11/06/2003

Officer Dies of Accidental Shotgun Blast in Car, CHP Says

Officer Down: Robert Coulter - [Weaverville , California]

By Kimberly Bolander, The Record Searchlight (Redding Calif.)

WEAVERVILLE, Calif. -- The widow of a California Highway Patrol officer talked Monday about the husband and father who had a fondness for motorcycles and a good prank, but lived to help people.

"Being a cop was his life," said Kelly Coulter of Weaverville.

Her husband, officer Robert Coulter, 39, died Sunday in his patrol car after he unintentionally shot himself, CHP officials said.

The Trinity County Sheriff's Department began an investigation into Coulter's death before determining it appears accidental, Sheriff Lorac Craig said.

Coulter apparently was setting a shotgun vertically in its cradle, between the front seats of his patrol car, when the gun fired.

Fitting a shotgun or rifle into a patrol car's locking mechanism requires some maneuvering, Craig said.

"At some point in time, it's hard to avoid having it pointed at you," he said.

It's possible the gun's trigger got caught on a seat belt as Coulter fitted it in place, Craig said.

"Why his gun was loaded, none of us will ever know," he said.

Sheriff's Department policy mandates that shotguns and rifles can have bullets loaded, but none in the guns' chambers, ready to fire.

Craig said the CHP policy is the same. But CHP officials would not comment on their weapons protocol as a matter of safety for their officers, said Reddingbased CHP Assistant Chief Shawn Watts.

Coulter, a father of two, was known for stopping to chat with everyone he met. It was his way of looking out for others, his wife said.

"I call him my social butterfly," she said. "If he saw a kid that looked like he was in trouble, he'd stop and say, 'Hey, are you on the right path?' "

The Coulters, including son Kyle, 14, and daughter Dahlia, 10, had already suffered the loss of a third child, Cameron. At about three months old, the baby died of sudden infant death syndrome before the family moved from Los Banos to Weaverville about three years ago.

Kelly Coulter said she envisions her husband and son together now, riding a motorcycle on the streets of heaven, as fast as they like.

"He's got Cameron on the back. He's riding wherever he wants to go," she said.

Coulter's death shook Weaverville's small CHP station of about 12 patrol officers, who wore black bands over their badges Monday.

Sgt. Steve Howard was Coulter's direct supervisor and "kind of like his den dad," he said. Coulter was outgoing, friendly and loved being a highway patrolman.

"There's a lot of letters in his file from grateful citizens that he's helped," he said.

Coulter started his shift alone at 6 a.m. Another officer discovered his body in a patrol car about 9:30 a.m. The shotgun blast is believed to have killed him instantly, officials said.

The northern division of the CHP, based in Redding, is investigating Coulter's death, Public Affairs Coordinator Scott Christensen said Monday.

"There is no evidence of suicide or foul play," Christensen said.

He declined to say where the shotgun blast struck Coulter's body or what the officer was doing when the gun went off.

Meanwhile, family members plan to hold a funeral for Coulter at 1 p.m. Friday at the veterans hall in Weaverville.

The mountain town was a place Coulter enjoyed living, Kelly Coulter said.

"He said it's like working on vacation because it's so beautiful up here," she said.

Coulter enjoyed twiceweekly breakfasts with a group of about 10 buddies, including several retired CHP officers. He was fond of pulling a good prank, which have included switching his coworkers' lockers and routinely spooking them around the office.

"When I think of Rob, I just think of the twinkle in his eye. His looking like a mischievous little boy," said Kelly Coulter's aunt, Carol LeMuiex of Modesto.

At a Halloween party the Coulters hosted this weekend, Coulter dressed as Mozart, complete with wig and tights, his wife said, smiling.

They met working in the Army, which Coulter joined at age 17. He was a military police officer for his five years in service, then joined the CHP nearly 14 years ago. Even in high school, Coulter was involved in a police department's teen Explorers program, Kelly Coulter said.

"He really wanted to help people," she said.

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