20-Year-Old Faces Involuntary Manslaughter Charge for Duck Hunting Accident

20-Year-Old Faces Involuntary Manslaughter Charge for Duck Hunting Accident

On January 20, Gaige Zook and Jackson Harbor went out for a duck hunt on the Platte River near Torrington, Wyoming. They took along Maurizio Justiniano, an unlicensed hunter who wanted to learn more about waterfowling.

Tragically, Justiniano will never get the chance to take Hunter’s Ed or shoot a bird on the wing because he took a fatal shot to the gut in the blind that day.

What Happened?

Goshen County Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Lamb responded to a call on January 20 at approximately 2:58 p.m.

“I arrived at the junction of Wyoming Highway 156 and road 37. I exited road 37 at its end and crossed a large field to the north and ended up just south of the North Platte River,” Lamb said in a statement. “I was dispatched there for a call about a gunshot wound to a 19-year-old male hunter. I arrived with EMS (emergency medical services) and there was EMS personnel already with the victim by the river.”

20-year-old Zook then talked Lamb through what happened in the man-made driftwood blind so the deputy could write up an affidavit of probable cause. Meanwhile, the decoys placed earlier that day still bobbed in the water.

According to the affidavit, Zook was sitting between the other two hunters in the blind. Harbor said that a duck entered their decoys. He had already shot a couple of ducks, so he told Zook to take that one since he hadn’t gotten any that day. Zook tried to shoot, but his gun misfired.

So, he leaned his gun behind him against the fallen tree on which they were perched and asked Harbor if he could use his 20-gauge instead. Harbor handed over his shotgun. Zook shot and missed, then gave the shotgun back.

Zook then went back to his own gun and tried to see what was wrong with it. According to Harbor, Zook believed the firing pin was freezing.

Zook unintentionally fired the gun, striking Justiniano in the left side of his abdominal area. “You shot me,” Justiniano reportedly said.

Justiniano asked Zook to hug him, and Zook did, putting pressure on the wounded area. Justiniano kept saying he wasn’t going to make it, Zook told Lamb. When EMS arrived, Zook helped EMS and held Justiniano’s IV.

“A medic came to me while I was gathering statements and taking photographs and stated there was nothing more they could do to help Justiniano,” Lamb wrote. “And (they) stopped treatment.”

Harbor said that he was turned around, away from the other two, when he heard the shot go off and Justiniano yell out.

“I believe that Zook failed to properly and safely clear his weapon of malfunctions and by having it pointed in an unsafe direction when it discharged directly led to and caused the death of Maurizio Justiniano,” Lamb concluded.

The Case

According to the Torrington Telegram, a warrant for Zook’s arrest was issued on April 28 in the Circuit Court for the Eighth Judicial District in and for Goshen County. On May 14, the initial hearing occurred.

“It was filed by the Goshen County Attorney’s Office that on April 28 I did issue a criminal warrant for you, and that was issued on the day of request,” Judge Hibben addressed Zook. “That warrant was quashed, and you are appearing here on summons. It reputedly informs the court, Mr. Zook, that you did unlawfully, on January 20, 2024, involuntarily and recklessly kill a human being without malice. You did involuntarily but recklessly kill Mauricio Justiniano, which states to be against the peace of Wyoming. The formal name by the state is involuntary manslaughter.”

Zook is a student at the University of Wyoming and has no criminal history. His attorney made sure to emphasize this, but the judge couldn’t dismiss the severity of the situation.

“I am required to consider the seriousness of the charges, and it is very serious. I don’t set a bond by review or in considering you to be a danger to the community. Sometimes this is true, but I don’t think it’s true here,” Judge Hibben said. “I do, however, set a bond due to the seriousness of this, and one which carries a maximum penalty in prison of up to 20 years. So, Mr. Zook, in light of all these things, it is one where you need to have some skin in the game.”

Agreeing with the recommendation of the state defendant, Judge Hibben set the bond: “The state’s recommendation is appropriate which itself is a modest bond, but it will be 10% of $25,000, and I expect you to have it posted by May 21,” the judge concluded.

On June 3, the case rose to felony level in the Goshen County District Court. If convicted, Zook could face a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

Sign In or Create a Free Account

Access the newest seasons of MeatEater, save content, and join in discussions with the Crew and others in the MeatEater community.
Save this article