Christopher Bergan hopped a flight from Norway to Florida this week with intentions of surprising his father-in-law on his birthday.
But the 37-year-old’s surprise reveal was so dramatic — and unexpected — it quickly turned lethal.
Instead of celebrating, Bergan was accidentally shot in the heart by his wife’s father, Richard Dennis, who mistook him for a trespasser in the backyard of his Gulf Breeze home, police said.
But authorities announced on Wednesday they won’t seek criminal charges against Dennis.
“Our investigation has revealed that this was totally accidental,” Santa Rosa County Sheriff Bob Johnson told reporters during a press conference. “It was a really sad occurrence and no charges are warranted in this case.”
After Bergan’s plane touched down in Florida at around 11 p.m., he was reportedly picked up by a friend and driven to his father-in-law’s home, where he knocked on Dennis’ door and supposedly leapt in the bushes to hide. The 61-year-old, who came to his back entranceway gun-in-hand, was startled when Bergan popped out of the shadows making animalistic noises, police said. He let off one round from a .380 semi-automatic handgun, which instantly killed Bergan.
“[Dennis] was totally startled,” Johnson explained. “He jumped out of the bushes and actually made a growling sound. Mr. Dennis got off one shot and it was a shot that went straight to his heart.”
The family immediately called 911 upon realizing the mistake and tried to stop the bleeding with towels.
"I shot my son," Dennis told responding authorities, according to a police incident report obtained by Oxygen.com.
But by the time law enforcement arrived, Bergan was dead. Authorities quickly ruled the shooting was simply a case of mistaken identity.
“Everything is consistent, we determined that there should be no charges filed, that [it] was simply a tragic accident,” echoed state prosecutor Amber Rowland during this week’s press briefing.
Hours earlier, authorities said Dennis had gotten into a “verbal altercation” with a different relative, who coincidentally had also noisily knocked on the front door of his home around 9:30 p.m. Police suggested that when Bergan had abruptly appeared, the previous confrontation was fresh in his mind.
The Santa Rosa County sheriff called the shooting a “horrible accident.”
“I’m not going to second guess Mr. Dennis for doing what he did,” Johnson also said. “Here he is — he just had a confrontation at the front of his house. A couple hours later, somebody’s banging on his back door — and it’s a fenced yard — and then somebody jumps out of the bushes. You can’t really say anything against Mr. Dennis for doing what he did.”
Police said Bergan was a Norwegian citizen who had once lived in Florida and returned to his home country with Dennis’ daughter.
“Anybody whose religious out there, you need to pray for this family because this is — I can’t imagine what they’re going through,” Johnson said. “I really can’t. This is horrible.”
The family, authorities, said is devastated.
“It’s an extremely tragic event,” Sgt. Rich Aloy, a media spokesperson for the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office told Oxygen.com. “It’s not every day that you see a family member shoot another family member. This is something that they’re going to live with for the rest of their lives.”
Residents of Gulf Breeze, a town of roughly 6,000 people, about 200 miles west of Tallahassee, were equally stunned to learn the news.
“It has been very hard,” Patty Munzell, who knows the family, told Oxygen.com.
Munzell said her next door neighbor is the brother of Bergan’s father-in-law. She said the Florida homeowner has lived in Gulf Breeze for most of his life.
“It was a shock to all,” Munzell added. “[Dennis] is a kind person. He has lost a best friend. I think that it will take a long time for the family to heal, if ever. We are all very sad for all involved.”
“It’s pretty sad,” Ellen Harrison, another Gulf Breeze resident, also told Oxygen.com. “We just sat here and cried,” she added.
But Harrison, 65, who said she lives about three miles from where the fatal shooting occurred, explained that sneaking up on southern homeowners at their own property in the middle of the night — no matter if it’s friends or family — is a dangerous gamble.
“In Norway they don’t have guns, they’re not armed, the culture there is such that he felt that he could do that and it would be a great surprise,” she speculated.
For Harrison, particularly, Bergan’s shooting struck a nerve — she knows how quickly an innocuous surprise can potentially turn into a tragedy.
Harrison said her father nearly shot her sister Gloria in the same manner at their rural Tennessee farm decades ago. Harrison’s sister, a university student, had unexpectedly returned home in the middle of the night to surprise the family over Thanksgiving weekend in 1966. As she crept through the shadows of their home, Harrison said her sister was intercepted by their father, who pressed a .38 calibre pistol to Gloria’s belly.
“My dad actually had the gun in her stomach and she said, ‘Daddy!’” she described. “And my dad had to be sat down in a chair, he almost fainted because he was that close to shooting his daughter.”
Roughly 500 people are unintentionally killed by guns each year in America, according to Giffords Law Center.
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