The bullet that struck Rafael Mejia seemed to come from nowhere and could have gone anywhere, innocently into a tree or into the ground. Instead, it ended up in the back of Mejia’s left leg.
On July 30, he and a crew from CBJ Construction were putting in a storm drain in the Portofino subdivision just outside of Clayton. Mejia felt a pinch and then the sensation of bone breaking.
Another worker saw the blood soaking his jeans and told Mejia to get his pants off. So he did, revealing a small hole pouring blood. Mejia spent six hours in the hospital and was sent home on crutches. He was laid up for two weeks, returning to work earlier this month with a limp and a purple bulge on the inside of his thigh where the bullet’s still lodged.
Whoever fired the shot has little to fear from Johnston County’s criminal justice system. Capt. Jeff Caldwell of the Johnston County Sheriff’s Office said that it’s legal to shoot in that area of the county and that the bullet likely came from a nearby home.
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Authorities have little to prosecute when it comes to stray bullets, Caldwell said.
“We would have to prove intent,” he said, adding that the investigation into Mejia’s shooting remains open. “It certainly opens the shooter up to civil liabilities.”
The bullet that hit Mejia came from a small-caliber weapon, Caldwell said, but he would not be more specific.
Backyard shooting is legal in the county outside any town limits, even fairly dense residential areas, as long as the bullet doesn’t cross property lines or roads. The stray bullet in Mejia’s leg exposes the shooter to a $100 fine and 30 days in jail, plus another $300 fine if it happens again in the same year.
Portofino developer Norwood Thompson, who put up a $5,000 reward for information on the shooter, thinks the county’s penalties are not enough.
“It’s not even a good slap on the wrist,” Thompson said. “I think this is something that needs to be discussed. We need to have more common sense; we need to be responsible, not irresponsible. My wife rides horses out in that exact same place. People are hiking there all the time. This is an ongoing problem.”
Forest and farmland
Portofino lies north of the Neuse River along the N.C. 42 corridor, where, over the past couple of decades, some of Johnston County’s densest neighborhoods have been built. What isn’t developed or planned for development is the same Johnston County countryside it’s always been, generations of farmland, untouched forests and fields for the sake of fields. In those lands and across the county, it’s common to shoot guns and has been for more than a century. Thompson said he’s not looking for a conversation about guns, but one about how what’s always been might no longer be appropriate.
“I respect the right to shoot; I own guns, and I shoot,” Thompson said. “But, you know, they need to keep bullets on their property. There should be extremely severe penalties for people firing willy-nilly, for bullets going wherever they may. Unless (the county) has no concern about that.
“Sooner or later someone is going to get irreparably injured or killed ... Gun rights are very important, but it’s an equally important thing for someone to be on their own property and not have bullets whistling around them.”
Thompson worries the often toxic politics of guns will end any conversation on the county’s firearms ordinance before it begins. He appears to be right, as County Commissioners Chairman Tony Braswell, while sympathetic to Mejia’s leg, thinks the ordinance is safeguard enough.
“I don’t think we need anything stronger,” Braswell said. “It’s just like the speed limit – it may be 55, but some people will obey it, and some people won’t.”
When Johnston passed its ordinance, dubbed the “Good Neighbor Firearm Ordinance,” in 2011, it was no easy task, Braswell said. At the time, the county was responding to the kind of concerns Thompson is raising now – that Johnston’s rural way of life is coming into conflict with its high-growth reality. Some gun owners saw the ordinance as limiting their rights.
You can’t have stray bullets going into houses. What we did was maintain the culture of Johnston County and the right and privilege of owning firearms and shooting them in a safe manner. But you can’t legislate people doing dumb things.
Tony Braswell, chairman of Johnston County Board of Commissioners
“There were complaints after complaints,” Braswell said about passing the ordinance. “It had nothing to do with owning a gun; it was about shooting in a safe environment. You can’t have stray bullets going into houses. What we did was maintain the culture of Johnston County and the right and privilege of owning firearms and shooting them in a safe manner. But you can’t legislate people doing dumb things.”
Worker’s compensation covered Mejia for the two weeks he was at home. Speaking through a translator, he said that doctors recommended leaving the bullet in his leg, that it could cause more damage to remove it. It was painful, he said, and still is. But mostly he’s wondering why it happened to him.
“I’m not scared, I’m not sad, I’m not mad at anybody,” Mejia said. “I’ll just keep going. It’s something that happens and you live with it. But I ask the question, ‘Why me?’ I never bother anybody; why me?”
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, ext. 104; @jdrewjackson