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Attackers beat man, try to gun him down

A man who stumbled across a forest bonfire winds up being thrashed with ax handles and fired on with rifles.

A 36-year-old man who was beaten and left for dead, then spotlighted and shot at like a poached deer, somehow survived an attempt by two men to kill him on Christmas Eve, deputies said.

Lake County sheriff's investigators are searching for the men suspected of attacking Harvey B. Balkom of DeLand.

Balkom told investigators he went into the Ocala National Forest at 11 p.m. Saturday to look for his missing hunting dogs. At 12:30 a.m., he came across a bonfire party near a dirt path.

He stopped to ask whether they had seen his dogs, and then stayed at the party for an hour and a half. Everything was fine, he told deputies, until he told a 17-year-old girl she needed to quit drinking and go home before she got "in trouble."

At that point, a man nicknamed "Wild Bill" got angry and told him to leave, Balkom told authorities. When Balkom tried to leave, "Wild Bill" and another man chased his pickup with their truck, ramming the rear repeatedly until their truck's front bumper got caught on Balkom's trailer hitch.

The men got out of their pickup, took Balkom's keys and beat him with ax handles. Balkom told deputies he pretended to be unconscious.

"Let's go. I think he's dead," one of the men said.

After they left, Balkom tried unsuccessfully to start his truck. Then he walked to a nearby road to flag down a passing vehicle. But the first vehicle to come by was a black Dodge pickup truck driven by "Wild Bill" with the second assailant, deputies said.

Balkom told deputies he hid in the brush and watched as the men searched his truck. They became angry when they realized he was no longer inside. They smashed the glass and ripped wires off the engine, he said.

When Balkom inched forward to read the tag number on the Dodge pickup, the men heard him and began shining a spotlight into the underbrush. Then they opened fire with rifles, Balkom said.

"Come on out so we can kill you!" they shouted, according to deputies.

Sheriff's investigator Linda Green said Balkom "hid under palmetto branches all night, and it was cold that night." Green said Balkom suffered, bumps, bruises and scratches.

A warrant has been issued for the arrest of William F. "Wild Bill" Roberts, 39, who lives in the Paisley area of northeast Lake County. He is being sought on charges of attempted murder, burglary of and committing battery in a vehicle, aggravated assault, felony criminal mischief and petty theft.

_ Times staff writer Robin Mitchell contributed to this report.