The letter showed up at the sheriff's office around Christmastime, unsigned, its shaky words scrawled on lined paper.
"I am so sorry for the hurt and pain that I caused on that day can u please tell the family I am so sorry."
The note, it seemed, was a confession from whoever shot hunter Larry Bradley in the back on Dec. 2. Bradley, 45, died in a tree stand in rural Gallia County after a bullet from an unknown gun ripped through his torso.
The writer seemed to ache with remorse, practically begging for a nudge to do the right thing.
Gallia County Sheriff Joe Browning didn't know whether any of it was genuine. He still doesn't. For a time, he wasn't sure what to do with those words.
"The struggle there is, do you release it, (or) do you not release it?" Browning said yesterday. "Obviously, one option is to sit on it until you hear something else."
Bradley was a war veteran and a father, a guy with round cheeks and a smile so infectious that Denise Bradley, a divorced mother of two girls, couldn't help but be drawn to him.
They married in 2003, and Denise gave birth to their daughter 10 days before he shipped off to Iraq. He returned to Bidwell, 100 miles southeast of Columbus, when Riley was nearly a year old. Denise was soon pregnant again. Colton was born at the end of the following summer.
The kids are 8 and 7 now. They talk about the dad who went to heaven.
"Riley said she was glad Daddy got to spend Christmas with Jesus this year," Denise said.
He died on the first day of deer gun-hunting season, 18 feet from the ground in Morgan Township. He called Denise just before 8:30 a.m., just after he'd been shot. She was in bed with the kids. He told her to get help.
"I said, 'What's wrong?'
He said, 'You just have to help me.'??"
She heard him choking, gasping. A heart attack, she thought.
"He didn't tell (his wife) the extent of his injuries," Browning said. "The impression we had was he was trying not to upset her."
Authorities soon realized that Bradley had been shot, and not by his own gun. Browning wouldn't say what type of gun they believe killed Bradley, but the bullet or shotgun slug entered his back, just below the rib cage, and passed through his body. He died in minutes.
The single-page letter arrived with the rest of the sheriff's mail a few weeks later: I am so sorry.
Browning said he decided to release part of the confession, convinced that whoever wrote it is hurting and wants to talk about it. "I think it's probably something that is really bothering the shooter, and it's not something that they are dealing with easily," he said.
It hangs heavily on Denise, too. She said she needs a confession. She needs to know what happened. She needs to be able to forgive whoever shot her husband.
"I know accidents can happen, but when they're this big, you take responsibility for it," she said. "A letter doesn't cut it."
After Bradley died, she said, Colton asked to join her when she took clothes down to the funeral home. He wanted to see his dad. The 7-year-old insisted, even after the funeral director warned him that his father wouldn't look the same.
They stared at him, the man they loved, his body marred by autopsy stitches. Colton was too afraid to kiss him, so Diane did it for him.
"Mommy," he asked, "who invented hunting?"
"I don't know, baby," she said.
Copyright 2014 - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio
McClatchy-Tribune News Service