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Getting to know the man he killed

Published April 6, 2006

  Related story
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. (3/12/06)
SPRING HILL - The family's forgiveness didn't come for free. Aaron Hagen now knows the kind of man he killed.

Hagen is the 26-year-old from Hernando County who killed Pinellas County construction worker Brian Kearns while racing on U.S. 19 one afternoon in December 2004. He was charged with vehicular homicide and sentenced in January to five years in state prison and five years of probation.

Hagen, whose story we told last month, has a soft face and a shy voice and made a split-second decision that has had far-reaching consequences.

He had wanted to send a letter right away to the family of the man he killed. His lawyer said no. But after the sentencing he wrote one from jail.

He wanted them to know how sorry he was.

He hadn't received a response when our story went to press. But he eventually got what he wanted - and more.

"This might come out wrong," Hagen said in an interview at the jail, "but before you know the person, you're hoping that they're not, like, this great person."

He needed to hear what he heard.

* * *

"I am grateful that you realize how your actions have devastated 2 families - ours and yours," Kearns' younger sister wrote from her home in New York's Westchester County. "It has been a source of solace to my sister and I that you have been remorseful since this happened. The sheriff told us how devastated you were. It may surprise you but I bear no anger or hatred towards you because it seems like you are a decent person who made a stupid decision that hurt many people. I am sure that if you could change the past you would."

Hagen knew only a few things about Kearns before he got the letter:

He was 50.

He lived in Largo.

Hagen knew what he looked like, too, because after the accident he ran over to him and held his hand and saw that he was a man with a big build and some gray in his brown beard and mustache. Kearns was still and on his back, and there was a small pool of blood under his head. "It looked like he was sleeping," Hagen said.

The letter told him more.

That Kearns' father had died a month before the accident.

That his mother died in January.

That he had lived with her and taken care of her before he was killed.

"My brother was a loving, kind man, a confirmed bachelor," the sister wrote. "He took care of our elderly parents because both my sister and I live in New York. He wasn't a rich man, he barely made ends meet, but he was a friend to all and believed in 'second chances' and granting someone the benefit of the doubt. His memorial service was standing room only. He was rich in friends who saw the beauty of his soul.

"I miss my brother," she wrote.

* * *

Hagen sat in his cell, he said, and read the two-page letter from Kearns' sister, then read it again, and again.

"It made me feel so guilty," he said.

But he wrote back.

"It helps to ease my soul knowing that you do not hate me," he said in his return letter.

He asked to hear more about the man who is dead because of him.

"It hurts me," he said in an interview.

But this, too, he said, is part of his punishment, maybe more than the walls and the time.

Michael Kruse can be reached at or (352) 848-1434.

[Last modified April 6, 2006, 15:16:16]

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