Friday, February 23, 2018
Public safety

Ranch shootout leaves cowboy and his brother dead, one person injured

PLANT CITY — In a quiet pasture on peaceful Saturday afternoon, a simmering family dispute erupted in gunfire.

When the shooting was over, two brothers lay dead and a third person was wounded.

Hillsborough County deputies, who were called to the scene about 2 p.m., said the two brothers were Milton Varn, 62, and Perry Varn, 66. George Terrell Long, 71, took a shot to the shoulder, and 61-year-old Joanne Varn witnessed the shooting. She was not hurt.

A Sheriff's Office spokeswoman, Col. Donna Lusczynski, said all four "are related or have been related at one time or another." Their argument involved "a dispute over some property."

The shooting occurred in a thousand-acre pasture at the Rocking V Ranch at 5501 Varn Road, an address that deputies know well. They have been called to various residences scattered around the ranch several times in the past over similar disputes, Lusczynski said.

The brothers, Milton and Perry, were the sons of Plant City rancher Lamar "Ed" Varn, who died in 2012 at age 90. His obituary noted that he "loved his ranch . . . and worked very hard to maintain the cattle operation he inherited from his father."

A year later, the Varn family ran afoul of Hillsborough's Environmental Protection Commission for wanting to cut down and sell more than half of the ranch's cypress trees. They said they needed to sell the cypress trees to pay the taxes on the estate. But Hillsborough's rules say no more than half of a wetlands' cypress trees can be cut.

The father's estate remains listed in county property records as the owner of the ranch. Only two people are listed in corporate records as managers of the limited liability company that runs the ranch: Perry Varn and his mother, Martha.

Prior to Saturday's shootout, Milton Varn had been arrested once in Hillsborough, a 2009 domestic violence charge that was later dropped. On the arrest report, he listed "Self-employed cowboy" under employment. Perry had never been arrested.

The ranch's Facebook page says it now offers "outdoor weddings, company picnics, horse boarding, trail riding and much more." A man who answered the phone there late Saturday said no one wanted to talk about what sparked the shooting.

Detectives were still piecing the story together, but Lusczynski said the confrontation took place during "a meeting among some of the families" who live on the ranch.

"They were out in the pasture and their vehicles were out there," Lusczynski told reporters in a news conference Saturday.

Then one of the brothers showed up and "the dispute occurred," she said. Then the shooting started, she said.

"We do know there were numerous firearms involved," she said.

The wounded person was taken to Tampa General Hospital and is now in stable condition, Lusczynski said. She said the investigation is continuing as detectives seek to determine who shot whom and why.

Senior news researcher John Martin and photographer Luis Santana contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.

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