Atwater Mayor Jim Price was cited Thursday afternoon for illegally firing a .22-caliber rifle in the flight line of Castle Airport, the Merced County Sheriff's Office confirmed.
A caller reported someone firing a rifle from a truck about 1:45 p.m. on the northern end of the flight line along the western fence, according to Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke. The caller was relaxing in the area and reading a book when he heard at least one bullet ricochet near him, Warnke said.
James Allen, who recently moved to Atwater, said he noticed the truck pull up about 100 yards away from him.
"I go out there for peace and quiet and the exact opposite thing happened," the 22-year-old said in a telephone interview.
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Allen said he heard a "pop," "snap" and a ricochet sound he instantly recognized as gunfire. "I was freaked out. I was terrified," he said. "I thought I was going to be murdered."
He fled the scene and called 911.
Deputies responded to the airport and stopped a truck driven by Price, who is also co-owner of Gemini Flight Support, an Atwater company that fuels planes at Castle Airport and provides ground support.
Price told deputies he was firing at squirrels, Warnke said.
"No matter where you are, you cannot discharge a firearm out of a vehicle," Warnke said.
Price was cited, his rifle was confiscated and he was ordered to surrender his concealed carry permit, which was issued by the city of Atwater, according to Warnke. The sheriff confirmed the rifle belonged to Price and said the permit was surrendered later in the day.
"We treated this like anybody else," Warnke said.
Reached by phone, Price declined to comment, citing advice from legal counsel.
Price, 66, was elected to the City Council is 2014.
The case will be sent to the Merced County District Attorney's Office, according to Warnke. Prosecutors can decide to elevate the citation to a "negligent discharge," a more severe crime, Warnke said.
Weapons are generally not allowed to be fired in the flight line, aside from specific law enforcement officials, Warnke said. Special circumstances sometimes allow for guns to be used to eradicate pests, but that must be cleared through the proper channels, which was not the case for Thursday's incident, Warnke said
"Fortunately nobody got hurt," Warnke said.