February 15, 2006
Fellow Hunter Shot by Cheney Suffers Setback
By ELISABETH BUMILLER and ANNE E. KORNBLUT
WASHINGTON, Feb. 14 — The 78-year-old lawyer shot by Vice President Dick
Cheney in a hunting accident over the weekend suffered a minor heart attack
early Tuesday caused by birdshot lodged in his heart, hospital officials in
The lawyer, Harry M. Whittington, was moved back into the intensive care
unit at Christus Spohn Hospital in Corpus Christi, Tex., to be monitored for
up to a week in case the birdshot shifted or additional pellets in his body
moved into other organs, the officials said at a televised news conference.
Dr. David Blanchard, the emergency room chief, estimated that Mr.
Whittington had more than 5 but "probably less than 150 to 200" pellets
lodged in his body.
Dr. Blanchard said that the hospital's cardiologists were optimistic that
the metallic pellet in Mr. Whittington's heart would not travel farther and
that he would be able to function normally. They said they did not consider
the other pellets in his body problematic, and they currently have no plans
to remove them.
Mr. Cheney's office, in its first official announcement about the incident,
released a statement shortly after 2:30 p.m. Eastern time saying that the
vice president's "thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Whittington and his
family" and that Mr. Cheney had spoken by telephone to Mr. Whittington an
"The vice president wished Mr. Whittington well and asked if there was
anything he needed," the statement said. "The vice president said that he
stood ready to assist."
The statement added that Mr. Whittington's spirits were "good," but
"obviously his situation deserves the careful monitoring that his doctors
The downturn in Mr. Whittington's health significantly changed the tone of
the White House reaction to the hunting accident. In Texas, Carlos Valdez,
the district attorney in Kleberg County, said a fatality would immediately
spur a new report from the local sheriff and, most likely, a grand jury
At the White House, Scott McClellan, the president's spokesman, began his
day unaware of Mr. Whittington's heart attack. After being battered by
reporters on Monday for the delay in the White House's providing information
about the accident, Mr. McClellan opened his first briefing on Tuesday
making light of the incident, as the late-night comics had done.
Mr. McClellan joked that the Texas Longhorns, the N.C.A.A. football
champions who were at the White House to meet with the president, would be
in their team color, orange, and "the orange that they're wearing is not
because they're concerned that the vice president will be there."
Continuing the play on orange, the color hunters wear as a safety precaution
to avoid being shot, Mr. McClellan held up his own orange and gray tie.
"That's why I'm wearing it," he said, to laughter.
But by the time of Mr. McClellan's noon briefing, when the press secretary
was aware of Mr. Whittington's downturn but did not disclose it to
reporters, his tone was serious, even as he was at times impatient with the
persistent questions about the shooting. "If you want to continue to spend
time on that, that's fine," Mr. McClellan said. "We're moving on to the
priorities of the American people."
Mr. Cheney's aides said he first learned of the change in Mr. Whittington's
condition when he arrived at his West Wing office about 7:40 a.m. Tuesday,
shortly after doctors in Corpus Christi said that they had picked up an
irregular heartbeat from Mr. Whittington on their morning rounds.
Doctors said that the pellet, which they had known since the accident was
near Mr. Whittington's heart, had evidently moved into the heart muscle,
causing "some quivering" called atrial fibrillation. Mr. Whittington, who
was shot by Mr. Cheney on Saturday and moved out of intensive care on
Monday, was immediately put back into intensive care.
Mr. Cheney was told, his statement said, that Mr. Whittington would need a
cardiac catheterization to determine the condition of his heart. The
procedure was performed about 10 a.m. Eastern time. The vice president then
continued his schedule for the day, but changed his plans when his chief of
staff informed him during a Capitol Hill national security briefing that Mr.
Whittington's doctors were about to hold a televised news conference.
Senator Trent Lott, who had teased the vice president about the accident
during the briefing, said Mr. Cheney immediately returned to the White House
to watch the news conference. "He didn't look like he was having a whole lot
of fun," said Mr. Lott, Republican of Mississippi.
Local officials have not considered any charges in the shooting because no
one in the hunting party, including the victim, has accused Mr. Cheney of
"Everybody that I've heard so far has said it was an accident," said Mr.
Valdez, who holds an elected position and is a Democrat. "The victim
probably told the sheriff's department it was an accident."
Mr. Valdez added, "Now, if the worst happens and the man happens to die, we
would take an additional step."
Under the law, even an accidental hunting fatality can result in criminal
charges. Mr. Cheney could be charged with negligence, defined as failing to
understand the dangers involved and disregarding them, or recklessness,
defined as understanding the dangers and disregarding them.
After some initial confusion about what steps the local police had taken to
investigate the shooting on Saturday, Secret Service officials said on
Tuesday that they had offered to make the vice president available for an
interview as quickly as possible but that the local sheriff had agreed to
wait until Sunday.
Eric Zahren, a Secret Service spokesman, said the shooting occurred at 5:50
p.m. Central time, slightly later than the White House had said at first.
After helping Mr. Whittington into an ambulance, the agents in Mr. Cheney's
security detail returned to their command post on the hunting ranch by 6:30
p.m. The Secret Service supervisor in McAllen, Tex., had called the sheriff
in Kenedy County to tell him about the shooting by 7 p.m., Mr. Zahren said.
The Secret Service supervisor arranged with the sheriff for Mr. Cheney to be
interviewed at the ranch at 10 a.m. Sunday, Mr. Zahren said. But the vice
president's office changed the time to 8 a.m.
While there were reports, some from the sheriff himself, that a deputy had
been dispatched to the ranch on Saturday night and been turned away, Mr.
Zahren said that some local police officers had heard about the shooting on
a scanner when an ambulance was sent to pick up Mr. Whittington. They showed
up at the ranch unsolicited. Private guards, not Secret Service agents, Mr.
Zahren said, turned the police away because they did not know anything had
The White House first learned of the shooting, Mr. McClellan said Tuesday,
when someone from the vice president's party called the Situation Room
shortly after the accident occurred. But whoever called — Mr. McClellan
would not identify the person — said only that there had been a hunting
accident involving the vice president, not that Mr. Cheney had himself shot
The Situation Room staff then passed that information to Andrew H. Card Jr.,
the White House chief of staff, who contacted President Bush. Mr. Card also
called Karl Rove, the deputy chief of staff, who called one of the ranch's
owners, Katharine Armstrong. Ms. Armstrong told Mr. Rove that the vice
president had shot Mr. Whittington, and Mr. Rove then called Mr. Bush about
8 p.m. Eastern time with that news.
David D. Kirkpatrick contributed reporting for this article.