It began as a fine day for hunting and ended in a grim act of atonement
LONG BEFORE DAWN ON SUNDAY, Nov. 24, Gene Bulak, 41, and his son Michael, 18, were on the road, riding in their new black pickup to a hilly stretch of land 50 miles south of their hometown of Taberg, N.Y. Their spirits were high—they were after white-tailed deer, and this was a perfect day for it. The weather was mild, and thin melting snow, with wet leaves underfoot, would quiet a hunter's approach. By the time they entered the woods at about 10 A.M., the early morning fog had lifted, but the day was still gray and mist-shrouded. The forest was damp, silent, solemn as a cathedral.
Just before 11 A.M., the Bulaks and three of Gene's friends who were also in the hunting party spoiled their first deer. As the men swept through the woods, they flushed four does that went scampering up a hill through the underbrush beneath the hemlock and crab apple trees. The five hunters split up, hoping to encircle the deer. Stealthily they began moving uphill.
Ten minutes later a single shot echoed through the countryside. Within moments, Gene Bulak, a stoic man not known to shed a tear, was heard weeping hysterically. When the other hunters arrived, panting, at the scene, they found him lying over his son's body crying, "Mikey, Mikey, my baby." Bulak had shot his own son through the head, killing him instantly. Michael, who was supposed to be on the other side of the hill waiting for the deer to be driven on in had evidently left his post.
But the dying was not yet over on this perfect day for hunting. As the others raced for help, Bulak's friend Mike Littler stayed with him. Before long, the two heard a local farmer's four-wheel-drive Jeep struggling up the hill. Bulak asked Littler to guide it toward the accident. Before he left, Littler unloaded the three shotguns, leaving only Michael's behind. A moment later he heard a muffled shotgun blast. Littler rushed back to find a horrific scene—father and son lying side by side, their faces virtually obliterated by their wounds. Bulak had committed suicide. Loading his son's shotgun with a spare shell from his jacket pocket, he had knelt down on one knee and wedged the Moss-berg 500 12-gauge pump under his chin. According to investigator Karl Chandler, one of the first slate policemen on the scene, the three surviving hunters were virtually in shock. "They didn't know whether to faint or throw up," he says.
The double deaths of Gene and Michael Bulak stunned the 500 residents of Taberg, a gritty working-class village 50 miles northeast of Syracuse—the sort of town where the men favor truckers' caps and gather each night for a bottle or two of " 'Genny"—Genesee Cream Ale—at the United States Hotel or American Legion Post 1309. Hunting is their passion, and each fall when hunting season begins, many of the men at the Omega Wire Company, where Gene Bulak had worked for 12 years, take a day off in hopes of bringing home a deer. After the accident, as villagers gathered at the local tavern, they wondered how such a tragedy could have happened—and they agreed that Bulak was the kind of man who could never have forgiven himself. "I know he couldn't face me," says his widow, Monica. She doesn't blame Gene for turning the gun on himself, nor does her remaining son. David, 17. "He couldn't live with what happened," she says.
For Bulak, the death of his son represented the death of his dreams and of all he had worked for. A tractor-trailer driver, Bulak hauled copper wire for Omega, driving as many as two runs a week, to Chicago and then North Carolina, logging hours of overtime to augment his $45,000-a-year salary and send his kids to college. "He lived for them boys," says his best friend, Gene Monica, 49, who had known Bulak 20 years and was a member of the hunting party. He remembers Bulak telling him that morning how much he looked forward to touring colleges with David. "He wanted a better life for the boys," says Monica Bulak. "He always said you have to have a college degree to get a good job."
Though Bulak was a strict disciplinarian, he was generous with his boys. He'd bought snowmobiles and a used Ford Torino for both of them and had built a skateboard ramp for Michael, a freshman at nearby Mohawk Valley Community College. Friends say Michael and his father were particularly close and shared many interests, including hunting. Three years ago Bulak taught Michael how to hunt rabbits with hounds. Two years ago Michael killed his first doe—at nearly the same spot where he would later die. "I think Dad was prouder than Mike was," says Monica Bulak. "He was just beaming."
Ironically, Bulak was known as a cautious hunter. His friend Clayton Miller, 51, owner of the Country Bumpkin store, who went hunting with father and son the day before the accident, recalls Gene reprimanding Michael sternly for moving from his designated spot without telling him. When hunting, it is crucial that everyone know each other's whereabouts. "He was a stickler," says his widow, who remembers how her husband insisted that the entire family take a hunting safety course, even though she and David rarely hunted. Says Bill Sullivan, 17, a close friend of Michael's: "My parents never let me go with anybody but them."
And yet Bulak did take some risks. He scoffed at the thought of wearing high visibility blaze-orange clothing and dressed both himself and Michael in green-and-black checkered jackets. "He always said he didn't want anybody else to see him," says Gene Monica, who wears a fluorescent orange cap and wonders whether if Michael had done the same it might have saved his life. "He'd say, 'If they don't see ya, they don't shoot at ya.' " Perhaps equally critical was the area in which the Bulaks chose to hunt. Instead of staying around Taberg to hunt bucks, they drove an hour south, where hunters are permitted to shoot does and any deer is fair game. "Down south, bullets are flying," says hunter Rick Bonville of nearby Camden, N.Y. "Everybody's too quick to fire."
Meanwhile the people of Taberg can only guess how Bulak could have mistaken his son for a deer. Many of Bulak's friends insist a deer must have run between Gene and his son and that Bulak fired and missed, killing Michael. Police theorize that Bulak, alerted by the creaking sound of Michael climbing over a rusty barbed wire fence about 150 feet away, may have then mistaken his son's black-and-white cap for the white tail flash of a swiftly running doe. Regardless, his widow harbors no bitterness and says she will go to work to send David to college, as Gene wanted. "Accidents happen," she says. "It shouldn't have happened, but what am I going to do? I'm doing what I have to."
Gene's friends believe that when he felt the pain and the unbearable guilt of his son's death, he knew what he had to do too. "I think he just didn't want Michael to go alone," says Gene Monica. "It's an awful goddamned thing to live with."
MARIA EFTIMIADES in Taberg
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