Defendant in Irvine cheerleader death calls events 'terrible'

SANTA ANA — Speaking from behind a glass partition in Orange County Jail, the Irvine man accused of killing a 14-year-old Irvine cheerleader while driving drunk expressed sadness and concern Friday for the families affected by the May 29 collision.

Austin Jeffrey Farley did not admit or deny responsibility for the teenager's death, saying that he is not the "careless maniac" being portrayed in the media.

"As a human being, as a person, I feel terrible for their family," he said. "They're making me out to be a monster, and I'm not. Like any average American human being with a heart, it's a tragedy. Whether I was in the accident or not, I would be upset. I'm not an animal. I'm just a person."

Prosecutors see a different man.

The Orange County district attorney has charged the 26-year-old construction worker with murder and other crimes in the Memorial Day weekend wreck in Irvine.

It claimed Northwood High School freshman Ashton Sweet's life and sent four other people to the hospital. Farley is accused of driving with a blood alcohol level more than two and a half times the legal limit.

"This is a case about personal responsibility," said Susan Schroeder, spokeswoman for the D.A.'s office. "Basically what happened to Ashton Sweet is totally unjustifiable."

And, Schroeder stressed, two years ago a judge had warned the defendant that he could be charged with murder if he drove drunk again.

The D.A. alleges that Farley's Toyota pickup truck T-boned a Mercedes-Benz carrying four teenagers and a parent home from a birthday celebration. The crash left Sweet brain-dead and temporarily hospitalized, and 15-year-old Krista Merassa with a lacerated spleen and lung injuries.

Farley has pleaded not guilty to murder, driving under the influence of alcohol and causing injury. If convicted, he faces 20 years to life in prison.

The defendant said he largely was unaware of the consequences of Sunday's crash at Culver Drive and Irvine Boulevard until a reporter informed him, and that he did not know the condition of the other victims in the Mercedes.

"That's great!" Farley said, sitting straight up, his cloudy blue eyes wide with interest, when told that Merassa was expected to make a full recovery.

Several attempts to reach the Sweet family were unsuccessful.

A memorial for the victim is set for 5 p.m. Monday at Chinese Baptist Church of Central Orange County, 12012 Yale Court, Irvine.

The church is near Northwood High, where mourners are welcome to park their cars then walk to the church, said Ian Hanigan, spokesman for Irvine Unified School District.

Farley declined to discuss circumstances surrounding the crash.

He was, however, open about some aspects of his personal life. He would not talk about his left arm sleeved with tattoos, but he freely described internal struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder.

"It's an anxiety disorder that has been torturing me for years," Farley said. "It hasn't made life easy for me. Every little daily routine is more difficult."

The clean-shaven inmate continuously rubbed one of his ears against his shoulder as he sat in a faded orange jail jumpsuit for his 30-minute interview with the Daily Pilot.

Troubled past

Farley is no stranger to the legal system. He has been convicted of drunk driving, and has a series of driving infractions and criminal offenses dating back to 2002 that include battery, resisting arrest, vandalism, and petty and grand theft, according to court records obtained by the Pilot.

Those records show that his parents filed a criminal protective order against him on Dec. 27, requiring him to stay at least 300 yards away and barring him from contacting them.

A letter from the owner of a sober living home in Mission Viejo, Home Life Sober Living, dated Jan. 10 said Farley was ready to leave treatment in January, adding that he had contributed to and taken part in activities at the center.

Farley was also admitted to Sunrise Recovery Ranch in Riverside on May 6, 2010.

His admittance to both programs follows an outline submitted to the court by his father, James Austin Farley, in a letter pleading with Judge Craig Robison to allow Farley to be placed in an "extensive recovery program" instead of incarcerating him. The letter included a suggested seven months total of living in sober living and transitional homes.

Like the four teenagers sent to the hospital in the May 29 crash, Farley graduated from Northwood High in 2003, Hanigan said in an e-mail.

Farley, an Irvine native, is the only child of James Austin Farley and his wife, Cindy.

Cindy Farley released a statement Wednesday through her son's attorney.

"Our family, including Austin, is deeply saddened by this horrible traffic accident, which has caused such tragic consequences to those involved including their families," she said. "While I find myself searching for reasons as this awful event is investigated, I would personally give my life if it would bring Ashton Sweet back."

Meanwhile, her son said that he still wants a life outside of jail.

Before being sent to jail, Farley said he worked construction jobs he got through friends. He wants to go back to school to have other career options, but said he did not have a clear idea of what kind of work he eventually wants to pursue.

"I've got average goals and dreams. I planned starting a family, going to school," Farley said. He added that he imagined a house full of kids, a dog and cat.

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