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Portland police chief put on leave after allegedly shooting friend during hunting trip

Portland Police Chief Larry O'Dea is on leave while investigators look into the shooting of his friend on hunting trip.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

As far as camping trips go, the Oregon police chief’s squirrel-hunting excursion in April ended poorly.

The Portland police chief’s hunting partner ended up getting shot in the back, and Larry O’Dea -- glassy-eyed and shaking, investigators said -- found himself trying to explain to authorities just what had happened.

A cop for more than 30 years, O’Dea originally told investigators that 54-year-old pal Robert Dempsey had somehow managed to shoot himself in the back as the two were hanging out with a group of fellow hunters while camping in southeast Oregon on April 21.

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But as word leaked out about the incident, authorities said O’Dea modified his story, confirming it was his own .22 rifle that had wounded Dempsey, who is now recovering. Beyond that, O’Dea provided few if any details, authorities said -- only that the shooting was a case of “negligent discharge.”

O’Dea, 53, appointed chief last year, has since been placed on paid administrative leave while Oregon State Police investigate the shooting and the sheriff’s version of what happened in Harney County.

Now, a newly released report from Oregon Fish and Wildlife offers fresh detail, and more conflict.

Almost all those camping with O’Dea had been drinking, an investigator noted, and they originally clung to a story that Dempsey had shot himself. Though Dempsey said O’Dea later admitted shooting him, he also said that the chief’s gun was faulty and may have misfired.

O’Dea was in the wilds to hunt ground squirrel, a short-tailed rodent that prefers higher altitudes and is known locally as a sage rat.

According to the Fish and Wildlife account, first reported by the Oregonian, Dempsey and O’Dea were among seven overnight campers, many of them current or former law enforcement officers.

When the shooting took place, they were sitting in lawn chairs at a campsite where they could easily pick off rodents running along a nearby dirt bank, the report noted.

A copy of the report, which includes statements given by Dempsey, O’Dea and others to a Harney County sheriff’s deputy, quotes one witness as saying “there was a steady amount of gunfire” and then Dempsey suddenly began “yelling profanities,” saying he’d been shot.

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In that initial interview, the witnesses, including O’Dea, all seemed to agree that Dempsey had shot himself in the lower left back while attempting to holster his pistol.

Almost all also smelled of alcohol, wrote the deputy, Chris Nisbet. He does not say whether he was aware O’Dea was Portland’s police chief.

“During the interview,” Nisbet wrote, “I noted I could smell the odor of an alcoholic beverage coming from [O’Dea’s] breath.” He also said the chief had “glassy, watery and bloodshot eyes” and seemed visibly nervous and shaky during the interview.

“Prior to the interview, I noticed Mr. O’Dea consume a bottle of water and during the interview he also consumed another bottle of water,” the deputy wrote.

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O’Dea told investigators he had placed his gun on a chair and walked a couple steps away to a cooler, where he opened a drink. He said that he was standing by the cooler when he heard Dempsey yell out in pain.

Nisbet was not able to interview Dempsey -- who was airlifted to a Boise, Idaho, hospital -- until May 14. But when he did, the victim gave a different version of the shooting.

“Mr. Dempsey said Mr. O’Dea put his gun down and went to get something to drink,” Nisbet wrote. “Mr. Dempsey said when Mr. O’Dea returned, he picked his gun back up and Mr. O’Dea accidentally shot him [Mr. Dempsey].”

Dempsey said O’Dea’s rifle had been jamming and misfiring during the day, but that he continued to use it.

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“Mr. Dempsey informed me that his friend Mr. O’Dea called him after the incident and was very emotional and apologizing for shooting him. That is when Mr. Dempsey learned that Mr. O’Dea shot him,” the deputy reported.

The deputy, who concluded that the incident involved faulty equipment, careless handing of firearms and apparent use of intoxicants, told his boss, Sheriff Dave Ward, of the new version of events. The sheriff informed Oregon State Police.

“Mr. Dempsey said Mr. O’Dea talked with his bosses and told them about the incident,” the deputy noted. “Mr. Dempsey did not elaborate on who the bosses were.”

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales has acknowledged that O’Dea told him about the shooting three days after the incident, but did not say why the city kept the incident private until it was revealed in news reports last week.

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Anderson is a special correspondent.


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