‘Grossly negligent:’ why shooter is charged in Torch Lake hunter death
Last year, two people were shot and killed in Michigan while deer hunting. One of the victims, Justin Beutel, was hunting on family property near Torch Lake.
It was Nov. 15, opening day of firearm deer hunting season, when another hunter shot Beutel from about 50 yards away. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources investigated the case.
“We would classify it as an accident at this point,” says Lt. Jim Gorno, a DNR conservation officer.
That’s pretty much all the DNR would say about it. But there was more to it, which became apparent when the shooter was charged with involuntary manslaughter, felony firearm and trespassing.
Beutel - pronounced beetle – was 38 when he was killed. He was married, lived in Sanford near Bay City and was a Harley-Davidson mechanic. He’d just opened up his own bike shop that June called Beautel’s Cycles and Performance.
“He was a genius with bikes,” says Theresa Schurman, Beutel’s mother.
Schurman says last fall, her son would ride his bike to the family property to set up game cameras and bait for hunting season.
On opening day, Beutel headed out early to the property. By around 9 a.m., he’d shot a buck. After that, Schurman says he came over to her house on Torch Lake.
“He said, ‘I’m just going to let it lay there for a minute. So let’s just run and get breakfast,’” says Schurman.
They ate breakfast sandwiches at a local restaurant, and then Beutel said he was going to gut the deer. He said he’d come back later, sit in the hottub and drink Busch Light.
“That was the last I talked to him,” Schurman says.
Two hunters on the same private land
Nobody’s talking about what happened next.
“I have to be cautious about what I say because it is a pending case,” says Antrim County Prosecuting Attorney, Jim Rossiter. “As of right now these are simply allegations.”
But the DNR’s investigative report paints a vivid picture.
In the early afternoon – after Justin Beutel ate breakfast with his mom, he found his deer he had shot on the family property, and he began to gut it.
Down the hill, a 45-year-old man named David Barber left his family property and crossed the street. The investigative report says he walked past the 'No Trespassing' signs and onto the property belonging to Beutel’s family.
“I have hunted this property all my life,” Barber told investigators.
Theresa Schurman says the Barbers had been trespassing on their land for generations.
“I guess we just thought they would obey the rules,” she says. “They had their own property across the street. We didn’t understand.”
Barber walked up a hill, and when he reached the ridge he says he saw movement. He thought it was a deer; he lifted his rifle and fired.
Then the report says, he went to find the deer.
But instead he found Beutel, who was gasping for air. After that, David Barber says he tried to call 911 but his phone died. He went across the road and found a friend who had a phone, but then Barber decided to go get his mother first.
About a minute later, Barber says he returned with his mother, but she had apparently forgotten her phone. So they ended up using the friend’s phone and finally dialed 911.
The report says medics came, and they officially pronounced Justin Beutel dead about an hour later.
Prosecuting Attorney Jim Rossiter charged Barber with involuntary manslaughter. The charge says he “did cause the death of Justin Beutel by committing ... acts in a grossly negligent manner.” The maximum sentence is 15 years. He is also charged with felony firearm and trespassing.
Barber and his attorney never responded to requests for comment.
I reached out to multiple members of the Barber family. Both his mother and brother declined to talk on tape but say Barber is having a hard time.
“It’s a tragic accident. That’s what it boils down to,” said his brother Barney Barber. “It’s a tragedy on both sides … My deepest sympathies go out to the family.”
Lieutenant Jim Gorno with the DNR says hunting deaths are very rare in Michigan.
“Hunting accidents have actually been going down in the last 10-15 years,” he says.
In 2014 and 2015, there were no hunting related deaths in the state, according to DNR records. There were two hunting fatalities in 2016, one in 2017 and then three in 2018, one of which was Beutel. In contrast, 18 people died this past winter in snowmobiling accidents.
Remembering Justin Beutel
Theresa Schurman’s house overlooks Torch Lake. The water is a cold blue to match the cold day. On the kitchen table is a large photograph of her son, Beutel, smiling.
Schurman says he was a happy, fun kid.
“He’d strike out a baseball, and he’d turn around and he’d be smiling, and he goes, ‘still had fun,’” Schurman recalls.
At his funeral she says they played a recording of her son’s laugh and drank Busch Light.
Schurman says she feels her son’s presence the most at her Torch Lake house and the family property in Alden.
“I still talk mostly [about him] in the present tense, and I don’t know if I even know if I ever want to switch. It just feels better to think of him,” she says.
To help keep his memory alive, the family has set up scholarships for people studying to be professional technicians like Beutel.
When asked if her son's death should be considered a hunting accident, Shurman is brief.
"No," she says.
But she does not want to elaborate further; she's a lawyer, and she doesn't want to jeopardize the case.
Schurman says justice for her son is a guilty verdict for David Barber. The case is set to go to trial June 11.
This story was featured in Points North. You can hear the full episode here.