NEWTON, NJ – Judge N. Peter Conforti ruled today in the Sussex Judicial Center that Western World Inc., the company managing the Wild West City theme park located in Stanhope, N.J., was charged with third-degree criminal unlawful possession of a handgun; and is ordered to pay $7,500 in fines over the next three years, be subject to supervised probation for up to one year, and pay $230 in other fees to the Violent Crime Compensation Board, New Jersey Project Safe Neighborhoods, and court fees.
The charges stem as a result for the injuries sustained by Scott Harris, once an employee of the park, when Harris sustained a gunshot wound during a staged gunfight, and live ammunition was inadvertently inserted into the gun that shot Harris, instead of blanks.
“This should have never happened, and now this is my life,” Harris said today in the court proceedings, in a labored manner, barely above a whisper.
Since the incident on July 7, 2006 when a bullet penetrated Harris’ brain, he has had difficulty walking, and is mostly confined to a wheelchair, or walks with an assistance of a walker. He also has difficulty speaking, and tires easily.
Sussex County First Assistant Prosecutor, Gregory Mueller, said Harris is on a battery of about 30 medications a day since he was shot, and requires assistance for tasks, such as putting on his own shirt. Harris’ mother, Betty, said he requires urinary catheterization five times daily.
Prior to the verdict, the hearing was not without contention.
Mueller addressed his concerns about the risk of re-offense in the case, and what he considered Wild West City owner Michael Stabile’s lack of remorse for Harris and his family. Mueller’s remarks triggered an outburst from Stabile.
“When I think of the risk of re-offense, I think the risk is high,” Mueller said. “He’s [Stabile] never shown any remorse to Scott Harris and his family, he’s never shown any culpability, he’s…”
“That’s bullsh**t and you know it,” Stabile interrupted Mueller, rising from his seat at the front of the courtroom, and heading towards Mueller’s direction.
Conforti called for a short recess, during which time, Stabile took his seat again, surrounded by two of his attorneys.
“Mr. Stabile, you’ll have the opportunity to address the court,” Conforti said. “I’ll ask that you don’t interrupt or, you’ll be subject to contempt.”
“Is that clear?” Conforti asked Stabile.
“Yes, that is your honor,” Stabile replied tersely.
Stabile and his attorney, Charles S. Lorber, of West Orange, N.J., accused Mueller of grandstanding for the press, and initiating an unnecessary “instant replay” of prior hearings.
Conforti said if Mueller wanted to speak to the media on his own, it was his right, as it was for him to speak during the proceedings.
“The State has the right to speak, as do you,” Conforti told them.
“Any comment I make today is not for the newspaper, it’s for this man,” said Mueller, approaching Harris, who sat in the middle aisle of the courtroom in his wheelchair. “He’s got a life sentence. He is not going to have a normal life again. It’s for him, and only him.”
“Based on what happened over the last couple of minutes, this defendant just doesn’t get it,” Mueller continued.
Mueller likened the defense’s argument that Wild West City had been without an accident for the last 50 years like a drunk driver who killed someone recounting all the times they arrived home safely after driving under the influence.
Mueller added how Wild West City had a prior incident in the 1980’s.
“What we hear a lot is this was a freak accident,” Mueller said. “This was not a freak accident, this was an inevitable tragedy. This defendant gave real guns to real actors, in violation of the law, to teenagers, left open in plain view. It happened day after day after day.”
Mueller said Stabile had actors performing the skits without any training on the weapons, and the weapons, and ammunition were kept in a bowl in the park’s opera house, in open view.
“More than anything else, that’s what’s bothering me,” Mueller said. “Every time you look at Mike Stabile in the courtroom, you see a smirk on his face.”
On the other hand, Mueller described the Harris Family as remaining “positive, hopeful, and an inspiration to me, and this office.”
Once Harris read his two-sentence statement, Mueller said, “Nothing is more powerful than those two sentences.”
Betty Harris also addressed the court, and said, “It’s been a long six years, judge, and it has impacted our whole family. It has been very hard. I know God is in control, and He will take care of us.”
Lorber, who had his turn to speak next, asked if his client was such a “horrible person”, why would the prosecution offer a plea bargain? He also questioned if Mueller’s statements were due to the political season, and a possible run for office. Mueller shook his head after the comments were made.
“If you look at this plea bargain, the company has done as the prosecutor asked,” Lorber said. “I think he [Mueller] stood here and grandstanded, and it’s demeaning to the prosecutor’s office.”
“It’s a horrible accident, we can’t take it back,” Lorber added. “As for my client not caring, he [Stabile] wanted to go to his [Harris’] house, and do a lot of things, and was told he can’t. He [Mueller] doesn’t know anything about it. My client took legal advice not to speak to the young man, and the family. If the prosecutor thinks he’s not compassionate, he should blame us, not our client.”
Lorber told the court before the fine was imposed, he did not believe a fine was appropriate.
“This corporation has no money,” Lorber said. “There is already a judgment against them. Any money should go to this young man [Harris] in the civil suit.”
Lorber said if the court considered a fine, the company’s board of directors would have to decide on it, and might appeal, and, Stabile would need to retain a public defender.
“The cost [for subsequent hearings] will exceed any costs, and may not get paid,” said Lorber.
Stabile had his chance to speak, said he had issues with Mueller’s statements, and, has known Scott Harris since Harris was a child. He accused Mueller of withholding, suppressing, and contaminated evidence during the trial.
“I have a big problem with that, I respect the truth,” said Stabile.
Stabile himself was not charged with the third-degree crime, but the company, with 15 counts, from April 22, 2006 to the date of Harris’ shooting.
The charges could have carried a maximum penalty of $45,000, which Conforti said he chose not to exercise.
Conforti said the first deterrence was the aggravating factor, and, Western World Inc., having run the theme park as a for-profit business, and, the weapons being handled in what he described, “a cavalier manner.”
“This behavior can never take place again,” said Conforti. “In my view of the monetary fine, for a business of profit, it’s necessary to deter anything in the future.”
He also said discussion of possibly imposing fines was already on the record.
On the other hand, Conforti pointed out, “There was never an intent to cause this tragedy.”
As part of the terms, Conforti said a safety employee should be in place at the park, to train employees on the use of the handguns, and the guns now must be kept in a locked facility. Lorber confirmed the guns are now “locked in a safe place,” and Stabile is the designated safety employee.
Statute 2C:2-7:a(3), “Liability of corporations and persons acting, or under a duty to act, in the behalf,” was recommended.
The statute reads: “The conduct constituting the offense is engaged in authorized, solicited, requested, commanded, or recklessly tolerated by the board of directors, or by a high managerial agent acting within the scope of his employment, and on behalf of the corporation.”
Wild West City has a “Gun Statement” on their own website (click here to view) entitled, “Wild West City’s Anti-Violence Position,” which reads:
“Since 1956, Wild West City has presented classic shows and programs reflecting the history, legend and lore of the American West in the tradition of the American Indian, Buffalo Bill, The Earp Brothers and film and television documentaries.
Although some presentations utilize firearms, Wild West City does not condone nor promote the misuse of firearms in our society today. Historically, firearms were necessary as a means of survival and are reflected as such. References or portrayals of firearms cannot be eliminated from U.S. history and, from an educational standpoint, Wild West City cannot deny their historical relevance. In doing so, Wild West City is accountable to educate the public by also demonstrating the responsible use of firearms. Through dramatic re-enactments that depict such use, firearms usage is portrayed as an appropriate act of protection for the period, not an act of senseless or random violence.*
*If preferred, special calendar programs excluding references to firearms usage are offered to school groups on select Mondays in the spring and fall. Please visit the Educational Programs section on our web site.
If, during our regular programming, a person is concerned about the content of the shows they can check with a member of the staff and perhaps take advantage of other activities while this show is being presented.”
After the proceedings, when The Alternative Press asked Harris if he had any comments regarding the verdict, he replied, “Not at this time.”
“I’m pleased that it’s over, and it’s one more hurdle we’ve gotten over,” said Betty Harris. “It’s been a long six years.”
She said, originally she did not know if her son would survive the gunshot wound, and said, “As a mother, it’s a hard thing to take; he’s still a miracle.”
Muller said, “I was happy from the beginning of our case. Our goal has always been to improve the safety of the park, and for them to legally accept the responsibility.”
Lorber, whose client left the courthouse via a back entrance, said he did not feel his client's company should have been fined.
“It [monies] should go to the young man [Harris], not the state,” Lorber said.
"We're glad it's over," said Kathi Unangst, Harris' fiancée. "We couldn't move forward 'till this stage is over. It's the beginning of the end."
"This is our 'new normal,'" Unangst told The Alternative Press. "Our life will never be normal again, but this is our life."