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Paul Doering was the re-enactment shooter who fired live rounds during a performance in Hill City on Friday, June 17 that injured three people. Doering is pictured here on Saturday, July 23, 2011. (Kristina Barker/Journal staff)

The Old West re-enactor who fired four bullets into a crowd of tourists in downtown Hill City in June 2011 was sentenced Monday to 7-1/2 years in federal prison.

Paul F. Doering had earlier signed a plea agreement where he admitted that he concealed evidence after a June 17 Old West re-enactment of a gun fight on a Hill City side street in which three out-of-state visitors were injured, two seriously.

Federal marshals placed handcuffs on Doering immediately after U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Viken sentenced the 49-year-old Summerset man.

A six-time convicted felon, Doering was arrested last summer after authorities learned that one of two guns he fired during a Dakota Wild Bunch Reinactors’ performance held live ammunition.

“None of this would have happened if the defendant would have complied with the law,” said assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Kelderman. “This whole incident would have been avoided.”

“It’s an absolute miracle that someone wasn’t killed,” Viken said Monday. “It’s important that we don’t lose sight of what happened and the impact.”

Viken read a portion of a letter from Carol Knutson, a Minnesota grandmother, who was shot in the leg.

In the letter, Knutson said that not only were she and her husband traumatized by the incident, but so was their 13-year-old grandson. A bullet grazed his pant leg before hitting his grandmother.

According to Knutson, Doering proclaimed to everyone within earshot that he was not the shooter.

Immediately after the shootings, Doering fled to his car where he threw away four spent cartridges and buried the remaining live rounds. He asked his girlfriend to take his two guns and leave, but she stayed at the scene.

In two separate interviews in the first two days of the investigation, Doering denied knowing anything about live ammunition.

One week later, Doering admitted to investigators that the four bullets came from a .45-caliber Ruger he used during the shoot-out.

“I panicked,” Doering said when Viken questioned him about his actions on June 17.

The judge questioned Doering extensively during the sentencing hearing to help him understand what happened that day in Hill City.

“I’m at a loss to understand how someone with your background, at 49, could get caught in this situation,” Viken said.

Viken also listened intently as several friends of Doering spoke on his behalf. They described him as a hardworking, trusted friend, a non-drinker and someone who enjoys doing charity work.

An emotional and apologetic Doering told Viken that members of the re-enactors group routinely checked each other’s guns before a performance to make sure they contained blanks.

Doering’s only excuse was that he was fatigued from trucking and in a hurry.

“I’ve gone over this a million and a-half times,” he said. “Trying to figure out how I let this happen.”

Doering’s felony convictions made it illegal for him to own or possess a firearm or ammunition. He was charged with a federal violation of the law but was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge of tampering with evidence.

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Doering’s attorney, Neil Fulton, explained that the plea agreement was reached because of issues about Doering’s right to own a weapon.

Doering’s criminal history reaches back more than 30 years in Minnesota. At one point, some of his civil liberties were restored, but it could not be verified exactly what rights were restored, Fulton said.

Doering’s last felony conviction was in July of 2001. He was within six weeks of having his civil liberties restored by Minnesota when the shooting occurred, Fulton said.

According to the Minnesota Department of Corrections, Doering served time in prison for two first-degree assault convictions in the early 1980s and second-degree burglary in 1990. He was also charged with escape.

Doering was back in custody in 2000 and 2001 after he was convicted of fleeing from law enforcement

Viken stressed that while Doering was allowed to plead to a victimless crime, people were damaged.

“I’m not saying you’re a bad human being. I think you’ve accomplished much,” Viken told Doering. “It’s important that we don’t lose sight of what happened and the impact.”

Doering will also be responsible for restitution. An attorney for Pennsylvania optometrist John Ellis presented a request for more than $89,000 in restitution Monday. Knutson’s letter indicated that she had spent more than $5,000 out-of-pocket. Jose Pruneda of Nebraska has requested more than $2,700.

A sentencing hearing could be scheduled to settle the matter of restitution for Doering who is represented by a public defender.

Contact Andrea Cook at 394-8423 or andrea.cook@rapidcityjournal.com.

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