Authorities drop charges in high-profile shooting case

PRESIDIO COUNTY — After almost three years of legal wrangling, authorities this month dismissed all criminal charges against two men involved in a high-profile shoot-out near Candelaria during a hunting trip in January 2017.

Walker Daugherty and Michael Bryant, of the New Mexico hunting company Redwing Outfitters (now Big Rim Outfitters), were guiding a Florida couple on a hunting expedition on the Circle Dug Ranch in Presidio County when a shoot-out occurred. One of the Florida clients was shot in the arm, and Daugherty was life-flighted to El Paso.

Daugherty and Bryant maintained for years that their hunting trip was ambushed — but authorities were skeptical from the start. That February, the authorities charged both men with a felony count of deadly conduct, saying they’d “knowingly discharge[d]” guns at people. The charges marked the beginning of years-long criminal cases against the hunting guides.

Those cases ended this month, when acting District Attorney Tonya Ahlschwede dropped the remaining charges against Daugherty and Bryant, citing new evidence. Judge Roy Ferguson signed the filing, which was notarized on October 7.

Daughtery and Bryant did not respond to requests for comment, but their lawyers welcomed the news. “We’re grateful that the State of Texas finally made the right decision and dismissed the charges,” Jaime Escuder, attorney for Bryant, told The Big Bend Sentinel.

The case has been a “big burden on [Bryant’s] family, financially and emotionally,” he said.

District Attorney Ahlschwede did not respond to a request for comment by press time. But two people familiar with the case — Joel Nuñez, chief deputy at the Presidio County Sheriff’s Office, and Dick DeGuerin, an attorney for Daughtery — described the new evidence as including an X-ray of Daughtery, which showed a bullet still lodged in his body.

The caliber and direction of the bullet did not match the prosecution’s version of events, according to DeGuerin.

On January 6, 2017, Daughtery and a client, Edwin Roberts, were both shot on a hunting trip. Chief Deputy Nuñez responded to a medical call at the remote Circle Dug Ranch, where he was told about the ambush.

Nuñez, who went to serve as lead investigator on the case, says he initially took the reports in good faith. But the only fresh bullet casings were from the hunting party’s guns, he said. And when Border Patrol, Texas DPS and other agencies searched the area, “there was no sign of anybody.” He also thought it was suspicious that Daughtery allegedly “made a statement to the Roberts saying you better have your weapon ready tonight.”

“We were disappointed that we did not get a chance to go to trial,” he said. “We had solid statements and evidence.”

The case took a number of twists and turns during its years in the Presidio County court system. After initially charging the men with deadly conduct, authorities in late 2017 dropped the initial charges and gave each man two more felony indictments: aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and another firearms-related deadly conduct charge.

In September 2018, Presidio County District Attorney Sandy Wilson recused herself from the case, citing a conflict of interest. Wilson was unavailable to comment by press time.

The case dovetailed with national politics due to its allegations of border violence. President Donald Trump had just been elected after a campaign in which he alleged that large numbers of dangerous people were coming from Mexico.

A day after the shooting, an apparent news release from the perspective of the defendants was posted online, as Texas Monthly reported. It said the hunting crew had been attacked by assailants who had “likely returned to Mexico.”

“They believe the assailants intended to kill all the party,” the post stated. “The attackers were strategically placed around the lodge and the men were fired upon from different areas.”

Lawyers for the defense stood by this version of events, even trying – unsuccessfully – to subpoena U.S. Customs and Border Protection for data on illegal crossings in the area. Escuder, an attorney for Bryant, also entered evidence showing that the Circle Dug Ranch had a previous theft attempt in 2016.

But given the political climate, these explanations for the shooting struck some Presidio County residents, including local law enforcement, as all too convenient. In a statement released days after the shooting, the Presidio County Sheriff’s Office said there was “no evidence to support allegations of ‘cross-border violence.’”

Those themes, Nuñez said, were part of the reason the case mattered to locals. “We have not had any spillover violence or any kind of violence against citizens in the U.S. from people coming across,” he said. The reality “just does not fit what they’re alleging.”

“That’s what’s upsetting people,” he added. “They’re alleging there’s a lot of violence from people coming across the border. And that’s just not true.”

But DeGuerin, Daughtery’s lawyer, said those politics were tangential. “I guess the politics of illegal entry and immigration and so forth may have played a part in it,” he said. “But really, [prosecutors] ignored the fact that there had been recent break-ins at hunting lodges and homes in that very area.”

“I would love to be able to blame Trump for this,” he added. “I blame him for just about everything else. But the fact is, that is an area in which there are frequent border crossings.”

Regardless, Daugherty and Bryant’s legal troubles aren’t over just yet. Last year, the Florida clients — Edwin and Carol Roberts — filed a negligence lawsuit against the guides and their company.