The Coroner’s Version
“A 10-year-old boy accidentally shot himself
and died from his injuries Tuesday in Willits, WY”
The New York Times Daily Gun Report
In my thirty seven years as coroner of Willits County, I’ve seen plenty of deaths, but his was the worst. Before I say more, I am aware some reporter will dig up similar comments I’ve made in the past, like when that hunter got partially eaten by a mountain lion back in the early 70s, and when that grandpa got gored by one of his steers, then run over by a tractor, driven by his favorite grandson. Those probably were the worst cases I’d seen before Kenny’s. But the longer you stay in this line of work, instead of growing immune to it all, seems like the deaths become more profoundly awful. This ten year old who shot himself in the head with a kid’s rifle was the most horrible, bar none, in nearly four decades of examining cadavers and trying to piece together the story of how a particular life arrived at its specific destination.
Of course the whole thing became very political, rapidly, considering the times we live in. Every other year or so, I go to the national coroner convention, where I’m likely the oldest geezer there. This year, January 2013, it was all about gunshot wounds, and gun rights, and gun control, and let me tell you it got ugly fast. I am not one of those people, one of those gun owners, who needs to tell everyone what to do. Or not to do, regarding guns. I don’t. I’ve been hunting sage grouse every year since I was six, and will continue to do so as long as I can walk and carry my rifle at the same time without falling into the cactus. My old circle of buddies, what’s left of us, we like to meet up at the shooting range every Memorial Day Weekend and have some fun, picnic afterwards with the wives – or what’s left of ’em. Here in Wyoming, we know how to use guns: how to store them, how to teach our kids to use them, when not to use them, where to keep the ammo, et cetera. We don’t like anyone telling us what to do, period. Not only about guns but about anything – everything.
All these massacres – the ones that make national news anyway, whether at schools or movie theaters or shopping malls – have been in suburbs. That’s what I notice. And that Connecticut coroner from the Newtown area agreed with me. They never happen in rural places like here, where people know their way around firearms. And not in the inner cities, either, where it’s evident a lot of people own guns and use them – handguns, primarily. You see what I’m getting at? If guns aren’t foreign to you, then you don’t go crazy with ‘em.
What gun control and Second Amendment rights have to do with Kenny’s death here in Willits, Wyoming, I couldn’t tell you right off. Gun accidents happen. Like car accidents, knife accidents, and chain saw accidents, which I’m sorry to say I’ve seen more of than just about any other kinds, except for vehicle-related ones.
These days, you can’t get around the fact that everybody’s talking about guns and gun deaths. After the Connecticut massacre, a writer back in New York, who works for the New York Times, came up with the idea of keeping track of every shooting in this whole country and putting it on the internet, every single day. I’m not fond of high-tech stuff, but I’m a practical man, so I’ve learned how to use computers reasonably well, and kept up with what I need to practice my trade. Every day over my ham and American cheese sandwich, I read this gun death log. I have to confess it’s become something of an obsession, a kind of online version of rubbernecking at a particularly gruesome crash on the interstate, except this is like a string of crashes, one after another like beads on a rosary – my wife’s a Catholic, which is unusual around here, though not unheard of.
Naturally, our Kenny and the last moments of his short life had to end up there, on the official website of The New York Times. By now, nearly a year after that lunatic rich boy killed his mom and then the kids in first grade and several teachers, I see how the media, especially the gun control people but also the other side – my side, I guess, but I don’t feel like I really have a side, being indifferent to most politics and politicians in particular – focus on certain cases, particular kinds of deaths, to make their political points.
Enter, Kenny Tremain, ten years old, redhead, with a million freckles. Class clown type, but he was home schooled, so he was the comedian in his family of five children, including a set of twins, and among the larger Tremain clan of about 20 kids or so in his generation. Plus his mother’s family, the Holts – they’ve reproduced a lot too. So he had a reputation in Willits, which is pretty small – five hundred within town limits and maybe two thousand in the school district – of being a jokester, a boy who’d play all kinds of tricks on people. His family mostly, but sometimes others, too. He’d gotten in trouble for a few incidents here and there – starting a fire with a Roman candle on the 4th last summer – accidentally of course – and breaking a window in a neighbor’s barn, which he said he thought was abandoned. That was also an accident, according to Kenny, but some folks thought he did his mischief on purpose. He’d never caused any serious harm – nothing involving a gun, at any rate – before.
No one in this town is for gun control, so when I say it got political fast, I don’t mean that it got politicized by anyone from Willits. If anything, we were all so horrified and saddened by his death that no one wanted to talk about it, other than to say “I’m so sorry” to the immediate family, as well as the extended family, which includes a lot of important people in town. They had the funeral in the high school gym, because that’s the largest space in Willits for a crowd, and when I say a thousand people showed up, I’m not exaggerating. The whole county was there. His Uncle Ted conducted the ceremony, because the parents were too broken up, especially the dad, Ricky, who’s a preacher in their church, but he didn’t speak at all.
Just after the funeral, this reporter calls me up to ask questions. Says the story’ll be online in his column, and he wants to make sure he’s got the facts right before they post it. Unlike some of my colleagues in this business, I’m not anti-press; I believe in the first amendment as much as the second, so I say okay.
What I didn’t remember during that conversation was how, when that writer puts together his list, he always starts with a paragraph focusing on a particular death to make a certain point. Naturally, I assume he’s for gun control like most New Yorkers – from the city, anyway. At the national conference, I’ve met a number of coroners from small towns in Upstate New York, and they’re like me, same rural mentality. I should have thought about all that on the telephone, because I knew that they usually zero in on children’s deaths, especially accidental ones. Or apparently accidental ones.
Suddenly everyone all over the country knows the story. Then bloggers or whatever – not people working for newspapers but all kinds of nuts — want to write about Kenny’s death, spin it one way or another.
Pretty soon, nearly everyone in town’s been contacted by someone; then all the contradictory versions end up online, distorted.
Mental health people call it suicide. Guns are used more for suicide than homicide, especially in the West, which I could’ve told anybody thirty years ago, but nobody asked. But a ten year old who’s the apple of his enormous family’s eye? The idea of it doesn’t even happen until adolescence. So the mental health folk call the sheriff, one of the first people to get there. Unfortunately, Dick Dunster has a personal gripe against Ricky Tremain going way back, about some land he wanted to buy that Tremain got, so when Dunster talked to a writer from Denver, their conversation published on the web launched a shitstorm.
The NRA people defended the Tremains from blame. Many felt the same – except the Sheriff and his allies. Frequently I get calls from the NRA wanting me to go on the record as pro-firearm from the County Coroner’s office, but it’s against policy – nor do I want to inject myself into Willits politics. Most adults here are card-carrying NRA members.
Whatever laws the government might come up with, none would have prevented Kenny’s death. Rifles used for target practice – in a home where everyone’s taken gun safety classes – no law could have stopped it. Accidents will always happen. Sometimes the world just moves on you – lurches, suddenly – and no legislation can change fate.
When I got to the Tremain home to examine the scene, it’s like nothing I’ve witnessed before. And that’s saying a lot. I remember old man Mathers, who killed himself ’cause he had a stage-4 cancer prognosis, and he was 79 and failing, so he went out to the southern tip of his ranch to a beautiful spot, leaned back against a juniper and boom!
That’s what I was thinking about when I entered that basement. Small, so the brain matter was everywhere. First I thought he dropped the gun. It going off while reloading in a normal way just didn’t make sense: from the angle and the way the matter spread out across the pegboard, hung neatly with all his dad’s tools. It did cross my mind they would have to get rid of those top-of-the-line tools; what else could they do?
I took photos and samples, then asked if there was a hose to clean up. I don’t know what anybody saw; his thirteen-year-old sister, out back with their targets, found him immediately. I showed up after the sheriff and EMTs, so I figured the scene was basically untouched. The torso was perfect: overhauls and a white t-shirt. Both hands had burn residue, indicating he used two hands.
Kenny was small – the Tremain kids aren’t huge, but he was still in that pre-adolescent boy stage. I asked the sister if he’d needed both hands on the trigger, but she said no. He was a righty, with his left beneath the barrel, nice and steady.
Didn’t add up, though, the burns and the angle and the entire cerebellum, gone. Back at the office, I tried every position that could result in such an outcome, and the only one that made sense was holding it two-handed, the tip of the barrel against my forehead. Why would a ten-year-old do a thing like that? I just don’t believe it was intentional suicide. He had to have thought he’d just unloaded it, then held the gun up just to feel that circle of metal cold against his skin. A kid might do that – not to harm himself – just to do something forbidden. When I was his age, I smokeda pack of my daddy’s cigarettes. Puked my guts out later. I never would have taken his shotgun and put it to my head, though, much less pulled the trigger. But I grew up on a ranch, and Kenny’s in town.
I started my report, then stopped. It was an accident, but the way it happened makes the scenario so preventable. Not like dropping the gun and the bullet ricocheting against one or more surfaces. I’ve seen that happen.
Writing the death certificate should be straightforward. But as soon as Willits made the New York Times, nothing was straightforward anymore. County commissioner called me up and asked what I was putting in the report – which never happened before in thirty seven years. “The truth,” I said. “Like I always do.”
“But which truth exactly?” This commissioner’s a co-owner of a Wyoming chain of sports stores – big on firearms. “If there’s any hint that it was preventable, you know we’re screwed by the media, Roy.”
I hadn’t shared my conclusions about the shooting with anyone.
In a small place like Willits, news travels. And rumors. Misinformation moves faster than truth. I wasn’t the only individual who saw what happened. Sheriff Dunster and his deputy, Shannon Dixon, were first, then the three EMTs and their driver. That’s five people with five stories, then their spouses, who they probably told when they got home. That’s ten stories, now – plus kids overhearing, siblings and parents, maybe. Now we’re up to twenty, then kids going to school, adults to work — everyone talking. Can’t count the versions now.
So when Commissioner Crowley asks me not to write what I planned to, I wasn’t totally surprised. Crowley’s the newest commissioner – old family in the county, but new to the board. Wealthy. Used to be a rancher like everyone else, but back in the nineteen eighties, he started the first store in Cheyenne, then another in Laramie with his brother, and the next in Cody, and pretty soon there were ten. The oil and natural gas boom has been good to Wyoming: all them roughnecks eating and drinking and needing places to live. Plus they buy guns to hunt or target shoot. Crowley’s been getting richer and richer. I got nothing against taking oil or gas out of the ground, of course – it’s what man does to nature – and when it profits the state like it does in Wyoming – our schools benefit, from pre-K up to university.
But Crowley always rubbed me the wrong way. Used to be a simple, humble guy, like most ranchers, but now he’s kind of full of himself, like saying he had dinner with the governor or senator last night. Why does he think we give a crap who he had a burger with?
It’s illegal for a commissioner to mess with an official report by a state employee, which I am. Wyoming’s chief coroner called me up the same day, though I hadn’t missed the deadline yet, which is three weeks after a body’s found. He asked if I needed any assistance — another first. When I asked why, and said I’d have it ready on time, he said, “Well, you know it’s the first mention of our state in that New York Times Gun Report, and just a week ago I was talking with some state senators, who want to launch a PR campaign publicizing Wyoming’s excellent gun safety record – especially in comparison to Colorado, with their crazies launching massacres every time you turn around.”
By then, that psycho Batman graduate student had shot up a movie theater in Denver, so I figured he was referring to that, plus Columbine, which people think started it all, though there were shootings in schools before nineteen ninety nine. Columbine got so much national and international publicity, though, that it seemed to have started a phenomenon.
I delayed my report. Another first in my career. Decided to wait until people stopped talking about Kenny. Life goes on, with no more talk about guns or gun control, at least not until there’s another massacre somewhere. This isn’t the sort of place where people decide to lobby gun makers for better safety devices, for example, as my coroner friends have told me happens elsewhere. There isn’t this idea here that the manufacturer of a gun – or anything else, for that matter – is responsible when a user of that device has an accident. Like the lady who put the McDonalds coffeecup between her legs and suffered major burns. In Willits, people laugh at that story; how could she be so stupid? If you put a boiling liquid next to bare skin, beware!
No one has said anything about the way that kid’s rifle was designed. Probably never crossed the parents’ minds. I hear it was the same gun the dad had as a child. That would make it at least thirty years old, and not as well engineered safety-wise as they manufacture them today.
I can’t deviate from my duty to tell the truth, though I have decided to retire at the end of this year. I don’t ever want to witness another death like that one. My strategy, if I have one, is to delay the report until then. In the months since, we’ve had car accidents, some heart attacks, but nobody younger than seventy dying.
We have to keep moving, Willits does, so that Kenny’s life and death becomes part of town lore, like that family who froze to death in the blizzard of eighteen eighty eight. No one knew they were still at their farmhouse, so no one attempted a rescue. More recently, we had a suicide in the early two thousands that affected a lot of schoolkids, a coach who did himself in by hanging after his wife left him for another man. Of course, she and her kids had to leave Willits after that – the other man, a deputy sheriff, he went back to his wife and endured a lot of derision. Still does. Acts of Nature, or Acts of God, we call that sort of thing here in Wyoming. Even when God or Nature had nothing to do with it.
Annie Dawid’s three published volumes of fiction are:
- York Ferry: A Novel, Cane Hill Press, 1993, second printing, winner of 2016 International Rubery Award in Fiction
- Lily in the Desert: Stories, Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 2001
- And Darkness Was Under His Feet: Stories of a Family, Litchfield Review Press, 2009.
Forthcoming in 2023: PARADISE UNDONE: A NOVEL OF JONESTOWN, Inkspot Publishing, UK.
Artwork by Kita Das