summer, almost two years later, prosecutors decided to bring criminal charges against the park’s owner, its manager and two parent companies. A Sussex County grand jury indicted the owner, Michael Stabile, 59, on 25 charges, including second-degree aggravated assault and weapons violations. Mr. Stabile was also charged with tampering with evidence and hindering apprehension, because the authorities said he removed the real bullets from the park. He faces five to 10 years in prison, according to Sussex County prosecutors.
Prosecutors said the park had poor safety controls, failed to train and supervise workers and had inadequate firearm permits.
Calls made to Mr. Stabile and lawyers for the park and the other defendants were not returned.
Initially, Mr. Stabile was charged with firearm and public safety violations. But when authorities pressed for greater supervision of the park, and the owners balked at that, prosecutors moved to bring the more stringent charges, they said.
“We really made a bona fide effort to resolve this early on,” said Gregory Mueller, an assistant Sussex County prosecutor.
Prosecutors said the park and its owners were violating a provision of state weapons law that requires historical re-enactors — from theme parks to the Revolutionary War soldiers who march in parades — to carry gun permits. The case highlighted the fact that few such enterprises, including Wild West City, ever obtain such permits.
The theme park, built in 1956, continues to operate, but now is not allowed to use operable weapons, prosecutors said.
On the day of the shooting, prosecutors said, the juvenile, a 17-year-old high school student, was running late to the performance. Unable to find the blank bullets usually located in a candy dish in the saloon, he went into a gun box belonging to Adalberto Morales, another actor. Mr. Morales had two boxes of ammunition: one with blanks; the other with live rounds that he had used earlier at a shooting range. Unaware of the difference, the student grabbed the real bullets, prosecutors said.
Mr. Morales, who was also charged in the case, has entered a two-year probation program that would lead to the charges against him being dropped.
“Although I believe Wild West City is primarily responsible for what happened, I do think that at a minimum, two other individuals share in that responsibility,” Mr. Mueller said. “One is the person who brought real bullets into the park, and the other is the shooter, even though he didn’t intend for this to happen. He knew he had an operable firearm, and he loaded a gun, not really understanding nor knowing what he was loading it with. And then he pointed it at another individual and pulled the trigger.”
The family of Mr. Harris has brought a suit against the park, arguing that the owners should have taken more care to protect everyone, said the family’s lawyer, Andrew A. Fraser.
Scott Harris grew up next door to Wild West City, playing with the horses when he was a child, and eventually working summers as an actor once he was old enough, said his mother, Betty Harris. The family bears no ill will toward the park and does not want the owners jailed, she said.
“My goal is for Scott to be taken care of, and for measures to be taken so that it won’t happen to anyone else,” Mrs. Harris said.