EDINBURG, Texas — A competitive marksman was charged Friday in a shooting last month in which two teens were severely wounded during basketball tryouts behind their South Texas middle school — a shooting the local sheriff portrayed as unintentional but "very reckless."
Dustin Wesley Cook, who was shooting targets with a friend on ranchland adjacent to Harwell Middle School on Dec. 12, was arraigned on a charge of second-degree felony aggravated assault. He was only charged in the shooting of 14-year-old Edson Amaro. Investigators haven't been able to test the bullet that wounded 13-year-old Nicholas Tijerina because it's lodged near his spine.
Cook's attorney, Michael Guerra, said that when the details of what transpired are made public, they will show Cook "didn't have any criminal responsibility, whatsoever." He said Cook is a parent and has been praying for the boys and their families.
But at a news conference after the hearing, Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino said Cook, an experienced marksman, should have known better.
"We do not believe that Mr. Cook went out there and intentionally and knowingly discharged this weapon intending to shoot or injure a child, but he did do it in a very reckless manner," Trevino said. "By his own admission he knew that at the end of his targets, beyond his targets in a direct line was Harwell Middle School."
The school only opened in the fall, but police investigated a report of gunshots near the school before the students were wounded and investigated another report Friday that led to the school being locked down again.
School district Superintendent Rene Gutierrez on Friday called on state lawmakers to ban hunting and the use of high-powered rifles and weapons within three miles of schools.
"Our students throughout the state are going to continue to be at risk if we don't do something about it," Gutierrez said.
Classes were finished on the day of the shootings, but there were about 50 students trying out for the basketball team behind the school, where two hoops were set up because the gym was being used. Nicholas, the younger boy, was going for layup when he was shot. Between 20 and 30 seconds later Edson, who had been sitting on a curb waiting his turn, was hit. They were about 15 feet apart, Trevino said.
Edson lost a kidney and shortly before Christmas, Nicholas' doctor said the boy was unable to move his legs, at least for the time being. Trevino said there was talk of sending Tijerina to a hospital in Houston where the bullet could be removed. If that happened, investigators would try to make a second ballistics match, he said.
Authorities questioned three men they found on the adjacent ranchland after the shooting, including Cook and his friend, who were shooting targets about a mile from the school.
Cook had shot there before and had targets set at 100 and 300 yards in a line. It was not a certified firing range and did not include any protective berms that would keep stray bullets capable of traveling up to three miles from escaping. Cook was using a tactical rifle that fires a .308-caliber Winchester round — the preferred type of sniper rifle used in the U.S. military and police agencies, including the sheriff's office, Trevino said.
"The damning indictment here is that we have two targets that ... align the shooter with the children, the ultimate targets," Trevino said. "This is very damning and very telling."
Investigators also have a log that Cook kept of his shots. It shows he took five shots at 4:38 p.m. Trevino said authorities received the first emergency calls around 4:45 p.m.
The third piece of evidence is a ballistics report matching the bullet pulled from Amaro to Cook's rifle. Cook and the other man, who authorities have not publicly identified, told investigators they did not shoot each other's weapons, Trevino said.
"I need the public to know that this was not a deranged shooter out there shooting children or ... some careless hunter shooting in the direction of a school, but it was a target shooter," he said.
Authorities said after the shooting that they had detained three armed men from adjacent ranchland. Cook and the man he was with were released. The third man, an illegal immigrant with an assault rifle, according to authorities, was eventually charged with misdemeanor trespass and poaching, though those charges were dropped this week.
Trevino said he asked prosecutors to drop the charges against that man because he would likely be facing federal weapons charges and could be needed as a witness in a related drug case. He also said subsequent evidence appeared to indicate that the landowner had given him permission to be on the property.