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Re-enactor heals from mysterious shot Suspect fired gun belonging to stranger; malice yet to be found

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Clinton Wakefield Epps is racing through the woods, sunshine piercing through the dusk, smoky and unreal, heart thumping, hair flying, imagining himself a Confederate infantryman in pursuit of Yankee cavalry.

He is rushing forward, out into the clearing -- and there, he's trapped by Union re-enactors. Then it happens: a sudden blow against his neck, paralysis. He is falling, raising his left hand, feeling blood flowing from his neck and struggling to his knees and whispering "Medic."

A man pretending to be a Union soldier calls out: "Bang, you're dead."

For a few agonizing moments at last weekend's epic re-enactment of the Battle of Gettysburg, none of the more than 15,000 play soldiers nor any of the 35,000 spectators realized that Epps had actually been shot in the neck, wounded by an Italian-made Civil War replica .44-caliber lead ball, about a half-inch in diameter.

"There was this great big dang ball sitting in my neck," said the 22-year-old Epps in an interview at his family's farmhouse outside of Charlottesville, Va., where he is recovering from surgery. "I couldn't believe it."

Apparently, it was just as much of a surprise to Christian Evo, the 52-year-old re-enactor from France who twice fired the Civil War replica revolver that inflicted the wound, according to Pennsylvania authorities.

What emerges from details pieced together from the Adams County District Attorney, courthouse affidavits, police records and interviews is a mysterious case of a brush with death on a simulated field of war, a missing Civil War re-enactor and a lead ball that shouldn't have been there.

Where else would a shooting occur but on a battlefield?

"Highly unusual and extremely rare," said George H. Lomas, president of Civil War Heritage Inc., one of the event's sponsors. He could not recall a real shooting in his 35 years of re-enacting.

"We had no idea how dangerous this really was," said Epps' mother, Mary Lee.

The shooting, it appears, was not a matter of Civil War bad blood.

"There is no evidence of any long-standing feud or any reliving of some dispute dating back to the Civil War," said District Attorney Mike George of Adams County.

Although the investigation is continuing, George said, this much is clear: Evo was supposed to be a Confederate re-enactor that )) day, but because Union forces were outnumbered, he switched sides to make the match more even.

Evo's weapon had been borrowed from a Virginia man, a Civil War re-enactor who did not attend the 135th anniversary event at Gettysburg, according to Pennsylvania State Trooper Ricky Goodling in Gettysburg, the lone criminal investigator on duty last weekend when the shooting occurred.

Twice-borrowed gun

The absent Civil War re-enactor lent his gun to another man in Virginia, who in turn gave it to Evo at the mock battlefield. Evo had the gun in his possession beginning July 1, two days before the re-enactment. Goodling would not identify the two Virginia -- men.

Also unanswered: Why was the gun loaded? And how did the revolver -- which can be used not only for re-enactments but for real-life target practice and hunting -- elude the firearm inspections required at the re-enactment?

And, well, was there a motive?

Joe Metz, Evo's Harrisburg, Pa., attorney, said he is still trying to figure out what happened. But he said he is certain of this -- the Frenchman did not know he was firing live ammunition.

"The main thing about this is, having a shot fired at you and falling on a battlefield is not a situation that draws a lot of attention, and Christian [Evo] did not realize at all that [Epps] had been hit," Metz said.

Leonard Loski, spokesman for the Gettysburg 135th Re-Enactment, declined to discuss the case. Reached in Muret, in southwestern France, Evo's wife, Brigitte, also declined to comment, except to say, "I can't feel good, that's all. It's normal, no?"

Misdemeanor charges

The matter has become something of an international incident.

A spokesman at the French Embassy in Washington said, "We are following the case. We have a lot of confidence in the American justice system."

Evo was arrested and jailed Tuesday in Washington, then agreed the next day to be extradited to Pennsylvania, where he faces two misdemeanor charges of simple assault and recklessly endangering another person. For each count, he faces two years in jail and $5,000 in fines.

Evo was held overnight Wednesday in Adams County Prison and released the next day after posting bail of $3,000.

The Frenchman waived his right to a preliminary hearing, surrendered his passport to the district attorney's office and, under the terms of his supervised release, cannot leave Pennsylvania. A trial date has yet to be set.

"If we had evidence this was intentional, the charges would be much more serious," George said.

But the district attorney added, "Somebody was terribly irresponsible."

Epps isn't bitter. He's just thankful he survived a lead ball that penetrated the left side of his neck under his ear, nicked his esophagus and lodged against his right tonsil.

"My personal feeling is, it was an accident," he said.

Confederate descendant

That afternoon, a week ago Friday, began innocently enough: It was about 5 p.m. Epps, a hunter since he was 9 years old, a enactor for 10 years and a descendant of a Confederate infantryman from Texas, was moving across a wide, open field with his Virginia unit, armed with a replica .58-caliber 1853 Enfield musket, a thin man with long dark hair, sweaty in a gray shell jacket and blue wool pants.

As a child, he always loved to visit old battlefields, loved the old guns.

As a skirmisher on the right flank of his regiment, he was delving into a thicket, probing, then withdrawing to reform with his Rebel battalion. Yankee cavalry were spotted on the other side of the woods, the Union's extreme left flank, a strategic position. The Confederates entered the woods again. Epps was deploying as a skirmisher, pushing toward the edge of the trees.

There was confusion, it was hot, men were firing muskets. Epps was given the word to advance. The Union cavalry was dismounting. The enemies were eye to eye. "At this point," he said, "there's just a few of us. We started to go after them."

Epps was ducking behind a tree, kneeling, firing, stepping out and moving forward. The Union troops were falling back. Fleet of foot, Epps was leading the rush, and suddenly he broke out of the woods. Sunlight. Union cavalry on three sides. He halted, knowing he was cornered. He was thinking: Whoops.

"Right then," he said, "it hit."

A blast out of nowhere. First thought: I'm powder-burned. Gunpowder at close range can do damage, but this feels different. He reaches with his left hand, touches the blood, knows he's been hit. He's rising to his knees, staring down. He steadies his nerves. Stay in control.

"I could taste the blood in my mouth," he said.

He doesn't yell. Can't. He can only whisper, holding his bleeding neck with his left hand, waving for help with his right.

No one notices.

A couple of Union cavalrymen are riding by casually. Finally, a rider stops: "Are you really hurt?"

People are converging on him. Epps whispers to his Confederate sergeant: "Get my gun." Doesn't want to lose that, not even with a wound.

The medics arrive, he climbs into a wire basket, "hurting like crazy." A four-wheeler speeds him over rough terrain to an aid station. Epps looks up at a clear blue sky, little spots of clouds, and knows he's seriously hurt, but he still doesn't know it's a gunshot wound.

He's being loaded into an ambulance, people are asking him, "What's your name?"

He's telling them, "Clint Epps."

"How old are you?"

"Where are you hurt?"

"Are you hurt anywhere else?"

A graduate of Rice University, Epps is cool, never thinking this is the last moment. Maybe his last re-enactment, at least for a while. In the fall, he will study wildlife ecology at the University of California at Berkeley. Maybe become an ecology professor, or get into wildlife conservation. Soon enough, he'll be back at his parents' Angus cattle farm where he grew up.

He's being airlifted to York Hospital. There, the initial shock is beginning to fade. His Brazilian Indian necklace -- strung with seeds and monkey teeth -- is removed. Maybe it was a bit of good luck.

'I can't believe it'

An X-ray shows the lead ball. Now they know: He was actually fired upon. After a battery of tests, he calls his older sister Pattie: "I'm in the hospital, been shot in the neck. I'm fine. Tell the folks. Bye."

In surgery that night, doctors go through the back of his throat to remove the lead ball. Before dawn, he awakes, fading in and out of consciousness. He is laboring to breathe.

A young nurse is saying, "I can't believe it."

And Epps says, "I can't believe it either."

Pub Date: 7/11/98

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