For most people, the Fourth of July holiday brings to mind feelings of celebration and freedom. Up until the early morning hours of July 4, 2017, the same held true for Maceo native Austin Bean.
Austin and his cousin Jared Bean grew up just one house away from each other in Maceo. With each lacking a biological brother, the two quickly filled that void for each other. From playing football to racing Motorcross, then eventually having a tobacco farm together, Austin and Jared were the proverbial two peas in a pod — and best friends in life.
Six months after Austin joined the United States Marine Corps, Jared joined the Marine Corps Reserves.
“We were both going to be firefighters was the plan,” Austin said. “We were both wanting to be paid crew firefighters. Jared was going to school for firefighting and in 2018 we were going to get our EMT certs together.”
Because the two were inseparable, they often spent time at each other’s homes, especially during holidays and cookouts. So when Austin came home from work on July 3, 2017, the two smoked wings, hung out with friends and had a few drinks. Shortly after 11 p.m. that night, the cousins decided to ride over the railroad tracks to Jared’s house in Austin’s RZR side by side.
“The railroad tracks — we’d jumped them our whole life, on bicycles, on anything — so we’d done it thousands of times,” Austin said. “We jumped them coming back across and he recorded it on his phone. It was dark, so you couldn’t see, so we were going to go back and do it again. We turned around at my road, and we went back and whenever we jumped them [the tracks] that time was when we got hit.”
Around 11:30 p.m., a car was traveling down HWY 2830 that collided with Austin’s RZR with the two cousins inside. Austin was thrown from the vehicle and woke up after several minutes to find the driver surveying the front of his car for damage.
Assuming since he was up walking around, Jared must be OK also, Austin approached the man and his car to make sure he was not injured. After a few moments, Austin returned to the RZR to find Jared still inside. He said, at that point, other cars began to stop, someone assisted him in pulling Jared out of the vehicle while he screamed for someone to call 911 before starting CPR.
Jared was immediately transported to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead from his injuries. Austin, who was “thrown from his boots” during the accident, also went to the hospital for injuries sustained to his head and back, after a sobriety test was performed.
More than a week following the accident, and after serving as a pallbearer at Jared’s funeral services, Austin was charged with manslaughter in the second degree, operating a motor vehicle under the influence (with a blood alcohol level of 0.164, twice the legal limit) and operating an ATV on the roadway.
Austin’s initial court hearing was August 2017, and the final sentencing did not occur until October 2018, over a year later.
Austin said the driver of the car was uninjured and did not want to be a part of the court proceedings. Jared’s parents, who “love Austin like he’s their son as well,” did not want any charges filed, but the State chose to press charges.
What was initially a seven-year prison sentence was reduced to five with the hope that Judge Joseph Castlen would probate the sentencing.
“We went for sentencing the first time and he asked if I had anything to say,” Austin said. “And that’s when I told him that I wanted to use this to speak at schools and to people that have thought of suicide because I went through that stage as well. I wanted to use my story to help others.”
Judge Castlen said he initially had no intentions of probating Austin and was going to look at shock probation a little closer. Shock probation involves combining a brief stay (several months) in prison or jail, with probation afterward.
“I walked in there and I was not going to probate him,” Castlen said. “Until he came up about speaking to others. When he brought that topic up, it hit me pretty hard. I knew immediately it would be far better for the community for him to open that discussion with others than for him to go to prison.”
Austin was given one month to get local high schools on board with his plan and present proof to the court before his second sentencing hearing. After presenting multiple letters from counselors, medical professionals and school officials supporting his intentions, Austin was given four years of probation, with the understanding that, if he violated those conditions, he would still have five years of prison to serve.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the courtroom,” said Austin’s mother Jill Humphrey. “Even the bailiff cried. That whole situation was just very emotional because nobody wanted to see Austin going to jail.”
One of the letters Austin presented to the court was from his previous Daviess County High School principal Matt Mason.
“Austin has been through a terrifying life experience that he will never forget and will have to live with for the rest of his life,” Mason said in the letter. “I am hoping from his experience, he can change the lives of our students and make an impact on their decisions.”
The DCHS FFA (Future Farmers of America) was the first audience that Austin spoke to on March 25, 2019, and he said his words made quite an impact.
“I tell them the whole story of that day, our past, how close we were, myself and Jared, then I tell them about the accident,” Austin said. “I don’t leave any details out, as far as everything that happened leading up to it and how it’s affected me, my life and my family’s life and the legal aspects that I have to deal with now.”
He said he needed the students to understand that their life could change in an instant, that “all these plans that they have, getting ready to graduate high school, they can all be taken away and everything that they worked for is gone.”
“I told them, ‘A lot of you are probably sitting next to your best friend right now — and you all go out tonight, if you make a bad decision, they won’t be there. Time is the most important thing we’ve got and I don’t have that time with my best friend anymore because of a decision we made. I only got 23, almost 24 years with him, but we could have had so much more. But we made a poor decision that cost us all that. And that’s the biggest thing I lost was the time that we could have had together — that now I have alone,’” Austin said.
Austin’s most recent speaking engagement was to 140 seniors at Hancock County High School. He has several other speaking engagements scheduled and plans to return to DCHS to speak to the juniors and seniors about intelligent decision-making at prom time.
“It wasn’t the drinking’s fault, it wasn’t the RZR’s fault — it was our decision-making and that’s what needs to change,” Austin said. “That’s what caused the accident was the decision we made.”
Initially diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression shortly after the accident, Austin will also be working with the Warrior 180 Foundation.
“We have already begun to help schedule events for Austin to share his powerful message to several groups in Owensboro,” said Warrior 180 Founder Jeff Hastings. “He will have the opportunity to assist those who are struggling with PTSD, depression, grief, choices, risk management, crisis intervention, alcoholism, drug abuse and thoughts of suicide.”
While he does hope to travel more as a public speaker and reach as many people as he can, as well as continue as a volunteer firefighter with the Yelvington Fire Department, in December 2017, Austin began the steps to start his own business. Now that his future is no longer waiting on the results of sentencing, he is able to move forward with those plans.
Drawing from his father’s talents in custom detailing, Austin is building his own shop for his Maceo-based business, Southern Class Customs and Detailing, where he can provide detailing and window tinting services.
Austin, who now checks in monthly with his probation officer, and lost both his driver’s license and his CDL for the length of his probation, said he has not had a drink since the night of the accident and plans to make his decisions each day based on honoring the life and memory of Jared.
“Anytime somebody sees me, I know that they’re going to think of that accident and think of Jared and I want that to be a good thing,” Austin said. “We made that poor decision, I can’t change that, but what I can change is the future of my life and how people live theirs and how they view me as far as going through something like that. If I can be successful, it leaves a good lasting impression of Jared — so I want to be successful for him as much as for myself.”