Heartland Unsolved: Live to Tell

Published: Feb. 18, 2020 at 11:00 PM CST
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SIKESTON, Mo. (KFVS) - The Hunter family of Sikeston is close. So close that Sam and Erica Hunter live right next door to their son, Will.

Two years ago, a family vacation--and a favor--brought Sam face to face with a violent thief.

Did you know you'd been shot?

“That’s a good question.”

The answer came just after 7 a.m. on January 22, 2018, when Sam climbed the steps onto his son’s back deck, headed for the door that faced Will Hunter’s driveway.

Dr. Sam Hunter describes encountering a stranger in his son's driveway in Sikeston on 1-22-2018
Dr. Sam Hunter describes encountering a stranger in his son's driveway in Sikeston on 1-22-2018(KFVS)

“As I came up onto the porch, I saw a car in the driveway there,” Sam recalled. “And I looked down. And then I saw the man standing there.”

Do you think you startled him? I asked.

"Yes. When I walked up on the porch and looked down at him, he looked up at me. And his eyes were wide open. He didn't know I was there at all. And I said look, you take off and get out of here. You don't belong here. And at that point he turned around and walked toward the car. As I turned to the house, put the key in the lock. Turned it. Pushed the door open. And then he jumped on me. Jumped on my back."

Did he knock you to the ground? I asked.

"Yes! Knocked me to the ground. And at that point, he was on top of me."

Did you realize he had a gun?

"No. I had no idea. He was on top of me. And I was struggling and fighting. And he was trying to get that gun out and it got caught up in his clothes. And then when he kept jerking it, it went off. I actually thought that the gun had gone off and he had run away. And I didn't get hit. But I sat down on the little couch in there and I pulled away my clothes and my coat. And there was a hole there. And it was bleeding. And that's when I knew I'd been shot."

Dr. Sam Hunter in the hospital after being shot on 1-22-2018 at his son's home
Dr. Sam Hunter in the hospital after being shot on 1-22-2018 at his son's home(Courtesy: Sikeston Department of Public Safety)

A neighbor’s 911 call brought police and an ambulance within minutes. Do you think when that suspect left, he thought he killed that man? I asked Sikeston Sergeant Flint Dees about Sam’s injury.

“Absolutely,” Dees said. “That’s what I would have assumed.”

Frantic phone calls spread the news to the Hunter family.

“Your father’s been shot,” Laura Hunter Collins recalled her mom telling her. “Come pick me up.”

Bullet fragment collected from Will Hunter's back deck
Bullet fragment collected from Will Hunter's back deck(Courtesy: Sikeston Department of Public Safety)

The 71-year-old had a contact wound to the chest. This bullet traveled through Dr. Sam’s body, shattered a glass door, then lodged itself in Will Hunter’s deck.

“It was surreal,” Laura recalled. “It was terrifying.”

“It looks terrible” Dees recalled of Sam’s injury. “It looks like a death-causing injury or something that would probably cause death.”

The first piece of surprising news that morning--Sam would be ok.

You didn’t even spend the night in the hospital, did you?

“I spent two hours in the hospital,” Sam said. “It’s incredible. I never had any pain at all.”

The second came in a call from the vacationing Will. Someone had broken into his SUV in the long-term parking lot at a St. Louis area hotel.

“And I thought...I mean...you know of all days,” Laura said. “Really? Like we don’t have enough on our plate today.”

Sikeston DPS vehicle
Sikeston DPS vehicle(Courtesy: Sikeston Department of Public Safety)

Sikeston DPS Chief James McMillen stood in Will Hunter’s backyard assisting in the shooting investigation when he learned about the break-in.

“And they talked about the vehicle being broken into. Knowing they were not around it I mean it didn’t seem like those two incidents would be unrelated,” McMillen said.

Not only were they related, that vehicle break-in turned out to be the exact reason why an armed thief showed up in Will Hunter’s driveway that morning.

“Within three to four hours of that event,” Dees said of the vehicle break in, “then Mr. Hunter was shot here at Will Hunter’s home.”

There’s clearly one reason why he left empty-handed.

Sam and Erica Hunter and their children
Sam and Erica Hunter and their children(Courtesy: Laura Hunter Collins)

“I had already made my mind up that he was up to no good, that he was going to do harm to me or my family,” Sam said. “And I wasn’t going to let that happen if possible.”

I sat down in Sam and Erica’s house with their daughter Laura to talk more about the lasting impact of that day.

“It’s made us more aware of big city problems. Even in our little small town,” Sam said.

He’s a tough guy, isn’t he? I asked Laura of her dad.

“Extremely,” she answered. “Extremely. Strongest man I know.”

Does it make you mad? I asked Erica.

“Oh yeah,” she said. “Yeah. I want him caught.”

According to a police report I received from Woodson Terrace, Missouri, Will Hunter’s vehicle was one of 10 broken into at that hotel’s long term parking lot between January 21 and 22, 2018. Police say heavy rain washed away the chance of finding any evidence on the outside of the vehicles. But whoever got inside took Will Hunter’s house key, the key to his truck left in the driveway and his wife’s expired driver’s license listing their home address. Put those items together, Sergeant Dees said, and you can see why Sam Hunter found an armed thief in his son’s driveway.

“They have your home address,” Dees said of the suspect or suspects. “They have your house keys because you don’t want to take those with you on a trip if you don’t have to.”

From his hospital bed, Sam Hunter described a dark-skinned black male wearing a black and green sock hat and a black hoodie. The suspect had enough time to ransack Will Hunter’s truck before Sam showed up on the porch, so it’s believed the silver car had been parked there earlier than 7 a.m. on January 22, 2018.

Sam also gave police a detailed description of that car. Police found the silver car in the Spanish Lake area of St. Louis a few days later.

Vehicle used by suspect in 1-22-2018 shooting of Dr. Sam Hunter in Sikeston
Vehicle used by suspect in 1-22-2018 shooting of Dr. Sam Hunter in Sikeston(Courtesy: Sikeston Department of Public Safety)

“A fire was set in the backseat of the car,” Dees said, “which burned the back seat, part of the front seat and the headliner out.”

Inside the car, police found that expired driver’s license belonging to Will Hunter’s wife. The family believes they fell victim to a ring of criminals who targeted the sense of safety you feel when you leave your vehicle in a secured lot.

“It’s kind of a free for all,” Laura said. “Especially if you have details surrounding those details of when people are going to be gone and how long they’re going to be gone. It’s just, here it is. Come get it.”

It’s that realization that led to the Hunter family to decide to take their story public.

“My number one priority is obviously capturing the person who did this to my dad and our family,” Laura explained. “And the second priority is to make people more aware of what’s going on.”

“I think the moral of the story is you can never protect yourself enough,” Erica Hunter said.

For Sam Hunter, the confrontation, the struggle, the bullet to the chest - all serve as painful reminders that times have changed.

Dr. Sam Hunter
Dr. Sam Hunter(KFVS)

“Life is not the same,” Sam said. “You start out thinking today is just like it was 50 years ago. But it’s not that way at all. Today is like ten minutes ago. You just have to take precautions that you never had to think about before.”

Sergeant Dees believes they’re looking for more than one suspect. People from St. Louis who are familiar with Sikeston and the surrounding area. Back on his son’s deck, Dr. Sam said he appreciates all the people who ask how he’s doing, if he’s ok after what he went through.

I had just one last thing to ask him.

I wonder what it would mean for him to see you stand here two years later, still defending your family?

“Yeah, I don’t know,” Sam answered with a smile. “He messed with the wrong guy, I guess.”

I reached out to the manager of the St. Louis-area hotel to ask about this incident and the security of the long-term parking lot. He told me he was not given permission to comment.

There is a $10,000 reward being offered for the arrest and conviction of the suspect or suspects who assaulted Same Hunter on January 22, 2018. If you have any information, you’re urged to contact the Sikeston Department of Public Safety at 573-471-4711.

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