Park ranger shooting details to remain sealed indefinitely
Investigative details in a September shooting by National Park Service rangers trying to break up a noisy houseboat party at a remote campground near Kettle Falls will remain sealed indefinitely by a federal court order.
The federal agency has remained mum about which of its employees fired during a confrontation with Michael Sublie, who now faces two federal misdemeanor charges. A bullet struck fellow partygoer Casey Hartinger, who was hospitalized and released.
In the run-up to his trial next month, Sublie will only be able to view “investigative reports” in the presence of his lawyer and will be unable to share copies with anyone.
Witnesses say two National Park Service rangers attempted to board Sublie’s boat shortly after 10 p.m. on Sept. 14 because of loud noise. The Kettle River Campground, near the border of Ferry and Stevens counties, mandates quiet hours from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
During the confrontation, one of the park rangers fired his gun and wounded Hartinger, a friend of Sublie who was present on the boat with his young son. Witnesses said if the bullet hadn’t struck Hartinger in the ribs, it would have hit his son in the head.
The Investigative Branch of the National Park Service has been investigating the incident and has not named the rangers involved. Residents in the area say the two were Josh Wentz and Matt Phillipson. The rangers who were involved have only been identified by initials in official court documents.
A court order signed by U.S. Magistrate Judge John Rodgers, agreed to by both parties, prohibits Sublie and his attorney, Roger Peven, from sharing with anyone documents provided by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The order effectively seals all findings by investigators looking into the shooting without a future court order or release by the Attorney’s Office.
According to the order, federal, state and local agencies have been involved in the investigation, including the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Washington State Patrol and the Kettle Falls Police Department.
Gregg Leslie, legal defense director with the Arlington, Va.,-based Reporters Committee for the Free Press, said any attempt to seal documents in a criminal trial should be supported by a profound interest to protect the right to a fair trial. In Sublie’s case, if the shooting is likely to be talked about in open court, related investigative documents should be available, Leslie said.
“In many criminal cases, there are always attempts to keep things secret,” said Leslie, a Georgetown University graduate who served as chair of the Washington, D.C., Bar Association’s Media Law Committee. “But the public has a right to know about them.”
Disclosure issues may be compounded in cases when federal agencies, which are somewhat insulated from state and local demands, are asked to turn over information, Leslie said.
A spokeswoman for the National Park Service again declined Thursday to name the rangers involved in the shooting. She directed questions about pending litigation to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and provided no timetable for when investigative reports might be released.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined comment and attempts to reach Peven were unsuccessful Thursday. Court documents indicated some interest by prosecutors in seeking charges against Hartinger, the man who was shot, but none has been filed.