Unbearable Likeness

updated 09/30/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/30/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

HE PICKS NUTS AND BERRIES IN THE forest, bathes in chilly creeks and occasionally growls when he's angry, but that's about all Dennis Williams has in common with his neighbors, the black bears and grizzlies of Montana. Or so he thought. Lying in bed at the Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, Wash., his right leg amputated and his left swathed in bandages, Williams, 37, scratches his reddish-brown beard and wonders, "Do I really look that much like a bear?"

Two hunters from Troy, Mont., apparently thought so. On Sept. 7, the opening day of bear-hunting season, Rodney Cymbaluk, 40, and Larry Bowman, 38, were driving down an isolated logging road in the Kootenai National Forest around 7 P.M., after spending several hours gathering wood. The two men spotted what Cymbaluk later described to police as a "pretty little cinnamon bear" some 200 yards away. They stopped the truck. Then Cymbaluk rested his 7mm Magnum rifle on the open passenger door, took aim with his telescopic sight and fired off two rounds.

What he had zeroed in on, however, was Williams—a 6'2". 160-lb. former Detroit psychologist who had moved to Moyie Springs, Idaho, 10 years ago for the simpler life of a berry-and-seed gatherer. It had already been a less than wonderful day for him. Half an hour before the shots were fired, Williams had accidentally driven his Harvester pickup off the road and overturned it. Uninjured, he was walking the five miles back home when he stopped beside the road to rest and have a cigarette. "I was sitting on this rock, about to take another drag, when suddenly I was hit," he recalls. "The [first bullet] shattered my left kneecap, then blew my right leg off so it was just hanging by a few pieces." Another bullet pierced his back and came out his upper chest. "I thought, 'I wish this guy would either stop shooting at me or just put one in my head,' " says Williams. "I knew he'd mistaken me for something, but what?"

When Cymbaluk and Bowman hustled down the road to look at the kill, they were horrified to find Williams lying in a ditch, blood pouring from his wounds. "Oh my God! Oh my God," Cymbaluk shouted. "I've shot a man!" They fashioned a tourniquet for Williams's right leg and placed him in the bed of their pickup. While Bowman sped the 18 miles down the mountain to Troy, Cymbaluk cradled Williams's head in his arms and tried to comfort him. "He said, 'Jesus Christ, I'm sorry. I thought you were just a nice brown bear, sitting alongside the road,' " recalls Williams. "I'm lying there in this awful pain thinking, I don't think I was acting like a bear. I haven't seen any bears smoking cigarettes lately."

Williams was rushed into surgery at Sacred Heart Medical Center and had his right leg amputated a few inches below the hip. Cymbaluk and Bowman led police Det. Doug Johnson to the scene of the shooting that same evening. "At the site I noticed there's a small curve where [Cymbaluk] fired from," says Johnson. "He would have been looking through grass and a little bush. He said that sort of hindered his view." Cymbaluk, who has been charged with a misdemeanor count of negligent endangerment and could face a $1,000 fine and a year in jail, has refused to comment publicly, as has Bowman. "I didn't know Rodney before this," says Johnson, "but I've talked to people who do, and every one says he's an upstanding person—conscientious, quiet, mild-mannered. None of them can believe this happened."

Shifting in his hospital bed to ease the pain, Williams is proof that it did. He has no plans to sue, even though with a wheelchair or prosthesis he will no longer be able to continue foraging in the woods for a living. "I'll just have to make other plans," he says. "I'm not going to be bitter. I'll probably run into this guy someday, but I'm not going to be hostile. I just hope they don't allow him to go hunting again."

CATHY FREE in Spokane

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