Inverness, Ill. — The two father-and-son pairs arrived before dawn, each having received permission to hunt deer on the private land in northwestern Illinois.
John Hanlon, of Inverness, chatted briefly with the other party, making sure they wouldn’t interfere with each other’s shoots.
Minutes later, Hanlon, 44, lay dying, having been shot by Kelly Jackson, the father in the other party. The shotgun slug traveled through Hanlon’s chest and then struck and injured his son, Nathan, then 15, in the abdomen.
Nathan later told police that Jackson had said he mistook Hanlon for a deer because he wasn’t wearing his blaze-orange vest, as required by law. Nathan pointed out that his father was wearing the orange vest. It was so dark that Jackson apparently couldn’t see it, even as he stood over Hanlon’s body.
It was still about 60 minutes before the legal deer hunting hours would commence.
In a relatively rare occurrence for a deer-hunting fatality in Illinois, the person who pulled the trigger was arrested and charged. Jackson, now 54, of East Dubuque, would later plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter for what he admitted to police was a “horrible judgment call.”
Still, Hanlon’s widow, Leslie, believes Jackson’s sentence was far too lenient. Less than a year after her husband’s death on Nov. 19, 2011, Jackson has completed his jail term, which originally was set at 180 nights, with work release during the day.
With another firearms deer hunting season fast approaching, Leslie Hanlon said a harsher punishment for Jackson – who left jail in October after his sentence was reduced to 60 nights – would have sent a stronger warning to other hunters not to be lax on safety rules.
Jackson had two prior misdemeanor hunting violations from 1999, according to court records. He could have received up to five years in prison for the fatal shooting.
“It’s not like the gun just went off,” said Hanlon, a mother of four who has filed a lawsuit against Jackson. “This man intentionally pulled the trigger in the dark. He knew there were people out there. It’s been unbelievable. The whole sentencing hearing felt like such a charade.”
Circuit Judge William Kelly called Hanlon’s death a “devastating loss” but described the sentence he imposed on Jackson – two years of probation and 180 days of work release from jail – as appropriate, according to a court transcript.
Yet Bill Schroeder, treasurer of the Illinois Hunting and Outdoor Sports Association, noted that Jackson broke one of the most basic hunting safety rules and that, by blasting his shotgun about 90 minutes before sunrise, “he couldn’t have known what he was shooting at.”
“People in the hunting community would feel he got off pretty easily,” Schroeder said. “You have to take responsibility for your actions in the field.”
A tax accounting partner at Deloitte in Chicago, Hanlon had attended a hunting safety class with Nathan when his son turned 10. They had hunted together each deer hunting season, which for firearms begins the weekend before Thanksgiving in Illinois.
Leslie Hanlon also questions whether Jackson’s family ties to Jo Daviess County government could have influenced the outcome of the case.
After Jackson’s arrest, she learned that his brother, Dane Jackson, serves on the Jo Daviess County Board, where he acts as chairman of the Law Enforcement and Courts Committee.
Dane Jackson could not be reached for comment. But Tim Stephenson, director of the county’s Probation Department, called the relationship a “non-issue.” County Board Chairman Marvin Schultz also denied being aware of any improper influence on the Jackson case.
Kelly Jackson remains on probation for two years and was fined $867, according to court records. He presumably cannot obtain a firearm again because of his felony conviction.
Schroeder fears that people without hunting knowledge won’t understand the rarity of such an incident. “It makes us all look like crazed killers, and that’s not the case by any means,” he said.