Stray bullet hits girl walking to Afton church: 'I thought it was a rock'

  • Article by: JOY POWELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 20, 2012 - 9:55 PM

Authorities said it traveled at least a mile - and probably across I-94 - before lodging in the 8-year-old's leg.

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Heather Cooper, in her room on Tuesday, returned to school this week. She told her classmates about the incident during show-and-tell.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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Eight-year-old Heather Cooper was walking with her family into an Afton church on March 10 when she felt a sharp pain in her calf. Looking down, she saw blood and began to cry.

"It hurt," she said. "I thought it was a rock or something like that."

Her parents, Shannon and Chet Cooper, took Heather to Woodwinds Hospital in nearby Woodbury, not knowing that a .223-caliber bullet had burrowed an inch into her flesh.

A physician ordered X-rays.

"When I got my X-rays, I heard them a little when they were looking at the picture, and I heard my dad say, 'Is that a bullet?' And the nurse said, 'It is a bullet,'" the Oakdale girl said Tuesday, 10 days after she was shot.

A physician removed it and deputies have it, at least for now. Heather is back in school, with quite a story to tell, and once again pedaling her bicycle, stitches and all.

Authorities surmise it was a freak accident that may have involved two men shooting rifles on private land at least a mile from Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church on Hudson Road, said Dan Starry, Washington County chief deputy. He said deputies are investigating why the men were shooting.

The only hunting season open now in this area is for crows, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

It was a warm, sunny Saturday and Heather was approaching the church, walking with her 6-year-old sister a few steps ahead of her parents and baby sister. They were just arriving for a Saturday evening service when Heather began crying, her mother said.

They never heard any shots, Shannon Cooper said. She and one of the pastors said deputies told them later that the bullet came from the north, apparently crossing Interstate 94.

Ballistic tests

Starry said the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is running ballistic tests to determine whether one of two rifles confiscated from two men, who were not identified, could have fired the round. The tests are not complete, but authorities are reasonably sure that's where it came from, Starry said.

"At this point, it does not appear that they've done anything wrong, but we're still investigating," Starry said.

After the shooting, the Washington County Sheriff's Department called for help from Alex Gutteriez, a second lieutenant with the DNR.

"It was apparent the rifle round traveled a long distance before striking the young girl," Gutteriez, who helped deputies canvass the area, wrote in a report.

A sheriff's deputy, and later, an investigator, told Heather how brave she was, and that they admired her, said Heather's mom, who emphasized that the deputies handled the situation well.

Deputies also promised the girl that when they're done with the investigation, she can have the spent bullet -- as she and her parents requested.

Heather headed back to classes Monday at Eagle Point Elementary in Oakdale, where she's in the second grade. She told her dramatic story at show-and-tell.

To illustrate, she hiked up one leg of her capri pants to show her wound, still stitched up. She said the other kids asked lots of questions.

She still doesn't know quite what to think of getting hit by a stray bullet, but the girl had, in her tiny voice, a clear message.

"People should be careful," she said.

Joy Powell • 651-925-5038

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  • Heather Cooper wants to keep the bullet that doctors removed from her leg. Deputies said she can have it.

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