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Dairy farmer recalls shooting rampage one year ago

Progressive Dairyman Writer Audrey Schmitz Published on 23 June 2016
Zach Myers in milking parlor

Just over one year ago, an early morning drive down the road to check his heifers left a North Carolina dairyman with a gunshot wound to the neck. Now, Zach Myers shares his miraculous story of survival and recovery with Progressive Dairyman.

Close call

In the early morning hours of June 22, 2015, Myers left the home farm to tend to a group of heifers on pasture, but he quickly realized that this would not be a typical drive. While going down North River Ridge, a paved road in Jonesville, he saw a car on fire, as well as a pickup truck owned by his neighbor James Barrett pulled over on the side of the road. As he drove past the truck he heard a blast – the sound of an AK-47 rifle in Barrett’s hand – which sent a bullet through the base of Myers’ neck.

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Myers passed out, but then awoke to a second blast. This time, Barrett had fired a flare gun at Myers, shattering the rear window of his pickup. His senses kicked in, first smelling smoke, then seeing a blaze in the truck’s back seat. At that moment, he looked down to find his shirt soaked with blood, and he knew he had been shot.

Even with a burning truck and a gunshot wound, Myers was somehow able to think logically and calculate his plan to escape the scene.

“I was scared that if Barrett saw me trying to put the fire out and realized I wasn’t dead, he might come back and shoot me again, so I just played dead for I don’t know how long,” Myers says.

After Myers thought enough time had passed for Barrett to leave the scene, he drove about 600 yards before the dizzying effects of his injury caused him to run off the road into a cornfield. Believing this was a safe distance away, he extinguished the flames using only his bare hands.

Once the fire was out, Myers continued down the dead end road and called 911. He told the operator what had happened, his address, the name of the shooter and his name. Myers then attempted to ask the operator a question; she hung up on him mid-sentence.

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“There I was, not knowing what was going on. So at that point, I called my wife,” Myers says. “I stayed on the phone with her for an hour, and she was talking to me telling me what was going on the other end of the road.”

Myers’ wife, Sybil, told him over his cell phone the police had road blocked on the other side of the crime scene. They were not letting anybody through because they deemed the situation too risky. Myers glanced again at his bloody shirt and knew he had lost a lot of blood. His senses were numbing, and he knew he would need medical attention soon or he was going to be beyond help.

After an hour of waiting, Sybil said to her husband, “Zach, they’re not coming. I don’t know when they are coming.” Myers replied to her saying, “Can I drive myself back out?” Sybil was surprised Myers could drive and asked him, “Can you do that?” He answered back, “Well, I’ve got to try.”

Shifting his truck into gear, Myers drove back through the shooting scene wondering if he would be shot at again. He reached the blockade where three sheriff cars and deputies were standing at the ready with their weapons watching the scene. The deputies wouldn’t help Myers out of the truck and told him he would have to get out and walk to them. So, while applying pressure to his neck wound, Myers staggered to the last sheriff’s car, which then drove him to an ambulance stationed a mile further down the road.

During the rampage that morning, Myers’ neighbor Barrett shot a flare gun into the abdomen of Kent Suddreth, one of Myers’ other neighbors, and set Suddreth’s house on fire, which then burned to the ground. He also shot Wilkes County Sgt. Steven Russell in the shoulder with his AK-47 rifle. Both men were taken to the hospital and recovered. Barrett was shot and killed at the scene after he fired at law enforcement officers.

In the past, Barrett had exhibited threatening behavior toward Myers and other neighbors. He was a cause of concern in the community. Wilkes County court records show Barrett had been convicted of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, communicating threats, harassment, simple assault and other offenses. To this day, no one knows what motivated Barrett’s aggressive attack that morning.

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Recovery road

At the hospital, Myers found out the middle third of his left ear no longer existed and the bullet had gone through the base of his skull and out the middle of the back of his neck. Four different teams of surgeons worked on Myers to fix the gapping wound. In the end, the doctors had to leave some bullet fragments in Myers’ neck, close to his spine, because they didn’t want to risk causing more damage trying to remove them.

Myers suffered a bad concussion and swelling on his brain as a result of the gunshot. He was placed in the intensive care unit for seven days and spent an additional two days at the hospital before he was discharged to start his recovery. At home he wore a neck brace for three months.

“We have had quite a few ups and downs with his recovery. We saw really good progress in the first three months, and then he kind of hit this plateau and started going backwards a little bit for a while. So it has been a little frustrating,” Sybil says. “We are still struggling with a lot of things we thought might have resolved by now, but they haven’t.”

Due to the percussive blast of the rifle, Myers has severe hearing damage and is almost completely deaf in his left ear and has moderate hearing loss in his right ear. Even though the incident happened a year ago, his recovery is ongoing. He still struggles with balance when walking, severe headaches and fatigue.

“I’ve always been a pretty physical type of guy working on the dairy, so it has been tough,” Myers affirms. “My energy level still isn’t where it needs to be, and I get tired really easily.”

During his recovery, Myers’ father, Dwayne Myers, and former herdsman Glen Staebner took charge managing and making day-to-day decisions on the 900-cow dairy. Myers says Staebner came in morning and evenings, before and after his regular job, to walk through the cows and help out his current herdsmen by checking what needed to be done. Staebner would then relay the information to Myers’ father, Dwayne.

“Glen was a lifesaver. I don’t know what we would have done without him,” Zach Myers says. “He was willing to come and step in and make sure the dairy was able to continue on without me there and see what needed to be done. I owe him a lot.”

Resuming his duties at the dairy was very gradual for Myers, and didn’t start until four months after the incident. He eased himself back into dairying by ordering feed ingredients and tracking inventory.

“With my concussion and balance issues, my neurologist and orthopedic doctors didn’t want me around the cows for risk of me falling and hitting my head from being dizzy or not being able to react quickly if a cow was to back into me,” Myers says.

Zach Myers with cows

At the end of January, six months following the event, Myers started working full time again at the dairy. The chore that took the longest to get back into was managing the herd because it required the energy for strenuous work, such as pregnancy checking cows.

“His resilience from day one since this has happened has been amazing. He is just determined to continue being a dairy farmer, which to me is just hard to even logically understand how. That is commitment in the highest level to do such a physical demanding job and still do it every day,” Sybil says. “I think if he didn’t love dairying as much as he does, he wouldn’t be able to do it.”

Even though Myers has hearing and physical limitations, they haven’t stopped him from continuing to dairy. But he says he has to be more careful with everything he does.

“I try to be more cautious and have to constantly look around myself to make sure I don’t miss something I can’t hear,” Myers explains. “I have to try and rely on my sight and other senses to alert me of any potential dangers.”

Live and learn

After the incident, Myers is much more cautious. He still gets nervous when people he doesn’t know come to the farm. And whenever he is off by himself, Myers makes sure somebody knows where he is at all times. He has his employees follow the same procedure.

“Safety is the main concern. Not just for the cows and myself, but also more importantly for the safety of my employees and those doing work,” Myers says. “We try to be more careful, make sure we know who is around and what’s going on around the farm.”

Myers’ advice to other dairy producers is to take every threat as if it may actually happen. He stressed the importance of taking necessary precautions to make sure employees stay safe.

“What I really think other dairy farmers need to learn from this experience is to not take any threat lightly,” Myers says. “This guy had been harassing us for years, and we had been having a hard time getting our local officials to do anything about the problem. It escalated to physical violence.”

In order to stay as safe as possible, Myers says it is important to always be mindful of what is going on around your dairy and its facilities.

“You just have to know what’s going on and be ready for the worst possible thing you can imagine,” Myers explains. “Try to be aware of how you might handle a similar situation if something like that were to happen to you.”

Myers says he has learned not to take each day for granted, and has learned that in emergency situations like what he went through, he only has himself to rely on.

“Nobody is going to take care of you as you do yourself,” Myers says. “I had to have a will to survive that morning – luckily and thankfully, I did.”  PD

PHOTO 1: One year later after a gunshot wound to the neck, Zach Myers has resumed dairying on his farm.

PHOTO 2: Despite fatigue and severe headaches as a result of a gunshot wound, Zach Myers is able to continue dairying. Photos provided by Zach Myers.

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