updated 10/1/2009 6:11:21 PM ET 2009-10-01T22:11:21

A cousin of Texas Gov. Rick Perry was shot and killed over the weekend in his backyard during an exchange of gunfire with sheriff's deputies, officials said Thursday.

Perry said Thursday that the death was tragic but stressed he hardly knew his cousin, 74-year-old Larry Don Wheeler, even though he was listed as a member of Perry's 2006 re-election steering committee.

"I'm not sure I would pick him out of a lineup," the governor said of Wheeler, who he said was a distant cousin on his grandmother's side.

Wheeler was sitting on his backyard deck after dinner Saturday night at his home at a Montague County country club when two sheriff's deputies showed up in response to a disturbance call, said David Gossom, an attorney for the family.

"We received a call ... of a man with a shotgun," Montague County Sheriff Paul Cunningham said. "Several citizens in the area were concerned."

Wheeler's backyard is near a golf course. Montague County is about 90 miles northwest of Fort Worth.

What happened next is unclear and under investigation. After an exchange of gunfire, Wheeler was dead and a deputy was shot in the hand. Gossom said bullet holes riddled the back seat cushion of the chair where Wheeler was sitting and the floor of his deck.

An autopsy is pending, said Montague County District Attorney Jack McGaughey. The Texas Rangers are investigating at Cunningham's request, as is McGaughey.

'Boom and he was shot'
Wheeler's wife, Jo Wheeler, was just inside the door and did not know the deputies were present, Gossom said.

"She'd been sitting out there with him for a while and had gone in the house," Gossom said. "All she knows is she'd been talking to her husband, they had dinner, he'd gone outside to sit for a while, and the next thing she hears is boom boom boom and he was shot."

Wheeler, a retired social worker, also is survived by two grown children and two stepchildren, Gossom said.

The two deputies involved are back on duty. Deputy Curtis Hamlin returned to light duty Thursday, but still needs surgery to have shotgun pellets removed from his hand, Cunningham said. Chief Deputy J.T. Mitchell came back Wednesday after a mandatory 72-hour administrative leave.

"You always want to give police officers the benefit of the doubt because they're doing a hard job," Gossom said. "But I'm having a difficult time — after having been out to the scene and talked to a few witnesses — to figure out why in the world this should have happened."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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