A 47-year-old deer hunter from Illinois was shot in the head and killed Saturday morning at Cedar Creek Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in middle Georgia.
Officials caution it is still very early in the investigation, but indications are both the victim and the shooter were among a group of 10 to 15 hunters who were conducting a deer drive when the shooting occurred.
The incident happened near the Putnam/Jones County line near Union Hill Church Road at about 11:15 a.m. Saturday morning, Oct. 19.
Capt. Bob Lynn, a region supervisor for Georgia DNR’s Law Enforcement Division (LED), emphasized the case is still under investigation, but he said signs point toward a shooter/victim incident.
"There are two speculations, and one of them I think is going to prove out to be true,” Capt. Lynn said. “The first speculation was he accidentally shot himself. We’re further into our investigation now, and I think we can prove now another hunter in the hunting party accidentally shot him. We’re really heavily leaning toward a shooter/victim type incident now and found some evidence to back that up."
Capt. Lynn said there are reports that a dozen or more people were involved in a deer drive, with both drivers walking to push deer and hunters stationed as standers.
It is likely this is the same group of Hispanic hunters that has been generating complaints about them driving deer through WMAs in areas where others were trying to hunt. These complaints have been fielded by both DNR LED and GON for the past four to five years, particularly on Cedar Creek WMA and nearby Oconee WMA.
"I understand this to be an annual event for them,” Capt. Lynn said. “We have received complaints on them for years driving deer.
“There’s nothing against the law on that. But it’s not a real good idea, in my opinion, on a WMA with that many folks in there hunting to have folks walking around trying to drive deer. That’s a recipe for disaster, which is exactly what happened."
Apparently the group from Illinois has family in the Gainesville area who were also part of the hunting group.
Capt. Lynn said they can’t be sure yet this is the same group that has been generating complaints, but he confirmed DNR has received complaints in the past from other hunters of a large Hispanic hunting party doing deer drives on public land.
All of those involved in the incident had their proper licenses, were wearing orange vests, and they all had hunter-education certification, Capt. Lynn said.
"They were legal in every aspect," he said.
The victim is identified as Francisco Hernandez, of Joliet, Illinois.
The suspected shooter is 17 years old, and unconfirmed reports say the victim was his uncle. Capt. Lynn was able to confirm only that they were related. He also confirmed reports that a deer was seen and was being shot at when the incident occurred.
"We’re definitely in the very beginning stages of the investigation,” Capt. Lynn said.
The DNR Law Enforcement Division’s critical incident reconstruction team (CIRT) spent Saturday and all day Sunday at the scene.
Cedar Creek WMA encompasses almost 40,000 acres of Oconee National Forest land in southern Jasper and Putnam counties and northern Jones County. Deer hunting is allowed without quota on the area on certain dates. This year’s first firearms hunt at Cedar Creek was Oct. 17-19, which gave gun hunters a two-day jump on the start of the state’s general firearms opener on Oct. 19. The hunt was buck-only Oct. 17-18, and Oct. 19 was an either-sex day.