Karen Wood died hanging laundry in her backyard in November 1988. Megan Ripley died walking with her brother behind her family’s home in December 2006. Karen Wrentzel died digging for gemstones on her property in October 2017.

Karen Wrentzel

Each woman died without knowing a hunter was on her land because he never needed to ask to be there.

Each woman died because that hunter thought he saw a deer and shot her instead.

Maine has long allowed hunters to use private property without permission unless posted signs explicitly tell them to stay away. The deaths of the three women are flares in the simmering debate about whether that tradition needs to change. The issue came up again this month at the sentencing hearing for Robert Trundy, the hunter who shot and killed Karen Wrentzel.

But every attempt to rewrite the law to require hunters to get permission has so far failed. And those who have followed the debate over decades say they still don’t think the state is ready for such a dramatic change.

“That would be very controversial,” said George Smith, the longtime former president of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. “I don’t think it would ever pass.”

Megan Ripley Submitted photo

Troy Ripley, whose 18-year-old daughter was killed by a hunter in 2006, said his own views on public access have evolved over time, and he no longer believes a statewide requirement to post private land for hunting would be the best option. But he wants state officials to talk about what other reforms might actually be possible in Maine.

“I think it’s time,” Ripley said in a recent interview. “The way you find out if it’s time is you have the conversation. Any victim of any crime, I think what gets instilled in you is a desire to make it different as part of your healing. Since the incident, nothing has changed to prevent it from happening to other people.”

THREE DECADES, THREE CASES

Karen Wood had just moved to Hermon with her husband and twin baby girls. She reportedly was hanging laundry in her yard when she was shot and killed by a hunter, Donald Rogerson, in November of 1988. He was acquitted of manslaughter.

Their deaths echoed each other, but the outcomes for each shooter were different.

In November 1988, Karen Wood had just moved to Hermon with her husband and twin baby girls. The 37-year-old mother was reportedly hanging laundry in her backyard when she was shot and killed by hunter Donald Rogerson. He later said he mistook her white-palmed mittens for the tail of a deer.

A first grand jury refused to indict him, but a second handed up a manslaughter charge. A jury finally acquitted him after a trial in 1990. Media outlets across the country reported on the case. Kevin Wood, the widower of Karen Wood, left Maine after her death.

In December 2006, Megan Ripley and her younger brother were walking near the woods behind their Paris farmhouse when she was shot and killed by hunter Timothy Bean. He also told investigators he believed he was firing at a deer. Bean was charged with manslaughter and pleaded guilty in 2007. A judge sentenced him to two years in prison, but Bean was only ordered to serve 30 days because the rest of the sentence was suspended.

In October 2017, Karen Wrentzel had just moved back to Maine to care for her grandmother. The 34-year-old woman was digging for gemstones on her land when she was shot and killed by hunter Robert Trundy. He, too, told investigators he thought he saw the rear end of a deer before he fired. Trundy was charged with manslaughter and failure to render aid in a hunting accident. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter earlier this month, while the prosecutor dropped the other charge as part of a plea agreement. A judge sentenced him to seven years in prison, with all but nine months suspended.

The maximum sentence for manslaughter is 30 years.

The three men all had valid hunting licenses and no criminal record. While none of them asked permission to hunt that land, they were not breaking any laws in the moments before they fired their guns. The lead investigator from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife said hunting incidents often involve regular people, and the penalty for Trundy would send a stronger message to hunters than in the past.

“Is Robert Trundy a hardened criminal? No,” Lt. Dan Scott, the longtime game warden, said. “But is he now guilty of a Class A felony? Yes.”

OPEN ACCESS TRADITION RUNS DEEP

While some hunting laws have changed over 30 years, the ability to hunt on private land never has.

Nearly 94 percent of land in Maine is privately owned, according to state agencies. Half – 10 million acres – is open to the public for recreational uses like hunting, biking or picnicking. Landowners can bar people from their land by posting signs such as “No Trespassing” or “Hunting By Permission Only.”

It is not clear how many other states treat private land in this way, but it is not exclusive to Maine. Two other New England states – New Hampshire and Vermont – are among those that also allow hunters to access private land without permission.

Karen Wood’s death in 1988 prompted the Maine Legislature to pass a requirement that hunters identify the torso and head of their target animal before shooting. Officials say that law has made it easier to hold hunters accountable for accidental shootings.

The case also fueled heated debate about requiring hunters to get written permission to hunt on private land. But legislative records show the Committee on Inland Fisheries and Wildlife in 1993 rejected such a bill, called “An Act to Ensure Safe Hunting,” which said the written permission could be a letter from the landowner, a sign on the property, or a notice published in a local newspaper or filed with the local deed office.

The controversy prompted landowners to close tens of thousands of acres across the state to protect their families, and some towns passed their own stricter gun and hunting regulations.

When Megan Ripley was shot and killed more than a decade later, her family proposed the “Children’s Safety Act,” which again would have required hunters to get written permission from property owners before carrying a weapon onto property that was not posted. Troy Ripley said that at the time he thought hunters would support the bill and was in disbelief when it faced opposition. He said he did not want to inhibit hunting, but wanted to prevent another shooting like the one that killed his daughter.

But that effort failed, and so did others over the years.

Now, the death of Karen Wrentzel under nearly identical circumstances is again focusing attention on land access in Maine. Multiple family members said at Robert Trundy’s sentencing this month that they believed the outcome would have been different that day if Trundy asked permission to hunt on the land.

A tear rolls down Debbie Morin’s face as she reads her victim-impact statement on Tuesday in Oxford County Superior Court. Morin’s daughet, Karen Wrentzel, was shot and killed by a hunter in October 2017. Robert Trundy, 40, was sentenced to nine months in jail after accepting a plea deal. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

“As another hunting season comes around, I hope and pray hunters will remember Karen Wood, Megan Ripley and Karen Wrentzel,” said Debbie Morin, Wrentzel’s mother. “Ask permission to hunt on other people’s property. Follow the rules to the letter. And remember the name Robert Trundy as a rubric for what not to do.”

Superior Court Justice Andrew Horton also acknowledged the possibility of reform during the sentencing hearing.

“She did nothing wrong,” Horton said of Wrentzel. “It was Mr. Trundy who did something wrong. There shouldn’t be any misunderstanding about that on anyone’s part. But Mr. Trundy was, up to the point where he fired his shot, he was acting legally as far as the law allows. Perhaps the law, as was suggested, should require a hunter to seek permission of the landowner before embarking on the property. That is not the law in the state of Maine.”

SEARCHING FOR COMPROMISE

Troy Ripley and his family still live in the Paris farmhouse where his daughter died. He has posted his land to only allow hunting with permission, and he does say yes to some people who ask.

Ripley’s view on Maine’s tradition of public access has changed, however. “We’re not ready for reverse posting, nor do I feel we need to be,” Ripley said.

Over the years, he said, he learned that landowners worry about their ability to manage frequent requests to hunt on or access their properties. He decided what works in more populated southern Maine might not work in northern Maine, where there are large swaths of private land with few homes or people.

But he said the state needs to look for compromise solutions, such as online maps where hunters can learn about who owns a property and what uses are allowed there.

While not required by law, both the state and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine advise hunters to always seek permission from landowners before entering private property. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife calls it “the unwritten rule.” The department hunting page says, “Access to private land is a privilege, not a right.”

But there is no data that shows how many of the roughly 220,000 hunters licensed by the state each year follow that advice, and there is no penalty if they do not.

“The threshold of the criminal justice system isn’t in line with what the hunter ethics system teaches and preaches,” Ripley said. “Most of the time, there’s no consequences for people violating the ethics system.”

Smith, an outdoors writer who led the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine for 18 years, said he always asked permission to hunt on a parcel, even if it was not posted. He said he feels it is a mistake to hunt land without speaking to the owner, but a law to that effect would never pass in Maine.

“A lot of hunters will hunt on unposted land without even knowing who owns it,” Smith said. “And some landowners don’t mind. They’re happy to have people hunting there. I still think it’s a great policy to get to know whose land you’re hunting on.”

David Trahan, the current executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance, said he also gets permission every year, even when he hunts on his mother-in-law’s land.

But, asked whether that practice should be formalized, he said the logistics would be challenging for both landowners and hunters. In part, he said it would be too difficult for hunters to know in the moment when they’ve crossed onto a different parcel and if they have a landowner’s permission to be there.

“Maine is unique in that most of our land is in private ownership in small lots,” Trahan said. “It’s nearly impossible for a hunter to know.”

Three legislators on the Committee for Inland Fisheries and Wildlife — Democrats Sen. Jim Dill and Rep. Catherine Nadeau, who are the committee chairs, and Sen. Paul Davis, who is the highest ranking Republican member — did not return messages requesting interviews for this story.

Scott, who has been a game warden for 23 years, also advises hunters to get permission to hunt on private land.

But, asked whether that advice should be a requirement, he said he thinks landowners should be the deciders, and those groups have traditionally opposed the idea. He also said restricted access could hurt people who are recreating in other ways, such as snowmobiling, cross-country skiing or birdwatching, although past proposals would generally have only limited hunting, not those other activities.

Landowner groups such as the Maine Woodland Owners have opposed proposed changes in public access in the past. But that group recently compiled a survey of roughly 800 landowners with between 10 and 1,000 acres. While 50 percent said they do not post their land against trespassing, nearly 30 percent said they were considering future restrictions on their land. They cited reasons like illegal dumping and damage to trails.

“A clear majority still believe in keeping their land open for responsible use,” said Tom Doak, the association’s executive director. “A very high percentage of people were reconsidering whether they wanted to allow access.”

Doak lives in Readfield but owns land in Swanville and Belfast. He said he is rarely approached by hunters who want to ask permission to go onto his property, and always introduces himself as the landowner when he crosses paths with a visitor. Some will thank him and promise to pick up trash. But occasionally, he said, people will defensively tell him they’ve been hunting that land for decades.

“That’s not the right answer for a conversation with the landowner,” Doak said.

SOME POINT TO IMPROVED SAFETY

Changes like the target identification law have corresponded with a decrease in hunting incidents.

In the 10 years before that measure passed in 1993, there were 187 hunting incidents, including 16 fatal. In the 10 years that followed, there were six fatal incidents out of 100 total. Those statistics include both hunters and nonhunters. 

The number of incidents that involve a nonhunter are even more rare. Since the first year of data in 1966, the state has reported 18 hunting incidents that involved a nonhunter, and only seven since Karen Wood’s death in 1988. Megan Ripley and Karen Wrentzel are the only nonhunter fatalities in that time period.

Asked what other changes in the law might prevent a similar tragedy, supporters of the current policy on land access did not identify any.

Smith said he doesn’t understand how a hunter could make such a mistake.

Robert Trundy, right, and his lawyer Scott Lynch take their seats in in Oxford County Superior Court. Trundy, 40, was sentenced to nine months in jail for the shooting death of Karen Wrentzel, on her own property, while he was hunting. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

“I know every time a tragedy happens, the rest of us think again about what it takes to be safe, and we’re cautious,” Smith said. “And I mean, nobody thinks it’s worth taking a chance like that to get a deer, come on. They all assume there are not people out in the woods with them, but you don’t know that. When they hear something that sure sounds like a deer, the law requires you to see that. We changed that law a while back.”

Trahan said he supports new and expanded opportunities for hunter education. And he listed other changes in the law that he says have made hunters safer over the years, like the requirement for a onetime hunter safety course, the decision to ban deer driving and the requirement for hunters to wear blaze orange.

“The statistics show you many lives have been saved already,” Trahan said. “Those people that were working on those policies, they should rest well at night knowing that because of their work, they saved lives.”

Scott said he is not as sure as her family members that the outcome would have been different if Robert Trundy asked permission to be on that land. Speaking to Wrentzel or her family members still might not have prevented him from firing without identifying his target, Scott said.

“It’s not the hunting that causes the incidents, or the access,” Scott said. “It’s a person that makes a bad decision.”

To Ripley, those answers aren’t good enough.

“The issue is, three innocent women killed on their own property, is that a price worth paying as a society?” Ripley said. “That’s what you have to ask yourself.”

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