(Eric and Cameron) were the best of friends and Eric was always watching out for Cameron and always wanted the best for him. It's just a tragic accident. —Trevor Charlton
SALT LAKE CITY — On that night, before it became the dreadful night that haunts Eric Charlton's dreams and most of his waking minutes, he was trying to dissuade his younger brother from becoming an infantryman in the Marine Corps.
"I just really wanted him to be safe," Charlton said. "That was the whole thing. I cared for the kid so much, I just wanted him to be safe."
Eric Charlton could never have imagined that his baby brother Cameron — who idolized him and wanted to be a Marine because his big brother was — would die that night and that it would be his fault. After all, he wanted nothing more than to protect his brother.
"Everyone says that you will forgive yourself in time. I don't think that I ever will," an emotional Charlton said. "It's one of those deep cuts, a scar, you know, that I'll never lose. I'll always have that going forward for the rest of my life."
But first there is a 90-day sentence in the Juab County Jail, years of probation, and then an effort to rebuild a future that changed on May 28, 2012.
He and Cameron, 17, owned a boat and had taken it on a camping trip to Yuba Lake for Memorial Day weekend. That night the brothers and one of Cameron's childhood friends sat around the campfire. Both the teenagers were interested in the Marines, but Charlton said he was telling them to avoid the infantry and go into something that would teach them a skill, like mechanics.
Earlier in the evening, the group had been "spooked out" by talk of ghosts and poltergeists and Charlton had retrieved a Springfield 1911 from his truck. Later, when the talk turned to the military, Eric Charlton took the weapon out to demonstrate some shooting techniques.
"I dropped the magazine out of the gun and handed it off and emptied the chamber and we all three looked inside it and we knew it was clear," Charlton recalled. "(I) then dry-fired it into a dirt hill, dry-fired it in there a couple of times. … I was trying to be safe."
After showing the gun to the teenagers and showing them the techniques, he said he replaced the gun's magazine and put the weapon into its holster. While he made a lot of mistakes that night, including handling a firearm after drinking, he said the holster was a major one.
"It wasn't a holster made for it, it was made for more of a Glock-type gun," Charlton said. "We were just shooting the breeze and that's when we started talking about the Marine Corps and what they wanted to do and love and trust and how much I loved them and how I didn't want them to go into the infantry …"
He told police at the time and has reiterated again and again that he doesn't quite know what happened next or how. But at some point during their conversation, he went to unholster the gun.
"I picked the gun up off the ground and I grabbed it and it must have gotten stuck or whatnot because it wasn't the right gun for the holster and ... as it came out, my hand hit (Cameron's) shoulder and just pushed either my finger into the trigger or just the jolt of the gun fired it and it struck him in the head," Charlton explained. "Immediately I knew what happened, but I was just so in shock that I didn't know what happened."
He was stunned for a moment before he tried to save his brother's life by applying pressure to the wound and calling for others to call 911. He secured the weapon and set about performing chest compressions.
"I just kept telling him, 'Stick with me, Cam, stick with me,'" Charlton recalled.
The 17-year-old was pronounced dead at the scene. Charlton told a deputy he had some drinks that night — two mixed drinks and maybe a couple of beers. He submitted to a blood draw four hours later. His blood alcohol level at that time was 0.06 percent.
"I had to forgive Eric and I did, almost immediately," said his father, Trevor Charlton. "(Eric and Cameron) were the best of friends and Eric was always watching out for Cameron and always wanted the best for him. It's just a tragic accident."
Juab County Attorney Jared Eldridge said he felt he had to hold Eric Charlton accountable for the loss of life. While he believes the shooting was an accident, he also felt it showed recklessness.
Clearly broken, Charlton sobbed through an entire day of courtroom testimony in September. Defense attorney Susanne Gustin said the criminal proceedings have been difficult for her client.
"It was almost on a day-to-day basis trying to get him through the day," she said. "It's very rare that you have a client that is in that amount of trauma and Eric was and it was a daily thing, and an hourly thing at times, just to get him through this."
The judge sentenced Charlton to two years of probation for negligent homicide. And the judge imposed a sentence of 90 days in jail for carrying a weapon while under the influence of alcohol.
Gustin believes no punishment can match what Charlton already imposes on himself.
"It's been an everyday hell," Charlton said. "I wake up every morning and the first thing, if I haven't had nightmares about it, the first thing that pops into my mind is, 'Cameron's gone and you did it. You're the cause of it.'"
Charlton cried throughout the Deseret News interview. He cried when he talked about his charismatic brother who loved and looked up to him. He cried when he talked about how that brother is now gone.
He urged others to avoid mixing drinking and guns. He also urged gun owners to get expert training on their weapons.
Charlton's sentence carries a community service component. He has been ordered to give 90 presentations about the dangers of mixing guns and alcohol. He has already started working with several youth programs in Weber and Davis counties, but he and Gustin worry that his jail commitment will end close to the end of the school year for most students.
Those interested in having Charlton speak have been asked to call Gustin at 801-243-2814.
"Essentially (I) put my story to them and help them make better choices, learn from my mistakes rather than make a stupid mistake and have such drastic consequences as I did," Charlton said.27 comments on this story
He is worried about his family — his wife and two young children — while he is in jail. But he has long been asking Cameron to watch over them. Since his brother's death, Charlton has either gone to or driven by the cemetery where Cameron is buried.
"I always tell him, 'Hey, bud. I'm sorry, I love you.' I tell him to watch over our family."