In 1999, Stanislaus County SWAT team sniper Erik Neuman sent a warning to a Sheriff's Department superior about persistent problems with his Ruger rifle, serial number 771-56169.
"I believe my safety and the safety of other SWAT team members could be compromised if my rifle is not functioning properly," he wrote in the memo. "I ask that my rifle be fixed or another rifle purchased for the sniper team to use."
Five years later, Neuman was inspecting his target at a Grayson shooting range when what felt like a baseball bat smashed into his leg. It was a large-caliber bullet that exploded his femur and nearly blew off his leg.
A fellow SWAT team member was reloading a Ruger rifle when it accidentally discharged, striking Neuman. It was Neuman's old weapon: serial number 771-56169.
"In my mind, I thought I was going to die," Neuman said this week.
Neuman, 39, said he's been locked in a nearly five-year battle with the county to be compensated for what his attorney calls "serious and willful misconduct."
Modesto attorney Adam Stewart believes Neuman is entitled to $250,000 in workers compensation penalties for the county's failure to repair or replace the rifle that took Neuman's leg.
That money would be in addition to the $500,000 he was awarded in workers compensation because of the incident.
"Nobody should be put through what he has — the scrutiny, suspicion and delay," Stewart said.
Assistant County Counsel Edward R. Burroughs said negotiations are still under way between Neuman and the county, which is represented by a Sacramento law firm for the purpose of workers compensation cases.
"They're talking to try to resolve this," Burroughs said.
Burroughs could not disclose any offers or their amounts made by the county to Neuman.
Even after 22 surgeries, Neuman is still on the SWAT team, going out on calls and taking care of administrative duties. He uses forearm crutches because his leg was amputated so high up — through the hip joint — that he couldn't attach a prosthesis.
"It's the only thing I've ever done," Neuman said of his job. "I'm the same old guy, I guess, just a little slower chasing the bad guys."
Sheriff backs plaintiff
The investigation of the Dec. 8, 2004, incident was done by Sheriff Adam Christianson, a lieutenant at the time. He found the SWAT team, unlike the rest of the department, did not train with a range master to ensure the safety of the deputies, according to his report. The deputies did not have identical weapons or adequate training and weapons familiarization before live fire exercises, Christianson wrote.
This week, Christianson said he couldn't comment on the case but threw his backing behind Neuman.
"I support Erik, I absolutely support Erik," Christianson said.
Neuman said he never imagined his old Ruger would resurface in another deputy's hands.
"It was malfunctioning," he said. "I imagined it was off to never-never land."
But Neuman will never know what was really wrong with the gun. While he was in the hospital, SWAT team members took and destroyed the gun without permission, then-Sheriff Les Weidman said at the time.
Sources close to the Sheriff's Department told The Bee in 2005 that the SWAT officers used the rifle as a target — blowing its stock to bits as part of a "purging" or "cleansing" ceremony.
The officers then took the bullet- riddled gun to a Manteca bar, where they reportedly cut it up with a hacksaw.
Those actions inadvertently took gun maker Ruger off the hook for any civil liability for the accident because there's no physical evidence of a defective gun, Stewart said.
In a recent interview, with his wife at his side, Neuman had to think hard when asked if he has any resentments about the accident. In a calm, soft-spoken voice, Neuman calls the man who shot him a "good guy."
The four shooters on the range that day still get together every December — the anniversary of Neuman's injury — to have dinner with each other and their families. Neuman calls them and thanks them for saving his life.
But Neuman misses some of the joys of life before the accident. He can't carry his children to bed or go on his daily three- to five-mile runs.
"I don't have resentments to (my fellow deputies)," Neuman said. "My resentments are the decisions made that cost me my leg."
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2337.