Crime

Widow sues Modesto club in skeet shooting death

The entrance to the Old Fishermen’s Club on Oct. 3. The defendant in the lawsuit
says in court documents that the victim was negligent the day of the shooting.
The entrance to the Old Fishermen’s Club on Oct. 3. The defendant in the lawsuit says in court documents that the victim was negligent the day of the shooting. Modesto Bee

The widow of a man who was shot at the Old Fishermen's Club in July has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the club, the club's landlord and the man she says killed her husband.

Judith Herrmann of Modesto is asking for at least $25,000 in the July 13 death of her husband, William. She declined to comment for this story.

News of Herrmann's death reverberated through the U.S. sport shooting world because strict rules on ranges mean such accidents rarely happen.

The lawsuit identifies Vincent Giovaniello of Riverbank as the man who shot Herrmann. Authorities have declined to name the shooter, but people familiar with the club confirmed it was Giovaniello.

He has denied the allegations.

Also named in the lawsuit are the Old Fishermen's Club and its landlord, Mape's Ranch and Lyons Investments. The lawsuit was filed in August.

"It was a very unfortunate, tragic incident," said landlord W.J. "Bill" Lyons Jr.

One club member said shooting has been suspended at the club since Herrmann's death. Club president Rod C. Wyeth of Modesto did not return several calls over two weeks. The club, at 10800 Maze Blvd., about nine miles west of Modesto on the San Joaquin River, was established in 1920 and has about 800 members. All are men.

Authorities said Herrmann met with other men to shoot skeet at the club. In skeet, which is meant partially to simulate bird hunting, participants try to shatter clay disks flung quickly into the air from different angles.

In July, past president Phil Brugger of Modesto said Herrmann was not a club member. But one member said Herrmann was "always around."

Club rules possibly violated

Stanislaus County sheriff's Detective Ken Hedrick said the men were standing in an area between the skeet range and the parking lot when the shooting happened.

"He was showing the weapon to another club member when it went off," he said.

Though it's not a violation of state law to carry a loaded gun on private property, several people familiar with shooting ranges said it likely was a violation of club rules.

"You don't load your gun until it's your time to shoot," said Stan Siroonian, president of the Fresno Trap and Skeet Club. "The gun has to be either broken or open, that way you know and everybody else knows it's safe."

Hedrick said the investigation remains open, no one has been arrested and the shooting appears to be accidental.

According to the lawsuit, Giovaniello's shot hit Herrmann in the head. The coroner's office ruled the death accidental.

The firearm used in the shooting was a .410 bore shotgun, which uses the smallest shotgun shell commonly available. It often is used for trap, skeet or small bird hunting. It's one of the lightest shotguns and has very little recoil.

Club members have said Giovaniello, one of several managers of the skeet range, is known as a stickler for firearm safety. He followed the skeet range rules to a T, making sure no one loaded his shotgun until he stepped up to shoot.

Court documents filed by Judith Herrmann's attorney argue Giovaniello "was negligent in that he pointed his loaded shotgun toward people in the near vicinity and negligently touched the trigger causing the shotgun to discharge."

Herrmann also argues in the records that the club and its landlord were negligent.

Giovaniello declined to comment. But in court documents he filed in September, he denies the allegations, arguing Judith Herrmann's complaint does not include enough information, that William Herrmann was negligent the day of the shooting and that the events surrounding the shooting "were the result of the conduct of other defendants or other parties."

Case given to district attorney

The Stanislaus County district attorney's office is reviewing the case, said Carol Shipley, assistant district attorney, which it received Sept. 29 from the Sheriff's Department. She did not know when the office would decide whether to file charges and would not speculate about what the charges could be.

Skeet shooters across the country closely followed online reports of Herrmann's death in July, said Ohio attorney Douglas A. DiPalma, a member of the National Skeet Shooting Association and a certified skeet instructor.

"In the skeet shooting world, this got attention because there are so very, very few accidents," he said last week.

According to news reports, in February an instructor at a Pennsylvania shooting range was fatally wounded while removing guns from an overnight storage safe. In 1997, a man at a Washington state range was killed while coaching a woman how to shoot a revolver. But such reports are rare, because sport shooters tend follow the rules and keep track of their shells.

"I'm almost pathological, where I shoot, about safety," DiPalma said. "That's why this got our attention. We want to remind people all the time: When you're handling weapons, there's no room for mistakes. But it certainly was tragic, any way you slice it."

Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at eraguso@modbee.com or 578-2235.

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