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The condition of a 24-year-old Billings man who shot himself while in the custody of a federal agent improved Friday.

Nathan Thomas Kelley was being treated at St. Vincent Healthcare, where his condition was upgraded from critical to serious, hospital spokeswoman Jeanelle Slade said.

Federal authorities, meanwhile, continued their investigation into the Wednesday night shooting.

The FBI and the Bureau of Land Management are investigating how Kelley was able to get hold of a loaded semiautomatic handgun while he was handcuffed in the back seat of a BLM law enforcement vehicle. Kelley shot himself in the head.

Greg Albright, a BLM spokesman, said Friday that the federal officer involved in the incident, whose name has not been released, has been put on administrative leave. The agency has not released the name of the officer. Putting an officer on leave is standard procedure in such cases, he said. BLM officials from Washington, D.C., will investigate the shooting, Albright said.

Ernie Weyand, the FBI agent in charge in Billings, confirmed Friday that the FBI is also conducting an investigation into the incident. Bob Wright, an FBI spokesman in Salt Lake City, said Friday that the agency was assisting the BLM, which he said is the lead agency in the case.

The incident happened at about 9 p.m. at a shooting area on BLM land known as 17-Mile, located north of Billings off Highway 87 at Crooked Creek Road. According to Albright, the BLM officer was patrolling the area when he saw two men drinking as they got in a vehicle to leave.

The officer stopped the men, then detained Kelley and his younger brother, Dalin Kelley, after determining both men were on probation. State probation officers and a Yellowstone County sheriff's deputy arrived at the scene before the shooting.

Pam Bunke, the regional administrator for the probation and parole office in Billings, said Friday that four probation officers were on the scene. Nathan Kelley was taken into custody because he is on felony probation, she said, and Dalin Kelley is on misdemeanor probation.

Albright said that Nathan Kelley was handcuffed and put in the back seat of the BLM law enforcement vehicle. Confiscated firearms from the two men were also placed in the back seat, which is divided by a metal screen.

As the BLM officer and probation officers were discussing what to do with the men's vehicle, Kelley somehow reached under the screen, got a semiautomatic handgun and shot himself, Albright said.

Kelley was flown by helicopter to the hospital, where he was being treated in the intensive care unit.

According to court records, Nathan Kelley was given a five-year suspended prison sentence in 2004 for felony criminal mischief. He also has a previous felony conviction for criminal mischief in 2000 and a subsequent probation violation.

Dalin Kelley was booked in the Yellowstone County jail at about 10:20 p.m. Wednesday and was released at 1 p.m. the next day, jail records show.

Contact Greg Tuttle at gtuttle@billingsgazette.com or 657-1320.

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