Non-jury trial set for Iowa man accused of aiming at squirrel but wounding Marine

Judge's gavel. (Staff Sgt. Nicholas Rau/U.S. Air Force)
December 27, 2021

An Iowa City man accused of violating city code in October by discharging a pellet gun within city limits — inadvertently shooting and wounding a Marine who was driving by at the time — has pleaded not guilty in an initial court appearance.

A non-jury trial for Philip Olson, 69, is set for 10:30 a.m. Feb. 24 at the Johnson County Courthouse, according to court documents filed last week. Olson declined to comment when reached Monday by The Gazette.

He is accused of violating City Code 8-7-3: Toy Guns and Slingshots, which prohibits discharging “any air rifle, toy pistol, toy gun or other toy arms or slingshot” within city limits. The minimum fine is $105 and the maximum is $855.

Iowa City police said last month that on Oct. 17, Olson was shooting at a squirrel in his yard with an air rifle but missed and instead hit Lance Cpl. Gabe Heefner, 20, as he was driving by on Highway 6 near Sycamore Street. The Marine, who crashed after being shot, was severely injured. Heefner was at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics for about a month before being transferred to a rehabilitation hospital in Chicago.

Authorities said that three days after the shooting, Olson came to the department to say he had heard about the incident and “admitted to shooting from inside his house at the squirrel and missing” at that time.

Police said Olson fired a .22 caliber air rifle from his home adjacent to Highway 6. The Nov. 5 criminal complaint said the air rifle was loaded with a metal pellet.

Olson told police during an interview he has shot and killed 38 squirrels between Sept. 17 and Oct. 16 with his pellet gun in his backyard and outside of his property line, according to the complaint. He surrendered the pellet gun to police and showed officers the tree he had been shooting at. Officers recovered fired pellets from the tree, the complaint said.

Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness previously told The Gazette she wanted to charge Olson with reckless use of a firearm but a “loophole in the law” prevented the more serious charge. An air rifle or similar gun is not considered a firearm or dangerous weapon in Iowa, which makes it hard to prosecute, Lyness said.

Heefner’s family and Lyness said they favor legislation to classify these guns as firearms.

Olson also faced four violations from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources: hunting without a license, $70; hunting without a habitat fee, $30; unlawfully taking or attempting to take squirrels, $70; and shooting over a highway, $30.

He paid the fines — which ended up totaling $450 due to additional fees — in November, court records show.

The Heefners moved to Missouri eight years after Gabe was born in Iowa City. Gabe, the oldest of three children, was back in town visiting his grandparents when he was injured.

On Nov. 10 — the same day as the 246th birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps — Gabe was transported from UIHC to the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago, a nationally ranked physical medicine and rehabilitation research hospital.

Gabe’s mother, Codi, has been posting daily updates on CaringBridge about his recovery, including the progress he has made but also how challenging the journey has been.

A Dec. 8 update written by Gabe’s father, Nile, told of a scare that happened “out of nowhere after so many days of progress.” Gabe started mumbling and slurring his speech and one side of his mouth was drooping.

Nile said in the update that nurses checked Gabe’s vitals and he “bounced back” after receiving medical attention. The subsequent days after the scare have been going well.

In a Dec. 11 update, Codi wrote Gabe did “pretty well” on a walking test. Codi said Gabe still needs assistance with balance and uses a cane.

“He also had tests for standing up from a sitting position, and everything is trending in a better direction,” Codi wrote “It’s amazing to see how far the Lord has brought him, but it can also be overwhelming to think about how far he still has to go.”


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