Hunter who accidentally killed teen travels to Cedar City to teach safety courses

Stock image, St. George News

CEDAR CITY (AP) — It’s a story she’s told over and over.

Looking at round-faced kids who gathered in a Cedar City home for a hunter safety course, Kayleen Richins tells them how she fired a bullet that whizzed through the trees, pierced the window of a passing Jeep and hit a 14-year-old boy in the head.

She killed someone.

And that boy who died last September was not much older than those who had gathered there Saturday morning.

“There was no excuse for being in my shoes,” Richins tells them, her voice breaking. “It was a mistake on my part. And it’s something I will live with for the rest of my life.”

Richins traveled nearly 300 miles to share her message with this group of kids, to tell them about shooting safety, what a proper backstop is and how critical it is to know where their bullet is going before taking a shot.

Bullets can go through trees, she tells them. Through metal signs and pop bottles and cardboard boxes. She says her bullet that struck and killed Zack Kempke would have traveled for 3 miles if nothing was there to stop it.

On this Saturday, Richins is speaking to a dozen or so kids, sitting in folding chairs lined in rows in the instructor’s basement. The room is packed with books and model airplanes and gun safety posters.

The group sits quiet and wide-eyed as Richins plays a video detailing what happened. She wipes tears from her eyes as she tells them how important it is to double-check what is in their line of fire.

As she does with every one of these presentations, she handed out orange bracelets marked with the words “No backstop, no shot.” She wears one herself.

At first, a judge ordered her to give these presentations, part of her sentence after pleading guilty to negligent homicide for killing Zack.

She’s met that requirement. Now Richins says she will keep meeting with these groups for as long as hunting instructors invite her. It’s a message she feels she needs to keep sharing.

“I started out doing it because I had to,” she said in a recent interview. “But I will continue doing it because I never want somebody to go through what my family has gone through. I never want anybody else to go through what the Kempke family has gone through.”

Monte Cristo used to be one of the Richins family’s favorite places to be. They would spend the day sitting around makeshift campsites, surrounded by groves of aspen trees.

They had been going to the mountains nearly every weekend last September to practice their shooting ahead of the deer hunt.

That Sept. 23 day, at first, was no different.

Her family had relaxed around a campfire for about an hour, and had heard no one else in the area. They saw shotgun shells and broken clay pigeons scattered in the dirt — signs that others had been target shooting there.

They waited about an hour before setting up a paper target against a cardboard box and began firing their hunting rifles

But Richins didn’t know through the dense forest was another Weber County family enjoying the fall day. The Kempkes were driving a Jeep along a dirt road after taking family photos among the bright yellow fall foliage. The road that Richins thought went straight actually curved and was in the pathway of their flying bullets.

Richins’ husband and four children were done after they spent about an hour taking aim at the target. They only had a few bullets left. Richins, who wasn’t quite happy with the way her shots were grouping, decided to take the last five shots.

She pulled the trigger three times, then paused to adjust her stance before firing those final two rounds. She took off her ear protection — and that’s when she heard the screaming.

Richins thought the noise was teenagers goofing around. But then she saw the Jeep in the distance and the screams grew louder.

She told her children to stay at the campsite and rushed with her husband to see if they could help.

“There was nothing you could do,” she cried.

Richins’ bullet struck Zack in the head as he sat in the backseat. He died immediately.

Richins was charged with negligent homicide, and was required to travel to Rich County for court hearings. The quickest way to the Randolph courthouse is through the same mountain range where she had killed Zack. She went that route once, but couldn’t bear to be back in Monte Cristo.

Her family drove through Wyoming instead for her court dates, as she pleaded guilty to the charge last December and through a snowstorm in February when a judge sentenced her for her crime.

She had faced the possibility of up to a year in jail for the class A misdemeanor. First District Judge Thomas Willmore told her he had considered it — maybe sentencing her to 14 days behind bars, one day for every year that Zack lived.

But Willmore ultimately ordered her to pay a fine and complete 480 hours of community service, instructing her to speak to youth hunter safety groups and make a video about the importance of backstops.

“You’re going to tell them what you did,” the judge told Richins, “and how they can make sure it never happens. And you’re going to tell them about a 14-year-old boy who lost his life.”

She had avoided jail time, but Richins said her punishment still scared her. She doesn’t consider herself a public speaker and is uncomfortable in front of crowds.

“Knowing that I was going to be spending a lot of time in front of people, regardless of the topic, to me is terrifying,” she said

And it was hard at first, to stand up and tell people about what she had done. Sometimes she shares her story with a class as small as two. Other times, the crowd exceeds 75 people.

It’s a little better now that her educational video is finished, so she can play that during her presentation instead of recounting the details over and over. But she says it will never be easy.

What she did was horrible, she knows it. She can’t fix it, but she does feel that giving these presentations, no matter how uncomfortable they make her feel, gives her something to hold on to, a small way to do something positive. That’s why she plans to keep doing it.

“Taking an innocent life, you’ll never get over it,” she said. “It’ll never be anything that’s easy to talk about. It’s a nightmare you can never wake up from.”

In her educational video, there are photos of Zack as a chunky baby with blue eyes, growing into a young boy with a wide grin. Then there’s his last school picture, followed by a photo of him surrounded by his family in the mountains, taken that day just before the shooting.

And finally, a photo of his casket.

Zack loved video games, Richins says in the video, and the outdoors. He loved his family and friends, and worked hard to make sure everyone felt included.

At the end, there’s scrolling text dedicating the video to Zack’s memory. The Richins family, it says, will always have heartache about what happened.

“Our efforts from this day forward,” it reads, “will be dedicated to making sure something like this never happens again.”

Richins hopes her video is impactful, that kids like those gathered in that Cedar City home remember her story. She hopes they’ll tell their families about it, and they’ll think of Zack when they are out in the mountains, taking aim at a target with their finger on the trigger. She hopes they remember her message — “No backstop, no shot.”

“Know exactly where your bullet is going to stop,” she said. “Know exactly what’s going to stop it. Because if you don’t, you have to live with the consequences.”

Written by JESSICA MILLER of the Salt Lake Tribune for The Associated Press.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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