(MCT) — The two father-and-son pairs arrived before dawn, each having received permission to hunt deer on the private land in northwestern Illinois.
John Hanlon, of Inverness, chatted briefly with the other party, making sure they wouldn't interfere with each other's shoots.
Minutes later, Hanlon, 44, lay dying, having been shot by Kelly Jackson, the father in the other party. The shotgun slug traveled through Hanlon's chest and then struck and injured his son Nathan, then 15, in the abdomen.
Nathan later told police that Jackson had said he mistook Hanlon for a deer because he wasn't wearing his blaze-orange vest, as required by law.
Nathan pointed out that his father was wearing the orange vest. It was so dark that Jackson apparently couldn't see it, even as he stood over Hanlon's body.
It was still about 60 minutes before the legal deer hunting hours would commence.
In a relatively rare occurrence for a deer-hunting fatality in Illinois, the person who pulled the trigger was arrested and charged. Jackson, now 54, of East Dubuque, would later plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter for what he admitted to police was a "horrible judgment call."
Still, Hanlon's widow, Leslie, believes Jackson's sentence was far too lenient. Less than a year after her husband's death on Nov. 19, 2011, Jackson has completed his jail term, which originally was set at 180 nights, with work release during the day.
With another deer hunting season fast approaching in November, Leslie Hanlon said a harsher punishment for Jackson — who left jail this month after his sentence was reduced to 60 nights — would have sent a stronger warning to other hunters not to be lax on safety rules.
Jackson had two prior misdemeanor hunting violations from 1999, according to court records. He could have received up to five years in prison for the fatal shooting.
"It's not like the gun just went off," said Hanlon, a mother of four who has filed a lawsuit against Jackson. "This man intentionally pulled the trigger in the dark. He knew there were people out there. It's been unbelievable. The whole sentencing hearing felt like such a charade."
Circuit Judge William Kelly called Hanlon's death a "devastating loss" but described the sentence he imposed on Jackson — two years of probation and 180 days of work release from jail — as appropriate, according to a court transcript.
Yet Bill Schroeder, treasurer of the Illinois Hunting and Outdoor Sports Association, noted that Jackson broke one of the most basic hunting safety rules and that, by blasting his shotgun about 90 minutes before sunrise, "he couldn't have known what he was shooting at."
"People in the hunting community would feel he got off pretty easily," Schroeder said. "You have to take responsibility for your actions in the field."
Schroeder knew John Hanlon personally, he said, and described him as the consummate hunter. A tax accounting partner at Deloitte in Chicago, Hanlon had attended a hunting safety class with Nathan when his son turned 10. They had hunted together each deer hunting season, which for firearms begins the weekend before Thanksgiving in Illinois.
"What will hurt forever is knowing that the same bullet that hit me killed my dad," Nathan, now 16 and a sophomore at Fremd High School, told the court during his victim impact statement. "That right before knocking me down, it ripped through his chest and took him away from me forever. That if he had not been right in front of me, I would have been killed. He saved my life."
Nathan declined an interview request. Neither Jackson nor his lawyer responded to requests for comment.
Leslie Hanlon also questions whether Jackson's family ties to Jo Daviess County government could have influenced the outcome of the case.
After Jackson's arrest, she learned that his brother, Dane Jackson, serves on the Jo Daviess County Board, where he acts as chairman of the Law Enforcement and Courts Committee. The County Board approves the budget for the sheriff's department and courthouse operations and employees, after proposals are approved by the committee.
Dane Jackson could not be reached. But Tim Stephenson, director of the county's Probation Department, called the relationship a "nonissue."
"Until about two weeks ago, I did not know they were brothers," Stephenson said. "There has not been one second of conversation between Mr. Jackson on the board and myself or my staff."
County Board Chairman Marvin Schultz also denied being aware of any improper influence on the Jackson case.
"We stayed completely out of it," Schultz said. "Dane didn't have any involvement in it. Neither did the County Board. … We don't have any say in this case or any other case."
Kelly Jackson remains on probation for two years and was fined $867, according to court records. He presumably cannot obtain a firearm again because of his felony conviction. In 1999 he pleaded guilty to two hunting infractions described as a deer permit violation and no valid hunting license, according to Jo Daviess County court records.
The courtroom was crowded when Jackson was sentenced Aug. 2, many there in support of Jackson, part-owner of his family's business across the Mississippi River in Iowa.
His lawyer, Joseph Nack, told the judge that Jackson had no criminal history and led an "exemplary life."
"I wish I could change things," Jackson said before being sentenced in apologizing to the family, according to the court transcript. "I hope in time you can find it in your hearts to forgive me."
Jeff Hopkins, safety education administrator for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said he can't remember a deer hunting injury or fatality that resulted in criminal charges. One to two people per year die in Illinois on average as the result of a firearm discharging, records show. Usually, hunting-related injuries occur when someone falls out of a tree stand, Hopkins said.
"Not often are criminal charges placed on anyone because it is often an accident," Hopkins said. "This one that happened … he broke the law."
Schroeder fears that people without hunting knowledge won't understand the rarity of such an incident. "It makes us all look like crazed killers, and that's not the case by any means," he said.
Jackson appeared to understand the implications immediately. A conservation police officer with the state's natural resources agency testified in court that, while trying to make small talk with Jackson the day of the shooting, he told the defendant that he used to hunt.
Jackson's response: "So did I."