116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Lance Cpl. Gabe Heefner has been a fighter throughout his recovery after the Marine was shot in a bizarre incident last year while driving along an Iowa City street.
His father, Nile, told The Gazette this week that Gabe has maintained a good attitude, his sense of humor and his kindness during his recovery — something the family is grateful for.
Gabe has been working hard. His walking and speech have improved in the months following the incident, but “there’s still a long way to go.” Every part of Gabe’s life has been impacted, and nothing is easy for him anymore, his father said.
“It's just really radically changed his life and ours,” Nile said, adding how Gabe continues to work on his mobility, short-term memory and movement in his left arm.
“We celebrate all of the life that he has, but we also mourn the life that he lost and that he may never get back. It's a balancing of the good and the bad, but just trying to be resilient and continue to improve and stay positive.”
Nile shared the journey Gabe and the rest of the Heefner family have been on during a victim impact statement Thursday morning at the Johnson County Courthouse.
Last October, the 20-year-old Marine was shot in the head while driving on Highway 6 near Sycamore Street. Police said the round was fired by a man who was shooting a pellet gun at a squirrel in his yard, but missed and hit Gabe instead. Gabe crashed his car after being shot and was taken to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, where his family said he was “fighting for his life.”
Gabe, the oldest of three children, was in town visiting his grandparents when he was injured. The Heefners moved to Missouri eight years after Gabe was born in Iowa City.
Gabe spent about a month at UIHC before being transported on Nov. 10, 2021, to the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago, a nationally ranked physical medicine and rehabilitation research hospital. Gabe was at the facility for just over four months and in late March returned home to the St. Louis, Mo., area where he continues his recovery.
“We trust that God is writing a special story for Gabe,” Nile said Thursday morning. “That Gabe will live a full and abundant life and that he will not be defeated by this, but he will have victory over this injury, as well as love, joy, peace and purpose.”
Philip Olson, 70, of Iowa City, was sentenced Thursday to pay the maximum fine of $855 for violating city code by discharging a pellet gun within city limits, plus a $128.25 crime services surcharge and court costs.
The total amount due is $1,043.25, according to court records. The city’s ordinance does not include a jail time penalty. Olson pleaded guilty to the city code violation April 27.
During Thursday’s hearing, Olson apologized for the “horrible tragedy.”
Olson bought the air rifle to hunt squirrels in his yard to prevent them from messing with his property. Olson said he checked the city’s website and found it was illegal to shoot a squirrel within city limits, but bought the air rifle anyway.
“I put my interest above the law,” Olson said. “This is the worst decision I've ever made. I'll regret it for the rest of my life.”
Iowa City police previously said that three days after the shooting, Olson came to the department to say he had heard about the incident and “admitted to shooting from inside his house at the squirrel and missing” at that time.
Police said Olson fired a .22 caliber air rifle from his home adjacent to Highway 6. The air rifle was loaded with a metal pellet. Olson shot and killed 38 squirrels between Sept. 17 and Oct. 16, 2021.
Johnson County Magistrate Karen Egerton said that each shot put people, like Gabe, at risk. Egerton said it was concerning that Olson knew this was illegal and did it anyway in a residential area.
“Your behavior, while not deemed reckless by the charge that you have, it was just a complete disregard for where you are, what you're doing, what's around you, and the life of these animals,” Egerton said. “And, in fact, the complete destruction of this man's family and his life and his future as a Marine.”
Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness previously told The Gazette she wanted to charge Olson with reckless use of a firearm but a “loophole in the law” prevented the more serious charge. An air rifle or similar gun is not considered a firearm or dangerous weapon in Iowa, which makes it hard to prosecute, Lyness said.
Olson also faced four violations from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. He paid the fines — which ended up totaling $450 — last November, court records show.
Continuing recovery in Missouri
Since getting out of the hospital and returning to Missouri, Gabe has enjoyed spending time with family and friends, going to the movies and getting out of the house, his father told The Gazette.
He has five days of therapy during the week. Gabe gets physical, occupational, speech and recreational therapy during that time.
“There's some older folks there that love talking to him,” Nile said. “There's a former Marine who's there, and he loves talking to Gabe about the Marines.”
His father said Gabe is making good progress, but he does need round-the-clock care and can’t be left alone. Gabe’s strength has improved, as has his walking. He needs to be monitored while walking, but his father said Gabe is walking well.
“He likes to get up and move around and loves to help, loves to help make dinner, clean up. He’s just very helpful and wants to be an active part of the family,” Nile said.
Gabe’s speech has also improved.
"It's just kind of fun to hear him be able to be very verbal because after the accident, he couldn't talk at all and now he's talking almost like he used to,“ Nile said.
‘Still a long way to go’
The Heefner family is encouraged by Gabe’s progress, but “there’s still a long way to go for his memory and his left hand and just his mobility,” Nile said.
Tasks like brushing his teeth and eating are more difficult. The overall focus is for Gabe to continue getting stronger, but there’s a special focus on his left arm and hand. Gabe also is working on strategies to improve his short term memory.
Gabe has also started to ask questions about what happened to him, why he can’t remember certain details and why he feels different.
“That started about three or four weeks ago,” Nile said. “You can tell his mind is working better than it once did. … He's starting to think more and just be more inquisitive about things.”
The conversations have been tough, Nile said, but they have told Gabe about the incident and his time at UIHC and the AbilityLab. Because of the challenges to his short-term memory, Gabe asks about what happened multiple times but is now starting to fill in some of the details when he hears the story.
‘We’re all healing from this’
Gabe’s mom, Codi, who has been posting updates online during his recovery, stayed with Gabe for five months while he was in the Chicago facility. Nile would visit on the weekends and they would try to trade places, while also caring for their other two children.
Gabe’s grandparents, Shirley and Jim Heefner of Iowa City, have also been a big help, Nile said. Shirley, a retired nurse, helped take care of Gabe when he first returned to Missouri.
The family is also grateful for all the support, messages and gifts they’ve received from the community and others who have reached out after hearing Gabe’s story.
“We're all healing from this and will continue to be healing and just adjusting to a new way of life with him,” Nile said. “But we'd have it no other way … because he could have very easily died that day.”
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