SARITA - The Kenedy County Sheriff's Department feels at home with the Secret Service and the powerful people who go hunting on the Armstrong Ranch, but is out of its comfort zone with the media circus that the hunting accident involving Vice President Dick Cheney has attracted.
Sheriff Ramon Salinas III said no one in the federal government has told him or his deputies how to do their job. He was the one who decided not to go to the ranch to investigate until Sunday, the day after Cheney shot and wounded Austin lawyer Harry Whittington on a quail hunt. Salinas based the decision on witness accounts and advice from people on the ranch he knows and trusts, including a former sheriff.
"Everybody's been saying there's a cover-up from the time they heard about this," he said. "That is not true."
Salinas said he was barbecuing with his family at 5:30 p.m. Saturday when he received a call from sheriff's Capt. Charles Kirk.
"He told me he heard of a possible hunting accident on Armstrong Ranch," Salinas said.
Minutes later, Salinas got a call from a U.S. Secret Service agent.
"He said the reason he was calling was to officially notify the sheriff's department that the vice president was involved in that shooting accident."
Soon after, Salinas said, Kirk called him from the Armstrong Ranch gate. He told him he was there with a U.S. Border Patrol agent who didn't know what was going on.
"I told him don't worry about it. I'll make a call," Salinas said.
Salinas called Precinct 3 Constable Ramiro Medellin Jr., a former sheriff who lives on Armstrong Ranch and works as a ranch hand. Medellin called Salinas back and confirmed the incident was an accident.
It was at this point that Salinas decided to wait until the next morning to send Chief Deputy Gilberto San Miguel Jr. to investigate.
"We've known these people (witnesses) for years. They are honest and wouldn't call us, telling us a lie," Salinas said. "I talked to an eyewitness who said it was a definite accident. We knew Mr. Whittington was being cared for."
He told a Secret Service agent who called him that he would send San Miguel to the ranch at 8 a.m. Sunday.
San Miguel arrived at the Armstrong Ranch gate shortly after 8 a.m. After he reported to the Main House, his vehicle was inspected - a regular protocol on the ranch.
Then, he parked and was escorted by a Secret Service agent to meet Cheney.
"I was introduced to Mr. Cheney and I sat down and spoke to him about what had happened. I can tell you Mr. Cheney cooperated with me and explained everything," San Miguel said, refusing to go into detail about the 30-45 minute interview.
"I could tell he was still upset. He was very, very upset. He came, shook my hand and told me he was willing to cooperate with whatever I needed."
Salinas and San Miguel said the Secret Service has utmost respect for their department, a relationship that has been refined through the years, through the vice president's visits to the area.
"They don't treat us like a backdoor police department, like someone under them," Salinas said.
Salinas said Cheney visits yearly and his department is contacted to assist with the motorcade.
"It's a multi-departmental effort," Salinas said. "It is DPS, Kleberg County, Border Patrol and us. We all help as a courtesy. They've (Secret Service) always told us they can't do this without our help."
Salinas said the same courtesies were afforded to "Daddy Bush" during his hunting visits. Others get courtesy services as well, San Miguel said.
"When undocumented immigrants' lives are at stake we escort the ambulance to the hospital. When people die, we do the funeral escort. We don't charge for these services."
San Miguel said the case was not investigated as a criminal incident. He also noted that there were no 911 calls or radio transmissions between dispatchers and deputies because the calls went to the sheriff's home.
San Miguel and Lt. Juan Guzman interviewed Whittington at Christus Spohn Hospital Memorial on Monday, San Miguel said. He wouldn't divulge details of that interview until the report was complete but said Whittington was in good spirits.
Salinas and San Miguel said no one told them not to make details of the incident public, nor were they told how to investigate.
The department has not released an incident report, but will do so, Salinas and San Miguel said. The crush of national media has slowed the department, they said.
"We'll get it, it just takes time," San Miguel said, adding that normally no details are divulged until the report is complete. "We want this report to be accurate."
"We're just everyday small town people. We aren't used to this attention," San Miguel said as he and Salinas took a toll of the open records request faxes and phone call messages from the nation's largest media outlets: CNN, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The New York Times, ABC News, and several others.
The calls from the media have been non-stop, they said. One business contact said it took her five hours to get an open phone line, San Miguel said. There are two phone lines at the department.
"It's been overwhelming for us," San Miguel said.
"They don't want to believe it's just an accident," Salinas said.
San Miguel and Salinas walked from their office to the empty front lobby, both taking a look from left to right.
San Miguel caught himself and laughed, remembering the mob of reporters who camped at the department Monday.
"See, we're even looking for them now."
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