By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Fully automatic weapons are not welcome. That also goes for incendiary bullets, tracers, explosive or armor-piercing ammunition. Point loaded guns only at the targets. Bottles and tin cans, those mainstays of plinkers everywhere, also aren't to grace the crosshairs of the shooters here.
But two other targets seem to be fair game for this gun club: They go by the names of Tommy Pearson and Todd Woodard. And BRI appears to have discovered that unlike paper bull's-eyes and body silhouettes, these two live targets are capable of shooting back -- and scoring effective hits.
Along this water-softened soil of the reservoir bottom off Eldridge Parkway, the battle of Bayou Rifles is under way in earnest.
The Bayou Rifles gun club first claimed these 40 or so isolated acres in a lease from the Army Corps of Engineers back in 1955. There was no Katy Freeway less than a half-mile away, no Bear Creek Park development to the north or Omni Hotel or gleaming Conoco headquarters along the winding Dairy Ashford to the south. This wasn't today's subdivision-and-strip-mall west Houston -- it was the open prairie far west of Houston.
Woodard, now 41, was a preteen in the Odessa-area hamlet of Crane when he participated in a juniors' shooting match at Bayou Rifles. The area had changed significantly by 1995, when he paid his $80 annual dues to shoot with the 1,200 other members. Woodard is an editor for various gun publications and needed a handy range to field-test his work. The club rivals ATMs in 24/7 access: Members get the combination to the front gate and come and go as they please.
Before long, Woodard, 51-year-old Pearson and other enthusiasts were active volunteers, pumping new energy into the shotgun division of BRI. As board members, they helped sponsor competitive meets and a junior training program, and bankrolled an expansion and renovation of the range's shotgun section.
The shotgun crowd says the energy apparently rubbed the wrong way with old-line BRI leaders and devotees of other weapons. The club's infighting escalated when the influential high-power (rifle) division began aiming for a 600-yard range on club land near the community of Juliff, south of Houston. Vocal shotgunners sniped at the estimated costs of $200,000, and the showdown over the club's direction came in late 1999 -- the entire shotgun division was voted out of existence.
Many of the rebels simply holstered up and left for more agreeable clubs or ranges. The club board itself dispatched others by not renewing their memberships. Pearson, a good friend of Woodard's, was axed after what directors call the bogus Alibi incident. The club has its official Alibi newsletter, although Pearson paid from his own pocket to produce an unauthorized newsletter that the regular club printer unknowingly mailed to members. It challenged the legality of the vote to dismantle the shotgun division.
Woodard says he vowed to muzzle his complaints unless opponents got personal in the lingering disputes. That happened in January -- his membership renewal never arrived, nor did any explanations.
On January 24 he shot a lengthy e-mail to BRI president John Treckham, protesting his "backdoor" ouster: "If you want to follow club rules and try to throw me out on legitimate grounds later, go for it."
He told of his concerns about range safety at the club and reminded the president that he was the technical editor of national gun publications. If his membership wasn't renewed by 5 p.m. that day, Woodard wrote, he was sure that various public agencies would be very interested in hearing about the problems.
The deadline came. And went.
Woodard and Pearson later headed to the Army Corps of Engineers headquarters in Galveston. The BRI range, they told the agency, "is an accident waiting to happen "
As a private shooting club, Bayou Rifles has plenty of gun-sights but little oversight. It has a sweetheart noncompetitive lease arrangement with the Corps of Engineers, paying about $260 annually in a current lease that runs until October 2003. That lease, however, comes with obligations:
The club can't discriminate. And yet Woodard and Pearson say less than 1 percent of the membership is minority, and few women are allowed. Nobody can join without the sponsorship of a member -- and few minorities get that sponsorship, the two contend. BRI is supposed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, yet there are no ramps or even paved paths to allow access for the disabled.
Foremost, it has to be a safe operation. Gun ranges rely primarily on backstops and shooting-stand baffling -- which has the same effect as baseball batting cages in knocking down foul balls -- to keep bullets within the ranges. BRI's protection is woefully lacking in comparison to other ranges, the dissidents say.
Furthermore, an arsenal of different high-powered ammunition can travel as far as 9,000 feet, easily within the range of traffic along the busy Eldridge Parkway just to the west, and northward even to Bear Creek Park and some of its recreational amenities. The west barrier, a 12-foot wooden fence with large gaps, is ineffective in stopping errant shells, Pearson and Woodard say.
The BRI board has heard about irresponsible activity, even guns being pointed at the Omni Hotel and populated areas, the pair say. While directors discussed hiring range officers or installing surveillance cameras, all they actually did was post signs falsely stating that the premises are monitored by video cameras, the two told the corps.
The club notes that high-powered centerfire ammo and weaponry is banned at the range. However, there is no range officer -- no one to supervise during shooting. Pearson and Woodard say they've picked up the shell casings of banned high-powered bullets, and more evidence is apparent in Dumpsters pockmarked by stray shots.
"We doubt that the parents at Bear Creek ball fields will be mollified by assurances from BRI that it is against club policy to fire centerfire rifle ammunition at the range," Woodard stated. They told the corps about their feud with the BRI leadership but said that "motivation was immaterial" to the issues they raised.
The corps conducted a review and met with club officials. After that, BRI returned fire -- in state district court. It sued Woodard and Pearson for libel, saying that after losing their memberships, they'd engaged in blackmail and tried to cost the club its lease. The club says the allegations are false, and it demands $100,000 in damages.
David Lueders, a board member and attorney, scoffed at the accusations against BRI. As for nondiscrimination, he says a former president is a black Houston police officer and that anyone who shows up for orientation gets a sponsorship. But he has no idea how many minorities are members.
As for the range, Lueders says BRI has absolutely no safety problems or incidents in its history. The allegations are no more than an "act of vengeance" by former members who were rightfully dismissed after improper actions. Their claims are overblown -- the errant-bullet arguments could be made against any range in the Houston area, he argues.
Woodard and Pearson say they are legitimately voicing their opinions and that their comments were privileged communications to a public agency. They also are mounting one other defense, that the range criticism is accurate. They've got an ally in that stance -- the Corps of Engineers itself.
"We have found problems at Bayou Rifles and need the rifle range to be brought up to higher standards before we can consider renewal of the lease," the corps notified BRI in June.
Richard Harrison, chief of the corps' real estate division, told BRI that the club should have an on-site range officer, preferably one with proper certification.
The club should drop the sponsorship requirement for new members and be fully accessible to everyone. The corps also wants an annual report on any incidents or injuries at the range -- and it wants more baffling added to ensure safety.
Five months later, there's no indication the club has acted on any of the requests. Lueders would say only that BRI has looked into adding a range officer. He was similarly vague about when -- or if -- the club would add the baffling. A spokeswoman for the corps would say only that the agency is concerned about safety at its leases. More detailed questions went unanswered.
The libel case, pending before Judge Martha Hill Jamison, appears similar to what the Houston Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse calls a SLAPP suit -- strategic lawsuit against public participation. CALA director Jon Opelt explains that such cases are usually filed by developers or others wanting to intimidate or silence critics, usually during a government review process.
Opelt notes he was speaking only generally and has not reviewed the case. He says if the corps finds valid safety concerns, then the courts may view it as a "vindictive lawsuit that could backfire against the club."
Pearson, who operates a landscape business, and Woodard thus far have had to come up with $8,000 in legal fees. Woodard, a volunteer shooting coach for Westside High School, now does his own firing at American Shooting Centers, which has a range officer, extensive baffling and a four-mile "drop zone" as an extra margin of safety.
"It is pretty clear to us that [BRI leaders] are trying to harass us, rather than making their range safer," he says. "We think that's irresponsible, but not at all surprising, since we know these guys all too well I just hope the corps somehow wakes up and sees the Addicks range for the problem it is."