Witnesses described in court Wednesday how a day out hunting resulted in the shooting death of an 11-year-old boy in Clay Township.
John Varndell Jr., 40, appeared before St. Clair County District Court Judge Michael Hulewicz for an examination hearing Wednesday.
Ronald Rohn Jr., Christian Washburn, Scott Washburn Jr., and Joady Rohn testified they were hunting with Varndell and his stepson, Zachary Rock, on their relative’s private property in Clay Township on Sept. 13.
Varndell and Zachary went in the woods on the property and returned earlier that day to say they had shot and injured a deer. After dinner time, Varndell, Zachary, Ronald Rohn Jr., Christian Washburn, Scott Washburn Jr., Joady Rohn and another young relative left to find the deer, witnesses said.
Christian Washburn said he noticed a pistol at Varndell’s waistband prior to going out to search for the deer.
Ronald Rohn, Jody Rohn and Scott Washburn said the only person that had a gun that they were aware of was Scott Washburn.
The group decided to split up to search for the deer after finding a blood trail but eventually losing it. Varndell went with Ronald Rohn Jr., Christian Washburn, and Jody Rohn. Zachary went with another young relative and Scott Washburn Jr.
Witnesses said it was getting dark, and visibility was low in the dense forest brush. No one was wearing hunter’s orange. Varndell had also been smoking marijuana that day, they testified.
Varndell went a little ahead of his group and indicated he saw a deer, witnesses said.
“He said he got the deer and then he started shooting,” Ronald Rohn said.
Witnesses said they heard one shot, followed by several shots in rapid succession from the area that Varndell was standing.
Scott Washburn said he heard shots and wasn’t aware of where they were coming from, so he told Zachary and the other boy with them to get behind him. Then, he saw Zachary fall to the ground.
Varndell, Ronald Rohn Jr., Christian Washburn, and Joady Rohn joined the group after hearing shouts that someone had been shot, and discovered that Zachary had been shot in the head.
When Varndell discovered what had happened to Zachary, Ronald Rohn and Joady Rohn testified they saw Varndell holding his head with a gun in his hand.
Several witnesses said Varndell said he thought he saw a deer, but shot Zachary. Joady Rohn said Varndell told her daughter about the incident after they had carried Zachary up to the house and called 911.
“He said he was sorry he accidentally shot Zachary,” Joady Rohn said, referencing a conversation Varndell had with her daughter.
During her testimony, Varndell became visibly upset, wiping tears from his eyes.
At approximately 8 p.m. on Sept. 13, officers responded to the 6300 block of Benoit Road for a report of a hunting accident. First responders found the 11-year-old boy being attended to by his family and immediately started CPR.
While treating the boy, officers heard a gunshot. The boy’s mother injured her hand when she accidentally discharged the firearm while trying to unload it, police said.
The boy was transported to McLaren Macomb hospital where he died.
Arguing for a bind over of all charges, St. Clair County Assistant Prosecutor Joshua Sparling said Varndell’s negligent actions resulting in Zachary’s death should be punished.
“The only thing clearly that is an accident here is the resulting death of an 11-year-old boy,” Sparling said. “It was not accidental that he smoked marijuana; it was not accidental he took that gun out there when he was told not to; it was not accidental that he fired that gun; it was not accidental that he fired when it was too dark to see. The loss of the life of an 11-year-old boy, that was due to these conscious decisions and choices that the defendant made.”
Varndell’s attorney, Michael Boucher, argued against the case being bound to circuit court.
“At the end of the day, judge, it was a hunting accident,” Boucher said.
Hulewicz bound over Varndell to St. Clair County Circuit Court on charges of involuntary manslaughter, felon in possession of a firearm, felon in possession of ammunition, two felony firearms second offense charges and a habitual fourth violent offender.
Due to the habitual offender enhancement, he faces a minimum sentence of 25 years in prison and a maximum penalty of life in prison if convicted.
Varndell was released from parole in January for a felony firearms charge.
His bond is set at $500,000 cash/surety.
Krystal Rock and Shana Rock, Zachary’s aunts, said they are supportive of the charges against Varndell because the incident could have been avoided.
“Every charge he got, he deserved,” Krystal Rock said.
She described her nephew as a happy, smart kid who loved fishing, hunting and being outside.
“We are crushed, we are devastated,” Shana Rock said. “He will always be a void in our heart.”