Seconds became a sentence
Aaron Hagen's quick decision to race another car results in a man dying and Hagen serving a 5-year sentence.
By MICHAEL KRUSE
Published March 12, 2006
Aaron Hagen doesn't look like the kind of guy who could kill.
"I don't get in trouble," he said.
He was sitting in a small, square concrete block room in the Hernando County Jail. He was wearing a red jumpsuit and tan sandals and his wedding band on his ring finger and metal cuffs around his ankles and wrists.
"I'm not the kind of person who does that kind of stuff," he said.
On Dec. 13, 2004, Hagen had just moved here from Long Island, N.Y., to start "a new life" with his family. He was 25 then and is 26 now. He was out Christmas shopping in his yellow Dodge Neon SRT-4 when he pulled onto the clogged commercial strip of U.S. 19. A blue Honda Civic showed up in his rear-view mirror, and it "came up real close," he said, "kind of riding me, pushing me a little bit."
He could have pulled back.
He could have pulled over.
He could have let the blue Civic go.
"But good people can do bad things," his lawyer, Jimmy Brown of Brooksville, said later, after the guilty plea, after the sentencing, after Hagen was fingerprinted and taken away.
"Especially when they do something without thinking," Brown said. "And we're all guilty of that. But most of the time we do stupid things it's good luck there are not severe consequences."
"Good luck and chance," he said.
On that sunny, dry day, the yellow Neon was at a red light next to the blue Civic. The driver of the Civic was later identified by authorities as Casey Christman, 24, of the Pasco County part of Spring Hill. He didn't know Hagen and Hagen didn't know him. Their windows were down. Hagen was the first to say something.
"I just asked, I said, I mean, it was a nice car, I told him, and I asked if he had done any work to it, and he said he had done exhaust and other work," Hagen said later in a deposition. "He asked me if I did anything and I told him it was stock. And that's really honestly the extent of the conversation." Thirty seconds. Maybe. Twenty words. Maybe.
"It was never any personal challenge or anything like that," he said.
But the light turned green.
And Aaron Hagen hit the gas.
"He's not a criminal," said his mother, Susan Hagen-Rizzo.
"He doesn't do drugs.
"He's always worked."
"He likes animals," said his stepdad, John Rizzo.
"He likes flowers."
"He's a nature person," said his brother, Josh Hagen, who just turned 18.
He is a computer geek and a car buff. He knows what's stock and what's not and how much horsepower is under which hood.
He was out that day on U.S. 19 shopping at Wal-Mart for his mom for Christmas. He bought her a garden statue of a boy and a girl sitting on a swing.
He was a smart kid with spotty grades in high school in Glen Cove, N.Y. He scored 1100 on the SAT, then did a few so-so semesters in college. He wanted to be a veterinarian. He worked in a pet store.
He took in a cockatiel with a crooked neck and named it Kramer. He has two parrots at the family's Spring Hill home and feels bad that he's in jail now because "they bond to you for life." He used to take bugs and lizards out of the house and set them free.
He cared for his grandmother after she had a stroke and took her on nature walks in her wheelchair before she died.
He and his wife got married a month and a day after the accident, "just so he knows that I'm here for him," said Danielle Hagen, who's 22, "and that I'm never leaving." They got their wedding rings at Sears. He wore a black tux and she wore a white gown and the ceremony took 10 minutes in the courthouse at noon on a Friday.
He has had subscriptions to Discover, Scientific American and Popular Mechanics.
He made the photo collages on the walls of the house in Spring Hill.
He is called loving and kind and polite by friends in letters kept in his court file in Brooksville.
He was caught going 76 in a 50 mph zone one time in New York. His license was suspended in July 2004 and reissued that November - a month before he pulled out onto U.S. 19.
He was picked on when he was a kid, he says, because he was short, stocky and shy. Classmates called him Pugsly Addams. In his first week in Florida, he says, someone drove by and said something about "the fag in the yellow neon with the New York plates."
"I don't like being pushed," he said.
* * *
The yellow Neon and the blue Civic sped down U.S. 19 at 70 mph in a 55 zone, zigzagging in and out of traffic for about 2 miles, according to interviews, depositions, court documents and reports from the medical examiner's office and the Florida Highway Patrol. One witness said the cars sounded like weed eaters on steroids.
They passed the signs that said "ROAD WORK - 1 MILE."
They passed the signs that said "SPEEDING FINES DOUBLED WHEN WORKERS PRESENT."
Just beyond those signs was Brian Kearns, 50, a road worker from Pinellas County. He was wearing a bright orange vest and standing next to a white flatbed truck that was there to help restripe the road.
Christman, in the blue Civic, started into the center lane, making Hagen jerk to the right, according to interviews and depositions. Hagen overcompensated, then skidded across three lanes and slammed Kearns into the side of the truck as he was reaching into a tool box.
The FHP says Hagen was going 76 at the time.
Brian Kearns weighed 238 pounds and had gray in his mustache and beard. He lived in an apartment in Largo with his elderly mother and died of what the medical examiner's office calls blunt-force trauma. Hagen's yellow Neon broke all the bones in his right leg and his pelvis, and the shards of his ribs cut his liver, lungs and heart.
Bayflite was called. Then called off.
The blue Civic was gone.
Brian Kearns was on his back and Hagen held his hand. "It looked like he was sleeping," Hagen said one afternoon in the Hernando jail. A pool of blood under Kearns' head, he said, was a bit bigger than the top of a coffee cup lid.
He cried in the back of the car when the trooper took him to jail.
He was sentenced on Jan. 17 to five years in prison and five years' probation for vehicular homicide. He could have gotten 15 years. His mother cried in the courtroom. So did his wife. He will be a witness for the state in Christman's case if it goes to trial and has been court-ordered to stay in the Hernando jail until then. Christman had a pretrial hearing scheduled for Friday.
"I wish I could take back what happened," Hagen said in court. "But I can't do that."
* * *
"Prison is the last place in the world I ever expected to be," he wrote to the family of the man that he killed. "It is a very rough place that I don't fit in with. The other day I had an officer come over to me and call me a killer. I pray that you do not think of me like that. . . . Constantly thinking about all the pain I have caused has taken its toll on my soul. I am constantly depressed and angry over what I have done. I only ask of you and God that one day whether it be tomorrow, a month from now, maybe even a year or more that you can find it in your heart to forgive me."
He has not heard back.
"I dream about the accident," he said earlier this month at the jail. "When I'm sleeping. I can feel it. I can still see the point where I lose control, my heart going crazy - I constantly, it's literally, it's almost every night. It keeps replaying in my head.
"I don't know if I'll ever truly forgive myself," said Aaron Hagen, animal lover, computer geek and car buff, Hernando County Case No. 0401922, Department of Corrections Inmate No. U25448.
Michael Kruse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352 848-1434.
[Last modified March 10, 2006, 12:12:14]
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