The U.S. Forest Service routinely directs gun enthusiasts to the unofficial shooting range where a 10-year-old Auburn-area boy was shot dead by his father Sunday — even handing out maps to the popular target-practice site.
But Pierce County sheriff's deputies call the gravel pit a menace.
Forest Service officials say they prefer that gun enthusiasts go there rather than firing willy-nilly on other parts of the public lands.
Sheriff's deputies who responded Sunday to the shooting scene, an expansive pit southeast of rural Greenwater, say bullets whizzed over their heads as they investigated the shooting death of Kurtis Pryor.
While perfectly legal, deputies say, the unofficial shooting park is a frequent headache.
A commercial, indoor target-range operator scorns the backwoods gunfire as an accident waiting to happen.
"I've seen some very questionable gun-handling skills," said Frank Roufs, rangemaster at Weapons Safety, a Bellevue gun store that boasts one of the largest indoor shooting ranges in the state. "It's truly terrifying."
Kurtis died Sunday afternoon at Mary Bridge Children's Hospital in Tacoma, where he was flown after the shooting about noon at the gravel pit off Forest Service Road 70, about five miles north of Highway 410, southeast of Greenwater.
Pierce County sheriff's deputies said the boy ran downrange to set up paper targets, but his father didn't see the boy when he looked up from reloading his .45-caliber pistol and fired one round, hitting the boy in the chest.
The father and a friend tried to revive the boy, then drove him to Greenwater to get help.
Yesterday, sheriff's Cmdr. Rick Adamson said deputies have yet to speak with the boy's father, who was hysterical with grief and had to be sedated at the hospital Sunday.
"We tried to talk to him but he was still incoherent," Adamson said.
Neighbors gathered Sunday night in the cul-de-sac outside the Pryor home in the Lake Dolloff neighborhood, in unincorporated King County between Auburn and Federal Way.
"We're all grieving, and we don't know how to help them," said neighbor Brent Whiting of Kurtis Pryor's parents and 4-year-old sister. "It's pretty tragic. They're a nice family."
Whiting identified the father as Steve Pryor and said he is a contractor, and Kurtis' mother a stay-at-home mom.
The family moved into the neighborhood about five years ago. Kurtis attended Lake Dolloff Elementary School, where he was "a very good kid" who liked to teach younger children the games he and his friends played, Whiting said.
"He liked to help them learn, and it looked like he was going to grow into a good young man," Whiting said.
County prosecutors said that while they haven't received a report from homicide detectives, charges would be a stretch.
"His son is dead, and that's a heck of a thing to deal with," said Jerry Costello, chief criminal deputy prosecutor. "It's a tragedy you can't hardly imagine."
Deputies say no one was breaking any laws at the quarry. Still, they hasten to add, deputies routinely patrol the area and often respond to complaints of hazardous shooting.
In fact, Adamson said the area Sunday was populated by a "bunch of idiots" who had his deputies flinching at the sound of bullets zipping overhead and ricocheting off nearby rocks as they tried to investigate the boy's death.
"There were about 20 different groups up there," most of which had no idea what — or who — might lie beyond the next rock pile, he said. "That place was not designed to be a rifle or pistol range."
Still, Pierce County ordinances allow for the discharge of firearms in unpopulated areas, providing there are no structures within 500 feet or roads to shoot across.
Officials with the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, too, allow shooting within the forest boundaries, as long as it's 150 yards from an occupied area and no one shoots across a road or waterway.
Unlike the national-park system, which bars shooting, the Forest Service has a tradition of allowing shooting and hunting.
"Of course, when something like this happens, it's horrible," said Lorette Ray, a Forest Service spokeswoman.
"But there's a certain amount of personal responsibility and inherent risk involved. This is public land, America's forest land, and people have choices," she said.
Forest rangers direct people to the gravel pit, even handing out hand-drawn maps. They ask that people not shoot glass and pick up after themselves.
"We try to steer them to these developed gravel pits because they have good, safe backstops," said Doug Black of the White River Ranger Station in Enumclaw.
Ray said she has no record of previous fatalities at the pit.
There's also a popular shooting pit near North Bend.
At another popular informal range near Sultan, 16-year-old Suzie Buren of Renton was fatally shot by her 18-year-old boyfriend in July.
Roufs, the Bellevue indoor-range master, said he is "constantly" asked by gun owners where to find such shooting places. Not everyone likes to pay a fee to shoot at a controlled range, he said.
And in the woods, Roufs says, they don't have to follow the rules.
A downrange shooting like the one that claimed the boy's life Sunday would be virtually impossible at a regulated firing range, where shooters are required to holster or put down their weapons if anyone crosses the firing line, he said.
"Everybody has to be back and accounted for before shooting can commence," Roufs said.
Shooters at a regulated range also have a clear idea of what they're shooting at and — as importantly — where the bullet might go if they miss their target, he said.
Roufs disagrees with the Forest Service that rock quarries provide a safe backstop. Bullets dangerously ricochet and fragment off the rock, he said.
"Those two things are fundamental: Always be aware of your target before you pull the trigger, and know what your backstop is," he said.