GARDINER – Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty suffered only a bruise Thursday when a bullet fired from a deputy’s gun ricocheted and hit him in the back.

Liberty said the deputy’s pistol went off by accident at a firing range and he was wearing body armor that “did its job.”

“It didn’t penetrate fabric; it stopped on impact,” Liberty said from his home Friday, his scheduled day off.

Sheriff’s Deputy Joseph Morelli, a court security officer who has worked for the department for 15 years, said Friday that he was embarrassed by the incident and didn’t realize that his gun fired as he helped another deputy with shooting technique.

“It was totally an accident,” Morelli said. “It was poor judgment on my part. I wanted to show her proper hand and finger position. The two of us looked at each other, and I didn’t realize the weapon had discharged.”

At the shooting range Friday afternoon, Sgt. Chris Cowan held out the smashed .45-caliber, 230-grain lead slug that had hit the sheriff. He said a bullet from a .45-caliber pistol can go more than 800 feet per second.

“The sheriff was in the kneeling position during qualifications when he was struck in the center of the back,” Cowan said. “We’re extremely lucky all the shooting officers had protective vests.”

He showed where the bullet had pierced two walls of a white-painted wooden shed and ricocheted off the dirt ground before hitting the sheriff.

Cowan said it’s the first accident the department has had on a range. “We’ve fired millions of rounds,” he said.

Liberty said he was wearing “Point Blank” body armor, and the manufacturer told the department on Friday that the incident was classified as a “save.”

Liberty said he ordered a cease-fire as soon as he was hit.

“It felt like a sledgehammer hit me,” he said.

He went to the office’s health care provider, where he underwent a few tests. He was left with a welt and minor bruising, and expects to recover fully.

The incident occurred at a shooting range in Gardiner where sheriff’s deputies were conducting semiannual firearms qualifications.

Three certified instructors were at the range when the accident occurred, Cowan said.

Liberty said Sgt. Michael Pion of the sheriff’s office is investigating the incident. The sheriff said there was no criminal investigation and the inquiry should be completed by next week. Morelli was at work Friday.

“There’s no reason for him to be on administrative leave,” Liberty said.

Liberty, a retired Army command sergeant major, who served in Iraq, said, “I made it out of Fallujah and I get shot in Gardiner.”

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Betty Adams can be contacted at 621-5631 or at:

badams@centralmaine.com