Something about the case struck a nerve in Douglas County Sheriff’s Detective Jay Armbrister, a 14-year veteran law enforcement officer, as he arrived on the scene of a drunken driving fatality accident on Nov. 23, 2010.
In one of the cars, four friends had been traveling back to Lincoln, Neb., about 3:30 a.m. after seeing a Lawrence concert.
They’d made the right choices that night, with a designated driver behind the wheel of the Mazda 626.
As they drove north on U.S. Highway 24-59, a Toyota Tundra came speeding up behind them.
The driver of the truck, Zachary Harrison, a 22-year-old Air Force airman, had made some poor decisions.
“When it all happened, it was obvious to me it was a tragedy,” Armbrister said. “It all kind of struck home. ... We’ve all made poor decisions in the past.”
The family of the young man killed that day, the man responsible for his death, and Armbrister have spent the last two years trying to heal and prevent such accidents in the future.
The Cameron Effect
Paul and Shelley Freeman’s 21-year-old son, Cameron, was one of the passengers in the Mazda that morning.
After the accident, Paul said, his family made the decision to seek accountability, but not revenge.
Harrison, stationed in Arkansas but visiting his brother in Lawrence that night, was accused of stealing a newspaper carrier’s truck from Jayhawk Boulevard on the Kansas University campus early that morning and, while traveling at least 78 mph, eventually rammed into the back of the car Cameron was in, killing him and injuring three of his friends.
Harrison’s blood alcohol content after the accident was 0.183, more than twice the legal limit. He pleaded guilty to nine charges, including involuntary manslaughter, drunken driving and three counts of aggravated battery.
When deputies escorted Harrison, who was sentenced to six years in prison for the accident, out of the courtroom, Cameron’s mother, Shelley, told Harrison the family forgave him.
“She reached this unattainable level of compassion,” Armbrister said.
Instead of anger, the family focused their energy on compassion and healing, starting the Cameron Effect, a Web-based initiative that asks people to commit seven acts of kindness. Those who take part post updates to the site, cameroneffect.com.
In what Armbrister calls his “first act of kindness,” he put together a presentation, available on YouTube, about the accident and has traveled to Lincoln to speak to colleges and other schools.
Armbrister said the presentation is his way of sharing tragedies with the broader community in an attempt to prevent accidents.
“I get to learn these lessons,” said Armbrister of the frequent reminders of the dangers of drinking and driving he sees on the job. “But nobody else does.”
Armbrister has worked with the Freeman family to coordinate talks in their area and hopes to build on the project with local presentations.
“I don’t know why this particular crash affected him,” Paul Freeman said. “I’ve been so moved by what he’s done.”
The missing piece
As he was planning his presentation, Armbrister realized there was a missing piece: Harrison.
During his court appearances, Armbrister said he believed Harrison was remorseful and wanted to take responsibility for his actions.
“I’m truly sorry to everyone that I’ve hurt, including my family and the victims that were involved,” Harrison, now 24, said at sentencing.
One of the factors Armbrister points to is that Harrison had made some good decisions the evening before the accident, using a designated driver at some point. It still remains unclear how portions of the incident occurred. Harrison blacked out at some point during the evening, and that’s about the best explanation anyone’s received about the incident.
Armbrister wrote Harrison letters in prison after the sentencing. At first, Harrison didn’t respond.
But eventually, the two connected, and Armbrister traveled to the El Dorado Correctional Facility to see Harrison.
“He’s the kind of person you can invest in,” Armbrister said of getting to know Harrison.
They’ve struck up an unusual friendship, and Armbrister sees Harrison’s journey as part of the larger story to Cameron’s death.
Harrison could be released as early as October 2016. When he gets out, Armbrister and Harrison plan to give the presentation together.
“There’s only healing to be had,” Armbrister said.