A Love Story
What do you do when the thing that makes your kid the happiest is also putting him in danger? Larry and Shannon Martell took the guns away after their son Austen suffered a traumatic brain injury – but you have to go back to normal eventually, right? In this episode, we travel to a Montana town of 272 people, sit down with a dad who wouldn’t have talked to us a year ago, and cry harder than we ever have before.
To learn more about the people and organizations featured in this episode and access critical information about suicide and violence prevention visit: https://lastdayresources.simvoly.com/.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs is the host. Jackie Danziger is our supervising producer. Our producers are Kegan Zema and Giulia Hjort. Hannah Boomershine and Erianna Jiles are our associate producers. Music is by Hannis Brown. Executive producers are Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs. This season of Last Day is created in partnership with the Kendeda Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Pritzker Pucker Family Foundation, Levi Strauss & Co, and Everytown for Gun Safety.
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To follow along with a transcript, go to www.lemonadamedia.com/show/lastday shortly after the air date.
Ayla, Shannon Martel, Larry Martel, Sheriff Dunkerson, Megan, Gage, Stephanie Wittels Wachs
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 00:00
This season we’re talking about guns, homicide and suicide. We’ve worked hard to ensure that our storytelling is as safe as possible. But we can address this issue by avoiding difficult details. Instead of warning who should and shouldn’t listen before each episode, we want to encourage you to press pause if and when you need to. And please note this episode contains the sounds of gunshots and detailed descriptions of suicide.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 00:40
That’s our team hanging out with Wayne Yates and his neighbor Lloyd. You might remember those squeals of delight from our last episode. All of us were shockingly super into shooting guns. The one you’re hearing now is a vintage hunting rifle. And every time we heard that little ding as the bullet hit this tiny piece of steel 100 yards away. It was thrilling. Like winning an arcade game. All right. Well, it really is a stress reliever. Feels really good. All of us we’re on a serious high after our successful target practice. We said our goodbyes to Wayne and Nancy and got back in the car to drive to the next destination. We’d spent a solid four to five hours that afternoon shooting guns and we’re now on our way to drum in Montana to meet the Martel’s. We’d be arriving close to dinnertime, so we weren’t expecting anything too intense. Our plan was to stop by with some cookies say our hellos and call it a day. We would do the bulk of the interview tomorrow. But things did not go according to plan.
Shannon Martel 02:05
I remember telling you to go give him a gift, give him a hug before they took him, I remember them.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 02:14
I’m sorry. Within the space of six hours, we went from experiencing the thrill of shooting a hunting rifle for the first time to sobbing in a living room with two parents who lost their son after he took his life with a hunting rifle. I’m Stephanie Wittels Wachs and this is LAST DAY.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 03:06
It’s about an hour drive from Wayne to Nancy’s house to Drummond. Imagine an open road surrounded by mountains on either side. It was cold and snowy. The whole landscape was tinted blue. Drummond does a tiny town. According to the 2020 census, their population is 272 people. They have one school, one, that goes from kindergarten to 12th grade, a couple bars, and no grocery stores. Shannon, the woman you just heard drives an hour to Missoula every week to stock up. The whole town stretches about half a mile with a motel on one end and a gas station on the other. We pull up to a little yellow house adorned with Christmas lights. And inside are the Martel’s.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 04:03
Larry Martel 04:05
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 04:09
One of the first things you notice when you pull up to the Martel’s is Larry’s 18-wheeler logging truck parked outside. It’s bigger than most of the houses on the block. It’s 5pm on a Sunday, and we’re catching the family between shifts. Shannon is free on the weekends; she works in the school cafeteria down the street. And Larry will leave at midnight to drive three hours to the logging site. It was really important to us to find a time where both of them were free. Because it is extremely rare for dads to agree to talk to us. It honestly felt like a last day first. It was like pulling teeth to get my own father to talk on the show. So we jumped at the chance to meet this couple together in their cozy home.
Shannon Martel 04:54
The kitchen is even smaller. So we don’t want to go there.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 05:00
squeezed into their living room, which was lit up by a twinkling Christmas tree. And Shannon bustled around wearing holiday pajamas with little sloths holding candy canes. They were very cute. I couldn’t help but notice all the photos and paintings on the walls of their son Austin, a handsome young guy with a sweeping Justin Bieber haircut. In nearly every photo, he’s wearing some sort of Jersey and smiling at the camera. Austin grew up in this cozy house, and nine years ago, he died there. His death sent shockwaves through this tight knit community.
Larry Martel 05:40
There was people coming up in the community wondering what to do. They were like deer in the headlights. What do we do for the Martel’s? They’re are the salt of the earth family. If it can happen to them. I know for sure it can happen anybody.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 05:53
But that’s the end of the story. Let’s start at the beginning. So I’d love to start with just like, How did you two meet?
Larry Martel 06:07
So how much of the story are we telling them?
Shannon Martel 06:12
You’re making it sound weird.
Larry Martel 06:16
We met when while we were both young.
Shannon Martel 06:18
He was 21. I was 16.
Larry Martel 06:20
And I didn’t know that for two weeks after we were dating that she was only 16.
Shannon Martel 06:24
I kept that a little bit information from him. But we just met, we met at the lake and just kind of got along and started dating. And yeah, two weeks later, I’m like, oh, and guess what, by the way, I’m always staying.
Larry Martel 06:43
Panicked at first, but then when I met her mom, her mom was okay, so I sigh of relief.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 06:56
With mom’s blessing, the two of them got married. And at 17. Shannon was pregnant with their first child. They struggled that first year to make ends meet.
Larry Martel 07:06
I worked at a gas station basically just clean and gas pumps and everything. And I was born and raised in Libby, Montana. That was the way I describe it as close to homeless as you can be with a roof over your head. We lived on nothing but deer meat for three months. It was miserable. It was horrible.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 07:25
Pretty soon after their son Gage was born, Larry started looking for work in nearby Drummond.
Larry Martel 07:31
They said, well, the Swiss ranch needs help. And I said, I’m not a rancher. I’ll hate this job. While we went out there to interview and he said, what do you know about cows? I said, I think that is one there. And he says you’re hired, said there’s cowboys everywhere and loved it.
Shannon Martel 07:45
And it was good for us because it was like we got a free place to stay. They gave us they gave us half a beef. So it was like, oh, no rent. I’m like, we’re there. Let’s go.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 07:58
A half a beef to eat and a roof over their heads was exactly what they needed. Because another baby was on the way.
Shannon Martel 08:05
His boss’s wife, she would be like you’re having two babies all by a million dollars. You’re having twins, like jokingly and I’m like, don’t even joke like that. That’s not even nice. And we go there and the lady was doing the ultrasound and she’s just like, okay, well, I’m gonna be right back. And so all I mean, when you’re thinking, oh, something’s wrong with my kid. Something, you know, because at that time, we only knew there was one. Well, then the doctor came in and she’s like, yeah, you’re right. And I’m like, You’re right about what? Like there’s two babies in there. If that’s not like a slap in the face. I don’t know what it is.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 08:42
Those two babies are Austin and Ayla.
Larry Martel 08:46
It was really cool watching them grow up though because when they were baby once they got crawling and they split up in the house if Austin or Ayla would cry, and they were split, the other one was there right now, but if Gage cried somewhere they didn’t care. It was weird. So there’s definitely a different bond with them being twins.
It was awesome. You have a built-in best friend, what more could you ask for?
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 09:09
That’s Ayla, Austin’s twin.
We did a lot of crazy stuff together. We did things we probably weren’t supposed to and got a lot of trouble. But..
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 09:18
Although it’s hard to get away with much and Drummond since it’s such a tight knit community.
I always describe it. Basically how everyone’s your mom, everyone’s your dad pretty much because it’s such a small town.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 09:30
That’s Gage their oldest.
Like when we were growing up, it was all the parents knew when you were supposed to be home. So you’d be riding your bike trying to hurry up because the street lights turned on and all the moms would be yelling out the door that we better get home or be in trouble.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 09:47
But the threat of getting caught never seem to bother Austin.
Shannon Martel 09:50
Yeah, no fear. So he would do anything he would ride his bike off humongous hills. He would snowmobile and have no fear on doing anything like that. Yeah, and like sneaking out and being like, Oh, well, because we used to have a doggie door. And we didn’t find this out until later on that he snuck out there a couple times and I’m something and how in the world did you get out of the house, he got out the doggie door. Only a few select can fit through the doggie door. And he was one of them.
Larry Martel 10:26
So, to me, I thought I always felt well, you know, once I got into elementary and getting up closer to junior high, I’m like, this kid’s gonna be my payback for the hell I raise when I was in high school, he’s going to, he’s going to try anything at least once he’s going to. I had that feeling like, well, here’s my payback for what I put my parents..
Shannon Martel 10:50
Always like, he was a ladies man. Like, he likes the girls and the girls loved him. And he was very like, yeah, he was a very nice, you know what I mean? He was kind of that cocky. I know I’m cool. I know I’m cute. And I know you like me, but I’m not gonna say that I like you. Or you know what I mean? Our door was a revolving girl door. Like girls would come over and they would introduce themselves and I’m like, how are you, not gonna see you tomorrow, so not gonna remember your name.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 11:25
Drummond may be a small pond, but Austin was a big fish. By the time he finished his sophomore year, Austin was a star on the wrestling team. He also had a state championship title as a running back. The Martel’s basement is full of his trophies. He was classically good-looking star athlete and a ladies man. Pretty much everything a 16-year-old could hope for. But early one morning in August, everything changed in an instant.
Shannon Martel 11:55
The cops came to find me, our sheriff, our local sheriff came to find me and said, Shannon, you need to get in the car. I need to take you to Austin. I’m just gonna take you to Austin. So I’m like, okay. He’s been an accident. So I’m like, fine. I could see the car had fallen into the ditch, and stuff and there was ambulances and life flight was getting ready to come and I mean, I didn’t even let him stop the car. I’m like opening the door. And he’s like, Shannon, you’ve got us wait for me to stop. I’m like, no, and I just got out and I went there. And he was conscious. But he was like mumbling and not really being coherent or whatever and stuff.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 12:35
The authorities tried to piece together what happened, but the details were fuzzy.
Shannon Martel 12:40
He fell asleep they think and he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. He got thrown from the vehicle. They think he got thrown out of the sunroof. And so he felt hurt. He skidded like 30 feet on the pavement, and landed in the ditch, broke his femur, broke his collarbone had a traumatic brain injury.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 13:02
Austin’s brain had essentially been torn apart inside his skull, and it was swelling rapidly. He was taken to the hospital where they kept him in an induced coma for two weeks.
I didn’t think he was gonna make it just the way it looked. So like, in my mind, it was like we, me and him are kind of at the stage where we butt heads a lot, just because of the age we were. And so like, you know, we loved each other and stuff. But we always argued and things like that to where I think that was more going through my head was, you know, I didn’t tell him I loved him as much as I really wanted to all the time.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 13:41
All the family could do was wait. They feared the worst, but hope for the best. And eventually, he woke up.
Shannon Martel 13:48
The first time he looked at both of us. You could tell instantly he knew who we were, because he was just like, you could tell him his eyes and stuff. And he said mom, and dad. And it was just like, like, that was like that was the best feeling ever just to know that he knew who we were because I was like, so scared that he wasn’t going to know us at all ever. And he had to learn how to walk all over again, how to feed himself. I mean, he had to learn how to go to the bathroom. Like you know how to do all that all over again.
Larry Martel 14:20
He had to learn everything,
Shannon Martel 14:23
pretty much after his accident. You could tell he wasn’t the same person.
Larry Martel 14:28
What knew him before and after, he was a different kid, you know?
Shannon Martel 14:36
So that was really hard for him. That was very hard for him. He had to see like a psychotherapist for a while to help with his brain injury.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 14:46
Shannon said the therapist told her that people with severe traumatic brain injuries are two and a half times more likely to die by suicide. There are many risk factors that come along with these kinds of injuries. For Austin, it was no longer being able to do the things that made him feel like himself.
Shannon Martel 15:05
He was very, very frustrated with not being the same kid couldn’t play the sports like he used to and couldn’t sometimes form words, or his thoughts like he used to.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 15:18
Ayla saw this frustration in the early days as well.
I could tell the way he was feeling just by looking at him the way he would look at me. I remember when he was like, couldn’t barely pick himself up from the bed to his wheelchair. When he was starting to do that. He just could tell he was defeated. And he just looked at me and was like, I hate this. Like he didn’t like not being able to do half the things he could do. But he’s like, I’m gonna get myself back to where I was.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 15:44
And he got pretty close, but not close enough.
Larry Martel 15:50
So his junior year, he had to miss all his sports.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 15:55
At times, this pitted Larry and Shannon against each other because she wanted to swaddle them in bubble wrap. But Larry saw how restless and dissatisfied his son was. So he put the answer in the hands of Austin’s doctors.
Larry Martel 16:09
If they say you can play sports, I said, I will go to bat with you with your mom. Because my opinion was we had to let him get. He fought his way back from the injury and everything he’s working it. As soon as they say he’s ready to try to live life again or beat. We gotta let him do it. Otherwise, why did he fight so hard to survive the car wreck if he’s not gonna get to do sports.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 16:34
This was a really hard time for everyone in the family. Most of them just felt like it was a miracle that Austin survived at all. And honestly, his physical recovery was pretty miraculous. His doctors even cleared him to play sports again. But he couldn’t play the same positions. And it felt like everyone was handling him with kid gloves. Like one bad tackle could be the end.
Shannon Martel 16:58
He was not happy.
Larry Martel 16:59
Everybody wants to be the star.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 17:02
He was used to being a star.
Shannon Martel 17:04
And he was used to being, yes, being that star player and stuff. And then that when he wasn’t, it was hard for him.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 17:12
In every picture of Austin, he is wearing a jersey. This is not a kid who played sports for fun. This is a kid whose entire identity was wrapped up in being an athlete and pushing himself physically. So once you’ve lost your identity, and lost the thing that gives you purpose in the world, it’s hard to know where you belong, or if you belong. And what was even more isolating was that mentally, Austin never fully recovered. Like many people with traumatic brain injuries, he basically lost all impulse control. The space between impulse and action essentially disappeared.
Shannon Martel 17:53
Like we were in a grocery store once this is horrible. We were in a grocery store once and there was a lady in front of us. And she was a heavyset lady. And Austin was just like, holy shit, you’re huge. Like, it just came out. And then, and I mean, we were only we were in line, like we were like, closer than we are. And I was just like Austin, and as soon as it was like a light, you could see it. And this is what happened to him every time a light went on. And he’s all like, you could just tell the look of devastation in his face. He knew exactly what he said. And he was just like, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. And he just walked. He’s like, I’m going to the car. And he just walked out. He didn’t say he just kept saying, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. And just walked off. And I was like, had to explain to the lady. I’m like, super sorry. My son, you know, has a traumatic brain injury. And he says things and so that was kind of..
Larry Martel 18:41
And that happened to you know, he told me to shut the F* up one time, right. Right here and, you know, I’m like, hey, you can’t say that. If I knew what it was what? Well, I mean, it was like three minutes later, he’d come on, give me a hug. I’m sorry. So that’s how I explained it is. Most teenagers might think about saying that. So if he had the thought.
Shannon Martel 19:04
He didn’t have that. And that’s the psychotherapist told us that too. And that they’re very spontaneous. They’ll say what they want. They’ll do things that they want. And then they’ll come back and be like, oh, that was probably not the best thing I should have said or that I should have done. And we always told him someday, you’re going to say or do something that you can’t come back to, that you can’t take back or you can’t come back from?
He’s just the biggest goofball. Even if I was so mad at him, he’d just look at me and give me his little smirk and I’d start laughing and just forget about whatever I was mad about.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 19:58
That’s Megan, she and Austin started dating shortly after he graduated high school.
We met in the summer of 2012. By October, I was in an apartment with him, I quit my job and moved there. And then by December, I’m pregnant. So it’s like, our whole relationship. I feel like it just moved so fast. You know, we were young, I was pregnant. We were like, what the hell are we gonna do?
Larry Martel 20:30
We found out we’re gonna be grandparents in a text.
Shannon Martel 20:32
In a text, yes, I was at work. And yes, and they decided to text us and say, Mom, I have something to tell you. And I’m like, oh, Lord, and he’s like, Megan’s pregnant. I’m like, oh.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 20:45
And was he, how did he feel about the baby? Was he?
Larry Martel 20:51
He was excited this week, and then the next week, you know, I’m scared shitless. And I’m like, well, I understand you’re young. You know, he also knew my story from before, because I have an older son, myself. He’s three years older than Gage. So he kind of knew I had been through that, you know. But it never got it and never got to the point to be able to really, really talk about it. You know, I’m just like, we’ll deal with it a day at a time, we’ll be fine. We’re here to help, we’ll get stuff planned out.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 21:28
So everyone was preparing for a baby. But Austin was still a ladies, man, only now, a ladies man with no impulse control.
We didn’t have a perfect relationship. When we were together, it was always fun. We were always laughing. But, you know, soon as we were apart, he’d go off and look for something else, I guess.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 21:55
Which caused them to fight constantly. But at the end of the day, they tried to make it work.
I was so in love with him. I had a world of chances for this boy, you know, and I just hit when you’re young and pregnant. Especially you’re like, okay, this is it. Like, I’m gonna have a family, you know, it’s that picture perfect. In your head. This is going to be perfect. And you don’t think about, you know, the bad things are the hardships that you’ll go through.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 22:29
Austin wasn’t always sure how to navigate these hardships. So sometimes he text his dad for advice. A few days before he died. He asked..
Larry Martel 22:38
Do you think Megan and I can ever be happy and be a family? And me, unlike I don’t want to. I’m not gonna do, oh, yeah, I’m positive. I, you know, life is what life is. So I’m like, I hope so. And I think if you both work on some things you can be, but, you know, should I have flatlines?
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 23:09
On Sunday, May 19 2013. Shannon was gearing up for graduation at the high school. She thought it would be fun for Austin to come along. Graduations are a big deal in a small town. But Austin was sleeping the day away.
Shannon Martel 23:26
I do remember it was two o’clock. And I’m just like, I told Larry I’m like, this is ridiculous. it’s two o’clock, I’m going to go down there and tell them you know what, dude, it’s time to get up.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 23:36
So Shannon wakes him up, tries to get him to come with her. But he won’t bite.
Shannon Martel 23:41
You could tell something was going on because he was not happy.
Larry Martel 23:44
If you tried to talk about it. He’s like, I don’t want to talk.
Shannon Martel 23:46
You know, I don’t want to talk about it. And you knew it was about Megan. We already knew it was about Megan. He’s like, I don’t want to talk about it. We’re fighting again. I don’t want to talk about it. I’m like, okay.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 23:55
So Austin’s holed up in his room in the basement watching TV through dinnertime. And Shannon and Larry didn’t think much of it. This is what it was like when he and Megan fought. And that day, they were having a blowout.
I blamed myself for the longest time because we were arguing that day over text. I don’t remember like specific things that were said or whatever I do know we said things we didn’t mean to each other and just being mean, you know, and I remember he said, like, I’m gonna kill myself and I’m like, what the heck, like, no, you’re not. And I think he said it a couple of times. And that’s when I was like, Okay, I gotta check Shannon like, honestly, in my head. I’m like, no, he’s not. You know, he’s not going to do that. But I’m like, I need to text her anyway.
Shannon Martel 24:53
I get a message on my phone and it’s Megan and she says, Austin says he’s going to kill himself. I’m like, what? and then I and Larry had gone up to go get no, I showed him. I showed you the message and I’m like, what? I’m like, what is this, and he’s like, it goes on. It’ll get a drink and then we’ll go downstairs.
Larry Martel 25:13
My drink of water and I got to where you are. And we got down there.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 25:21
What did you see when you went down there?
Shannon Martel 25:24
My son. Yeah, it was bad.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 25:34
I’m sure you just can’t ever get it out of your mind.
Shannon Martel 25:36
Yeah, no, I mean, it took it took a long time for me to. I mean, if I really stop and think about it, I can remember it. But I try not to. Because it took me a long time because I would wake up with nightmares and not being able to go to sleep seeing what we saw. So yeah, it wasn’t, I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy. To have someone see their child like that, ever, ever. And I just I ran to him. And I picked I tried to pick him up. But that was hard. Because yeah, he was. Yeah. You can just imagine what a gun does to someone that puts it in their mouth and pulls the trigger. But I don’t know if I thought maybe I could help him. I could fix him. You know what I mean? Because I was just trying to pick him up. And of course, when I get down there, the gun was laying on his bed. And that gun I didn’t want it anywhere near anything and stuff, so and then I think all I remember is screaming. I screamed a lot.
Larry Martel 26:51
I don’t know how to explain it. And you know, I can’t remember I don’t know if I really even I don’t know if it was more jarring to console her at the time. I don’t know because then now we ran down there. So now I had to leave her for a couple minutes. So I run up here to grab a phone to call 911.
Shannon Martel 27:22
As if they’re going to be able to do anything.
Larry Martel 27:25
I mean, I didn’t even get all the upstairs. I mean, I knew that phone call wasn’t needed. I mean there was nothing that could be done. But I mean I did make the call but I was trying to console her to I really, I don’t know because I told her before, before they took him out here I can’t remember […]
Shannon Martel 28:01
You did, I remember telling you to go give him a gift. Give him a hug before they took him. I remember them.
Larry Martel 28:13
I was trying to say bye to him. I was trying to control the situation with her. I mean, that was very terrible to see. But I don’t want that. I mean, that was terrible and hard. But still maybe the hardest thing that day was watching them load the body bag with you.
Larry Martel 28:56
Yeah. Like that makes it official or I don’t know how to say it.
Shannon Martel 29:05
Well, and you just think that your child is in this black body bag being carted out this store right here and put in a van and stuff and I’m just like, we can’t let him go. He’s gonna be there by himself. Austin’s gonna be there all by himself. I can’t, we got to go with him. I’m like, I’m literally legit. Losing my shit because my son who’s dead is going to be at the funeral home by himself. And he’s like, trying he’s like honey, he’s gone. It’s okay. You don’t need to be there. Yeah, he’s gonna be by himself. I can’t, we have to go. We have to go. So that was the hardest thing for me to watch, the van go away with him in it. And I can’t go be with him. You know, trust me, I would have.
Larry Martel 29:58
Like I said, I’m not sure I said bye. I felt like a lot of that in that few days for sure following from that exact moment, to a few days later, at least if not a week, I never got to freak the fuck out. I had to be there for her. And now all of a sudden and I mean, you know, maybe it was an hour, maybe it’s half hour, maybe it’s three. I don’t know, you know, when they’re here. All sudden, they’re asking you the stuff you should never have to even think about for your kid ever. You know, so all of a sudden I’m trying to […]
Shannon Martel 30:47
Scott […] was huge for us. He was the first one here. He was very close to Austin. He was like, Austin grew up with his kids. So they were always over here or we they were always over there and stuff. And so I’m sure for him to come and see Austin that way was also very hard also, for him to be the first one on the scene.
Sheriff Dunkerson 31:15
I can’t even hardly look Shannon in the eyes after that day. I’m sorry. I just can’t do it. Boy, I’ll tell you what I watched her go through was like standard and hell.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 31:23
That is Sheriff Dunkerson.
Sheriff Dunkerson 31:26
I was working in the backyard with my wife, I remember exactly what we were doing that day, dispatch calls and said you need to get down to Martel’s, their son just shot himself. I don’t remember if Larry might have met me at the door. And we went downstairs and he was sitting on the bed in the room. Or he stuck the high-powered rifle, like right in here. And what I witnessed is very difficult for me to talk about with Shannon. She was trying to put him back together that day. She grabbed the rifle that he had, and just was screaming, you know, and I was standing really close. And Larry grabbed the rifle. And I took it from Larry. And it was fairly apparent to me at that point, it was a suicide.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 32:12
She told me she was hugging him.
Shannon Martel 32:17
I just let her do it. Well, you know what else you’re gonna do? Drag her off of me? So I just let her do it. I don’t want to ever witness a mother like that, again. It’s right up here with some of the worst calls on my career for sure.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 32:32
Scott did everything he could to support Shannon and Larry and the days that followed Austin’s death, including helping them track down Gage who was in his first week of basic training in the military.
So I remember going into the room and sitting down in a chair. And one of the drill sergeants was in there, and he just had a piece of paper. And he’s like, I’m gonna read something to you. And I don’t everything’s a blur except like, the key words, I guess, gunshot wound, and then just who it was. And I remember him reading that. And then he just kind of stared at me. And I was just in shock of what he read. And then he’s like, do you understand what I just said to you? And I just remember looking at him and being like, so my little brother’s dead. And he just said, yeah, and then he left the room.
And I just remember getting a phone call. And it was my parents. And not a lot was said it was more. I think it was my dad that said it’s true. And then it was just mainly crying. And then it just, it seemed to get worse from there because the army wasn’t good to me. They were basically trying to guilt me into that it wasn’t manly to go home that the manly thing to do was to stay here and stick through my commitment to them.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 34:17
Gage convinced the army to let him go home to be with his grieving family, which is just the most fucked up thing to have to do when you just lost your brother. When Ayla, Austin’s twin found out, she was working a shift at a restaurant in billings a couple hours away.
And I kept seeing my phone light up and my parents were calling me. And I was like, they know I’m at work. I’m like what’s wrong, they’re fine. And then my dad texted me and said, it’s an emergency, you need to call us and I was like, my heart dropped. So I went into our employee bathroom in the back and called my dad and I go well, I was like, what’s wrong? And he said something really bad happened. And immediately I knew it was Austin. I had just a weird feeling. And I was like, is it Austin? And he like, couldn’t say it. He goes, yeah. And I was like, okay, and what’s wrong? And he said, he died. And I was like, what do you mean? And he’s like, your brother’s gone. And I just remember throwing my phone across the room and screaming and dropping to the floor. And I just couldn’t even imagine that had happened.
Shannon Martel 35:36
I lost it. I completely, I shut down. I don’t care what’s happening. I don’t care about our bills. I don’t care if the dog is getting fed. You know what I mean? And he is amazing.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 35:48
He is Larry. And he was amazing. He stepped up and got shit done. So Shannon could have space to feel all of her messy, ugly, angry, brutal feelings. But he also recognized when she needed more support than he could give her.
Shannon Martel 36:06
It was eight months and he was like I couldn’t function. I couldn’t not cry every single day. It was like he’s like, we’ve got to do something. And of course, it was mainly for me. He wasn’t getting therapy for him. It was going to be for me, but he would go.
Larry Martel 36:21
I thought it was over. But Austin was a, […]. Anything I was doing I’d be right in the middle of all the..
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 37:04
Larry, you may not do the talking mostly. But you’re hitting the depths of my soul right now.
Larry Martel 37:10
This has been nine years this coming May. Had you contact us a year ago, I guarantee I wouldn’t sit here and talk with you at all.
Shannon Martel 37:26
He said there was no way he was going to talk about that day. When I said what we were going to do. He’s like, I’m not doing it. He says they can come talk. I’m not telling him that I’m not saying anything. I’m not gonna say anything. And I’m like, okay, honey, you don’t have to say anything. And so I’m very proud that he’s talking.
Larry Martel 37:47
Watch I say I’m not grateful for anything that happened with that day. In that situation, my opinion can only go two ways with families. It’s either going to tear him apart or bring them closer together. We’ve got lucky since and I think it brought us all closer together by far. And I don’t know if that’s what you know, he knew we were both home. I’m damn glad that we were both here. Because had I been gone somewhere to work. And that happened while she was home. There’s no way I could ever not just be blaming her. I know I couldn’t, you know, be on the other side.
Shannon Martel 38:32
I’d be the same. I’d be like, well, where were you? What were you doing?
Larry Martel 38:34
What the hell are you doing?
Shannon Martel 38:36
Why didn’t you go down there? What was the deal? What was going on?
Larry Martel 38:39
Both to be here was an ugly blessing, I guess?
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 38:48
Ugly blessings often come with painful regrets. In the wake of a traumatic death, you’re left asking why? Last week, we heard Nancy wishing she had known enough to take the guns away from Zach before his death. For the Martel’s, They knew the dangers of having firearms in the house.
Larry Martel 39:08
They had told us for that first year to take everything away that could..
Shannon Martel 39:12
You know, his psychotherapist told us to take away all guns.
Larry Martel 39:20
But once you get to that point that you only have to start living there. You know, normal life is he’s ever gonna live again. It came to a point where you have to start giving some of that stuff back.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 39:33
Remember, there’s not a lot to do in a town of 272 people and it already felt like everything had been taken away from Austin. His effortless charm, his status as a star athlete, and his ability to hunt.
Shannon Martel 39:49
And when he’s like you guys don’t even treat me normal. Like you guys are even making me be different because you won’t let me do this and you won’t let me do that and you won’t let me have you know, I can’t even go up and shoot go first with my friends because I have I have a gun and, you know, stuff like that. So that was hard.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 40:09
I had never gone hunting before this trip. So I didn’t really appreciate how integral it is to someone’s day to day identity. And honestly, there was a big part of me that was just like man, Montanans like their guns, and they sure have a lot of them. But the more I talked to people, the more I understood that it’s just like the culture anywhere. Like, if you live near the ocean, you swim. If you live in the city, you go out and if you live around here, you hunt, you go out in nature, it’s a chance to be by yourself or to bond with your people. We heard this over and over again, last season, that the best form of suicide prevention is to create a life worth living. And part of that is doing what you love. For Austin. He loved going hunting. So what do you do when you are trying to bring your kid back to life? And all he wants is the one thing that is also putting him at risk.
Larry Martel 41:12
He loves hunting.
Shannon Martel 41:14
Even after his accident, He’s still that was one thing that he could do.
Larry Martel 41:18
I mean, if there was a half hour daylight left when I got home, dad, let’s go hunt. And well, by the time we get everything in the truck and drive to the edge of town. I don’t care. Let’s go. I mean, he pushed and pushed.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 41:28
What did you like about it? I’m not a hunter.
Larry Martel 41:34
I don’t know you only never I don’t know if he actually just enjoyed the excitement of hoping to get that big elk someday I don’t know. You know, he never said it to me and probably never would maybe he just enjoyed hiking around the woods with me. I don’t know.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 41:50
What do you like about hunting?
Larry Martel 41:52
Shannon Martel 41:53
He hasn’t hunted since really Austin passed away. Yeah, he’s tried.
Larry Martel 41:59
I bought licenses every year. I’ve tried to go four or five times. And that’s the one thing I haven’t conquered yet, but I will someday.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 42:08
What is it that you can’t do? Is it the gun? Is it the act?
Larry Martel 42:15
It’s not the gun. It’s just that something I got him and I really close, I think is why..
Shannon Martel 42:24
I think it was just their thing. Just him and Austin. That was their thing.
Larry Martel 42:29
So I don’t know if I feel guilty, if I go since he can’t because that was, it was a beautiful May day. And I remember thinking oh, he’s 10 minutes for all that happened. I was just laying there on the couch and doing nothing. I’m like, well, maybe I should see if he wants to go shoot gophers or something for a little bit and I didn’t, well now I feel you know, I don’t know. It’s just one thing that I mean all like I said, I bought tags every year I’m gonna go and I’ll feel good about all good stuff out. And I just, I can’t do it.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 43:10
The memories of hunting together haunt this little house. And it’s easy to see why he can’t just go out like he used to. Larry told me about the last big elk hunting trip. He and Austin tuck together.
Larry Martel 43:23
You know in the first year after his accident, the very last day of hunting season that year. We’d gone out all morning, went back to the ranch and has eaten lunch and he says was to call it a year, dad.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 43:39
Austin was exhausted and ready to call it quits. But Larry tried to get him to track just a little bit farther.
Larry Martel 43:46
Do you have one more little hike and you know it was just it would kept bugging him. He decided to give it one more shot and like a half hour before dark that day. He got big help that one’s downstairs.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 44:05
The Elk hangs downstairs in the very room or Austin died. We got to go down there to look at it face to face. The antlers stretch about six feet from point to point. But it’s a complicated Memorial, staring at it. You can totally imagine the huge accomplishment of the hunt. But you also can’t help but think about how Austin died. And that’s the thing. Austin is present in so many ways throughout the Martel’s house.
Shannon Martel 44:35
I have so many people that say I just can’t believe you still live there. Can’t believe you still live there. And for me, why would we move? Like we raised our kids here. They lived here since they were in the third grade. And like I mean; I know something horrible happened down there. But I feel like..
Larry Martel 44:35
There’s so many more good memories.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 45:04
So they live there with their memories, and their impossible wishes.
Shannon Martel 45:10
I would give anything for him to live here with us. Downstairs, I’m going to do his laundry again, feeding him dinner or asking me, like..
Larry Martel 45:19
Some of the guys that worked with get complained about their kids, you know, like, y’all are still in high school, but he’s doing this and I’ll just look at him says, Just think how nice that is that they’re there to be a pain in your ass. And they’ll like, because they know what I’ve gone through. And they’re like, wow, you’re right. It only changes it. It’s hard to explain. I tried to explain to some people are like, what do you mean has changed you? And I’m like, well, there’s certain things it’s made me way more bitter about. And there’s a lot of things it’s made me like, I don’t give a shit. You know, the guys I work with sometimes my boss is one of them. He he’ll get freaking out about something. I’m like, we can fix this. You know, there’s worse things to have to deal with. And this being broke..
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 46:08
Puts everything in perspective.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 46:12
Let me tell you a little bit about perspective. When my kid decides he only wants to eat tortellini for every meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner. I let him have it. He’ll burn himself out soon enough, and it doesn’t actually matter. At work, I need to skip that big meeting because some things come up at home. I skip it. Our motto. There’s no such thing as a podcast emergency. Your life is kind of divided into two buckets, the things that matter and the things that don’t. And after you’ve experienced such a crushing loss, you realize that the bucket of things that don’t matter is overflowing. While the bucket of things that do is actually pretty light. After the break we’ll see what really matters to Shannon and Larry now. Shannon, […] is very cute. Oh, my goodness. So when you’re saying a race, I did not realize it was like a motorized thing. That’s me going gaga over what looks like a mini monster truck parked in Shannon and Larry’s backyard. This thing is Barbie Pink. And Shannon drives it through the mud. Lots and lots of muds.
Shannon Martel 47:41
So we do Mudbogs and then we do […] truck. So mud bog is just you get into a mud and you just drive forward and like a bunch of mud.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 47:55
Between you and me. Every time they mentioned hosting a race for Austin. I was imagining a nice, leisurely 5k. But no, this is a whole other thing. friends of theirs introduced them to Mudbug racing after Austin died to distract them to get them out of the house.
Shannon Martel 48:13
So our friends were like, hey, like took him first and took him to his first race. And he’s like, yes, this is amazing. And he’s like, I gotta go, I gotta get one. And I’m like, whatever, get one. And I rode with him once and I’m like, oh, this is me. Okay, I’m gonna do the mud.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 48:35
Shannon and Larry are hooked. And now twice a year, the Martel’s and a bunch of their friends get together to race these trucks in a big ol mud pit to raise money for suicide prevention.
Shannon Martel 48:47
Because we make a lot of noise are the mud bogs and […]. I mean, it’s all weekend is like crazy loud. So there are a lot of the some of the neighbors that live you know, kind of had an issue with it.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 48:59
Turns out the noise wasn’t the only thing people had an issue with.
Larry Martel 49:03
A lot of people are for it. And there’s other people that are totally against it, because they think we’re promoting suicide and we’re not. It’s suicide prevention is what it says, you know.
Shannon Martel 49:14
That’s what we’re trying to say that nobody has to go through what we’ve gone through.
Larry Martel 49:23
Are we treated different from it? I think so.
Shannon Martel 49:26
Are there some people still that still don’t talk to us? Yeah.
Larry Martel 49:29
And for the longest time, and even still some now, there’s certain ones that you’d see. I mean, it’s like, it didn’t matter what they were doing. They are hanging the hard left and getting the hell out of here before they have to.
Sheriff Dunkerson 49:45
I was the same way. I was guilty of it. Whenever I’d see Shannon. I didn’t even want to talk to her. Because of what I witnessed that day.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 49:53
That’s Sheriff Scott Dunker sent again.
Larry Martel 49:56
There was people coming up in the community wondering what to do, they were like deer in the headlights. What do you say to somebody like that? You know, you don’t say how you doing? Because you know, they’re not doing very well.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 50:10
Unfortunately, according to the Martel’s, they got asked this question a lot.
Larry Martel 50:16
You know, you run into somebody on the street, you’ve said it your whole life. How are you doing. Well, they don’t mean, how you doing? They just mean. You know, it’s just a slight. I mean, she’d come on corked about that for a long time, people would say that.
Shannon Martel 50:29
Do you really want to know how I’m doing? And it’s been two months since my son died, do you really want to know, Can I tell you? And they were just saying, yes, they were. But for me at the time, it was more like, shut up. Don’t talk to me. Don’t look me. I know. You’re looking at me now. Are you judging me, please?
Larry Martel 50:47
It was a cool that we were in a little community when it happened in a way.
Shannon Martel 50:52
But then in a way not.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 50:55
Even though what happened is Shannon and Larry made them feel like outsiders in their own town. When it comes to suicide in Montana. They’re not alone.
Larry Martel 51:04
Working here, as long as I have, I’ve seen, I’ve lost track of the cases involving suicide with a weapon. It’s unfortunate that I don’t know there’s just not a lot of resources in Montana to address mental health issues. We’re just used to dealing with it on our own.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 51:21
And dealing with it on our own often means not actually dealing with it at all. So what do you do when you have a whole culture that values self-reliance and dismisses mental health? How do we keep people safe even from themselves?
Larry Martel 51:41
Because personally, you know, it’s the way we’ve raised that we live off the land a little bit around here. And when we get home from hunting, a lot of times my 15-year-old son and I will take the rifles and we’ll just leave them up in the corner in the house. I’m guilty. I don’t go lock it up right away. And he’s 15. He hunts, he has access to him constantly. It’s hard to change your culture. How do you read that out of a culture? Firearms? I don’t know.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 52:13
For Shannon, it’s pretty simple.
Shannon Martel 52:16
After everything that happened, I have no use. I will not, I don’t want to touch one I don’t want. I mean, I have no use for it and see I’m the type to where I don’t feel it necessary for you to walk into a restaurant with a gun. Do you really need one to have a go have a French dip? Kind of coke? Like I just don’t? That’s just my way of like, really? Do you really need it?
Larry Martel 52:47
I’m not gonna say I totally disagree with her. You know, do you really need one to come into the restaurant and eat? Well, shit goes south. I sure wish I would add mine with me.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 52:57
Shannon and Larry have always had pretty different takes on guns. Shannon was never into hunting. But Larry grew up doing it from a young age. And then it became the primary way he bonded with his son.
Larry Martel 53:10
Since that happened, and it was by gun. I’ve never once had to thought of all the guns or the hell out of my house. Not once.
Shannon Martel 53:17
But that gun that Austin shot himself with is not in this house. And we have never seen it since our friend took it. And we haven’t seen it since. That’s one gun that will never be back in this house.
I definitely don’t have guns in my home.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 53:33
That’s Megan again, Austin’s old girlfriend.
And I can honestly say that I haven’t gone shooting since Austin’s death. I don’t know if I really ever have the desire to again.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 53:49
Megan knows the damage a gun can do. And she takes that seriously because she has two kids at home. One of those kids is Austin’s son, Brody. He was born just three months after Austin died.
Yeah, you know, just a few months later, I’m holding this brand-new baby in my arms and he looked just like him. And it was a really, really hard time. I didn’t bond with Brody for a little while because I was still just dealing with grief. You know, I didn’t have time to grieve before. I’m a new mom for the first time at 19 years old and yeah, it wasn’t easy.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 54:30
For the Martel’s, Brody was a blessing after losing Austin.
Shannon Martel 54:35
And Brody is the exact little image of our son, talks like him saying little gestures same I mean, it’s just the older he gets. It’s sometimes I just sit there and stare at him and he’s always like, Mimi, why are you staring at me? Like I’m sorry. And he’s like, why are you, stop staring at me.
Larry Martel 54:58
It’s cool and it’s sad.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 55:02
I can tell you as someone who lived in that uncomfortable space between cool and sad, grieving my brother while loving my baby. It is impossible and beautiful and really fucked up. For Larry, there were moments that challenged his faith and made him question God, literally.
Larry Martel 55:25
And I remember a while after it happened we were in. It was Walmart. And it’s something that made me just pissed off and I’m like, well, if you were gonna, if you’re gonna take my son from me, why didn’t you do it in the car accident would have been easier. Well, I barely got that thought out who can run around […] couldn’t get me hug. So believe or don’t believe, I do. You know?
Shannon Martel 55:56
Yeah, cuz if we would have lost Austin in the accident, we never would have had Brody. And then we never would have had anything.
Larry Martel 56:03
So it’s like that was my slap in the face answer to me, I guess you want to say.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 56:10
My mom always says that after losing my brother. My daughter saved her life. I mean, this kid single handedly got her to love life again, to find joy in things that she never thought she could go back to. For Larry, that thing might be hunting.
Larry Martel 56:29
That’s the one thing I haven’t conquered yet, but I will, someday, I hope.
Shannon Martel 56:33
and maybe we think maybe with Brody and stuff that we’re thinking that maybe once he gets older and is into that, that maybe then he’ll be able to do it.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 56:49
By the end of this conversation, we had spent nearly three hours with the Martel’s, so much for stopping by and dropping off cookies.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 57:00
I honestly can’t believe it is 7:30 because I have been like I’ve had no concept of time and space since we walked into this room. It was like we had been sucked into the warmest coziest little time warp. And after spending hours crying with our masks soaking wet. We left their house a little beaten up. That was brutal. The biggest mindfuck was trying to take in this story. Knowing how we started our day. I don’t know if the story would have hit me as hard. Had I not spent that very morning. Feeling the weight of a rifle in my hands. We felt how fun it was to go out shooting to lose hours hitting targets set against a beautiful Montana backdrop. So yeah, guns are fun. And they kill people.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 58:42
Next week we head to Atlanta and meet a mom who lost her son in the most senseless way you could imagine.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 59:10
LAST DAY is a production of Lemonada Media. Jackie Danziger is our supervising producer. Our producers are Kegan Zema and Giulia Hjort. Hannah Boomershine and Erianna Jiles are our associate producers. Music is by Hannis Brown. Executive Producers are Jessica Cordova Kramer and me Stephanie Wittels Wachs. We are thrilled to partner this season with the Candida Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Pritzker Pucker Family Foundation, Levi Strauss and Co, and Everytown for Gun Safety. You can find more mental health and legal arms restrictions resources along with info about some of the voices on the show in the show notes and at lemonadamedia.com/show/lastday. If you want to hear more LAST DAY, we have two whole other seasons. Please go listen to them wherever you’re listening right now. And while you’re there, I implore you to take a moment to rate review and subscribe. It is the number one way that you can help the show. Join our Facebook group to connect with me and fellow LAST DAY listeners at www.facebook.com/groups/lastdaypodcast. You can find us on all social platforms at @LemonadaMedia. And you can find me at @wittelstephanie. You can also get bonus content and behind the scenes material by subscribing to Lemonada Premium on Apple podcasts. I’m Stephanie Wittels Wachs. See you next week.