At the bottom of a cul de sac in Warrenton, 190 miles east of Kansas City, stands a modest, pale-yellow house where Jennifer and David Beaird have lived the last 10 years. Jennifer’s mother Kathy Gordon lives with them.
Until last Labor Day, Sept. 5, the house was also home to the Beairds’ two children, 13-year-old Gavin and 7-year-old Chloe.
…Labor Day, 2016. A day the Beairds will never forget. Their personal day of infamy.
About 6 p.m., a 61-year-old drunk and distracted driver – a three-time-DUI loser whose license had been suspended — slammed into the back of the Beairds’ Hyundai Elantra in his Cadillac Escalade as the Beairds were stuck in traffic on eastbound I-70 in Blue Springs, just west of Adams Dairy Parkway.
It was a horrendous crash. James Leroy Green of Odessa had his big SUV on cruise control and wasn’t looking at the road. Instead, he was, by his own admission, looking down at his phone, thumbing through song titles.
The Beairds (pronounced Beard) were headed back to Warrenton after a trip to Nebraska. They were in the left lane. So was Green. As the SUV hurtled toward the Hyundai, Jennifer, seated in the front passenger seat, looked at the side mirror and saw the SUV bearing down.
“Dave,” Jennifer said, “I don’t think this guy’s going to stop.”
David glanced up into the rearview mirror. All he remembers is seeing “a grey blob.”
After the shattered glass had settled and metal and plastic from a total of five vehicles had exploded and come to rest…and after help had arrived, Gavin and Chloe, who had been in the back seat, were dead. David was paralyzed from the chest down. He wasn’t aware of that in those awful, hazy minutes, but he knew this much, “I’m in trouble.”
Other than a severely bruised right arm, Jennifer was uninjured.
“I was very aware of what was going on around me,” she said quietly. “And I just sat there.”
David and Jennifer Beaird
On Saturday, Jan. 28, nearly five months after the event that grotesquely changed their lives, David, Jennifer and Jennifer’s mother Kathy sat around the kitchen table in that pale-yellow house and talked to me for more than two hours. They talked, courageously and openly, about what they had been through; about what they are going through; about coping with an almost unimaginable tragedy; and about feeling their way into a dark and formless future.
Understandably, it is not the least bit salving to them that Green, who is tentatively scheduled to go to trial in June, has been in the Jackson County Detention Center on $200,000 bond since the crash. And it does not ease the pain that he is facing six felony charges, including two counts of vehicular, intoxicated second-degree murder. And it does not give them much satisfaction that he may well spend his remaining years in jail.
“It doesn’t ever bring the kids back, and that’s all that matters to me,” Jennifer said.
Meeting and becoming a couple
David, 40, and Jennifer, who will turn 38 this month, met at Missouri State University in Springfield, MO. He was raised in Sikeston, in Missouri’s Bootheel. She had been living with her mother and four younger brothers in upstate New York and was preparing to follow a boyfriend to Missouri State. But they broke up, and instead of cancelling her plans, she headed west anyway, ready for a new adventure.
“Mom and my brothers came out here and dropped me off,” Jennifer said with a smile. “I’ve never been afraid of life. I just grab the bull by the horns and go and do.”
Jennifer was living in a dorm, David in an apartment, and each had a roommate. Their respective roommates were dating – which led to Jennifer and David meeting.
Never keen on academics, Jennifer dropped out of Missouri State and worked at a variety of jobs. David persevered with his education and, in 2000, got a degree in fisheries and wildlife management. His first post-college job was with the Missouri Conservation Department’s wildlife division in St. Charles County, just west of St. Louis.
David and Jennifer married in April 2001. On March 1, 2003, Gavin was born.
A few years later, they were doing well enough to build a home in the Warrenton subdivision — new at the time — where they have lived ever since. It’s a modest, two-story home, with a relatively big kitchen that flows into a family room with a large window and lots of natural light.
When Chloe was born, on Feb. 9, 2009, Jennifer had a good job, working in accounting and human resources for a Holiday Inn in Wentzville, 16 miles east of Warrenton. She lost that job because of the Great Recession, however, and was without work for a while before an opportunity presented itself in Warrenton.
To many people, waiting tables at Denny’s wouldn’t look like much of an opportunity, but it was a godsend to Jennifer. “I was so grateful for that job,” she said, “because we were struggling.”
Six years ago, David got a job with a contracting company affiliated with Ameren, the St. Louis-based electrical and natural gas company. It was another outdoor job – the kind he loves – that involved scouting and patrolling power lines in three St. Louis area counties — St. Louis, St. Charles and Franklin.
With time, Jennifer found better-paying work. Five years ago, she went to work as a tax preparer in the H&R Block office in Warrenton, and three years ago she was promoted to leader of the office’s eight-member team. She also handles the payroll for a hotel-refurbishing company one of her brothers has in New York City.
Quality of life improves
By 2016, life was no longer a huge struggle. The family wasn’t living from paycheck to paycheck. Gavin was changing from boy to young man, and Chloe was in elementary school. The family loved to do things together – from camping, hiking, walking and picking fruit and berries at a nearby orchard to going to Walt Disney World in Orlando, which they did earlier last summer.
Life was good, and, as David said, “So many things were going right.”
On Labor Day, everything instantly turned wrong on I-70 in eastern Jackson County.
Now, David and Jennifer are dealing with the tragedy in sharply contrasting ways.
Stuck in a wheelchair, David is prone to ruminating. He has replayed the fateful moments in his mind countless times, wondering why he and his family had to be in that particular place at that particular time. He asks himself why he was in the left lane that evening, when he almost always drives in the right lane. Or why he didn’t have ice cream, like the other family members did, at a convenience-store stop about an hour earlier. Maybe that would have delayed their departure a couple of minutes, long enough to put them out of harm’s way near the Adams Dairy Parkway exit.
For a long time he was in the deepest hole he had ever been in and saw no way out. Although he never contemplated suicide, he would ask himself, “How can I speed this life up…and get this over with?”
Over time, he stopped second-guessing himself so much and gradually began to see some progress, albeit progress registered in millimeters.
“I want to say I’m doing a little better,” he said in a phone conversation a few days before the Warrenton meeting. “I think every day it’s easier to get up. I’m kind of getting used to my new body – not that I want to…I’ve found that trying to stay active helps a lot.”
He’s not back to driving, doesn’t know if he will work again and, really, has no idea what the future holds.
Unlike David, Jennifer has resisted, for the most part, replaying the awful loop in her mind. She tries to be as positive as possible. She likes to say positivism is just as infectious as negativity. She also has the advantage of being able to get out and move around and keep working, which serves as a blessed distraction.
She’s still leading the H&R Block office and still doing her brother’s payroll. Not that staying busy can replace the void left by the loss of the children or block out the pain of seeing her husband struggling to adjust to his more limited mobility.
She looked tired the day we talked. Her expressive, hazel eyes projected gentleness and softness, but little life. She had been awake for a time during the night, thinking about the children. Long working hours were taking an added toll. As the four of us talked, tears frequently filled Jennifer’s eyes, and at one point, while talking about her determination to try to remain positive, her words trailed off in a cracking voice:
“I’m just continuing on with life and trying to look forward and go on…because it really hurts…so bad.”
The last two words were barely audible.
A moment later, however, she was trying to will herself back up, saying: “I don’t like to be sad; I don’t like to be hurt; I don’t want to live in that sadness. It’s exhausting.”
Tomorrow: Jennifer and David plan for a future away from Missouri
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