By Joe Beck
A U.S. Forest Service ranger facing three gun-related charges won a round in a preliminary hearing Monday when a judge refused to certify the sole felony offense to a grand jury.
Shenandoah County General District Judge W. Dale Houff ruled that the prosecution failed to show that Damion James McElroy had endangered anyone when he fired a gun in his Strasburg home on Jan. 13.
Houff's ruling put a charge of reckless handling of a firearm in jeopardy. The charge will be scrapped if the Commonwealth's Attorney office decides against presenting it to a grand jury. Two misdemeanors charges not heard Monday will be submitted for grand jury review and possible indictments.
Strasburg police arrested McElroy at his home at 762 Christianson Drive after a report that he had fired a shot into the wall during a visit from a member of the clergy.
The Rev. George Smith of Stephens City testified that McElroy fired the handgun accidentally after Smith went into another room to read the Bible for a few minutes. Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Louis Campola said after the hearing that Smith was at the home to counsel McElroy on some family matters.
Smith said he saw no sign that McElroy was preparing to fire or mishandle the
gun at the time he left the room. Smith said he returned to the room after hearing the gunshot and found McElroy in "a state of shock."
"He couldn't imagine this thing had gone off," Smith said, referring to the gun.
"I don't believe it was intentional," Smith added. "I believe it was accidental. That's my opinion."
Strasburg Lt. Jason Ford testified that he arrived at the house and concluded that McElroy had been drinking heavily. Ford described McElroy as "glassy-eyed," with "slurred speech, very confused, disoriented." He also said McElroy had trouble standing.
Campola rejected arguments from defense attorney David Parker of Woodstock that McElroy's actions did not endanger anyone, especially since Smith was not in the room when the gun went off.
Parker described McElroy as "falling asleep" when Smith saw him after the gun fired.
"Mr. McElroy was obviously surprised as to what happened," Parker said.
Campola argued that case law showed that McElroy was still criminally liable for putting himself in danger when the gun fired.
"What happened here, your honor, was reckless discharge of a firearm," Campola told Houff.
Houff said he was persuaded that Smith would not have left McElroy alone with the gun if he had been worried he was intending to misuse it.
"It's just not clear to me that anybody was in danger," Houff said.
Campola said after the hearing that he was undecided about whether to take the case before a grand jury for a possible indictment.
"We're just going to look over the evidence that came forth today and go from there," Campola said.
McElroy's status with the Forest Service is unclear. He was placed on administrative leave after the incident. He and Parker refused to comment after the hearing about his job. A spokesman for the Forest Service said no information was available Monday about McElroy's employment. An online employee directory still listed him as part of the agency workforce.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or email@example.com