Austin Salyer was a stellar student at Texas State University. Originally from Highland Village, a small town in North Texas, he had dreams of becoming a military officer.
Five semesters into his college education at Texas State, the 20-year-old made the dean’s list.
“He was just doing tremendous,” said Austin’s father, Rodney Salyer, in an interview with the Star-Telegram.
Austin was in the university’s ROTC program for a year when he signed his commitment papers on Sept. 9, 2021, to serve in the military.
Austin went to sleep the night of Sept. 15, 2021, excited for his first day of training with his new platoon. He contracted to commission as an officer in the Army after graduating from college. He was so excited, he had bought a new set of Army boots worth $200.
He was supposed to report to his road march — a several mile-long march bearing heavy equipment — at 5:45 on the morning of Sept. 16, 2021. But when no one had heard from him that morning, Austin’s mother, Bonnie Salyer, decided to call a close friend of his.
A friend of Austin’s called the maintenance worker of the off-campus housing — The Lyndon apartments — where he lived to check on him. While everybody figured he overslept, Austin’s friends and the maintenance worker were the first to discover him unresponsive in his apartment and called police for help.
Police arrived at the apartment complex about 11:30 a.m. on Sept. 16, 2021, according to the incident report. Callers told police Austin was not breathing, according to call logs from the San Marcos Police Department.
Austin was fatally shot in his sleep. He was found in the hallway leading up to his bedroom, where he collapsed after getting out of bed after he was shot, the incident report stated.
A bullet hit Austin’s left arm and traveled through his chest, lungs, and all the way to his right arm, according to Tarrant County Medical Examiner Kendall Crowns.
An hour after police responded to the scene at the apartment complex, Austin’s neighbor, 21-year-old Gabriel Nathaniel Brown, turned himself in to the police. He told police he did not commit a crime, but that he shot Austin by accident.
The events leading up to the shooting
According to police reports, Brown told investigators that he had just received a micro conversion kit for his pistol.
A micro conversion kit is used to turn a firearm into an automatic weapon, described by Brown as a “submachine gun.”
Brown stated that the night before Austin was found shot in his apartment, Brown was trying to install the kit when the weapon fired.
He told police that he had just recently received the pistol and never fired it before. He called his father on the night of Sept. 15, 2021, while he was installing the kit and was “showing it off,” Brown’s sister told police.
“I put the conversion kit on and I guess one got stuck in the head because I never pulled the trigger but it dislodged,” Brown said. His girlfriend and sister also were in the apartment next to Austin’s, where Brown lived with his girlfriend, at the time he discharged the gun.
“I honestly don’t know what happened because I am not very familiar with guns. I’m going to be completely honest with you, that was my first handgun purchase,” Brown told police. “Like I said, this is a complete accident.”
Brown said that he saw a hole in his apartment wall from where the gun fired that night. He said that he looked through the hole but that it did not appear to go into the next apartment. He also told police he called Austin “multiple times” on Snapchat and knocked on his door at around 2 a.m. to see if he “was home and okay.”
Brown also told police he did not hear any noises coming from Austin’s apartment and that he believed the bullet did not cause any injuries.
According to what Brown told police, the gun went off around 12:30 a.m. that night. Police reports state that the gun fired between 12 a.m. and 2 a.m.
When Brown did not get a response to the Snapchat messages, “he went to apartment 555 and knocked on the door and did not get a response. He said the reason he never called police or came in last night is because he had no idea Austin was in the apartment and had been shot,” police said in the report.
When Austin’s friends arrived at his apartment to check on him the following morning, Brown realized something “had occurred” and also entered the neighboring unit, finding Austin dead, according to the police report.
He left Austin’s apartment, called his father, put his gun in his backpack and left to turn himself in to San Marcos police.
Gabriel Brown sentenced for negligent homicide
The case was presented to a grand jury, which indicted Brown in April 2022 on a charge of criminally negligent homicide.
Brown entered an open plea, in which the defendant waives the right to a jury and pleads guilty with sentencing to be determined by a judge in hopes of getting a better deal than the prosecution might offer.
In Texas, criminally negligent homicide is a state jail felony with a maximum sentence of two years in jail and a $10,000 fine. The minimum sentence is 180 days.
Brown was sentenced to a two-year jail term on Feb. 3, 2023, but had the sentence probated by Hays County District Court Judge Sherri Tibbe to serve five years on probation and 180 days in the county jail.
According to the initial docket entry of the punishment, the 180 days in jail were to be served in increments of 18 days twice a year over a span of five years.
But less than a month after the hearing, Tibbe submitted a docket entry amending the jail time from 180 days to 90 days, leaving Brown to serve nine days twice a year over a span of five years. Brown will report to the jail each year on Austin’s birthday and the date of the shooting, according to court records.
Court documents do not explain why the sentence was changed. Tibbe declined to be interviewed or provide a comment to the Star-Telegram.
Bonnie and Rodney Salyer feel the court failed to serve justice in the negligent shooting of their son. Now, they are fighting to hold the justice system accountable.
Rodney and Bonnie’s concerns with the justice system
“Over and over again, we’ve been failed,” Rodney said in an interview with the Star-Telegram. “The whole thing has been so wrong that all we have left to fight for is the principle.”
For Rodney and Bonnie, injustice began the day their only child was found dead in his apartment.
After Austin’s parents received a call notifying them of his death and had their bags packed to make the drive from Highland Village to San Marcos, a detective said, “No, don’t come,” when they asked if they could go to their son’s apartment.
The detective told them, “You’ll just have to wait out in the parking lot,” according to Rodney.
“Instead he told us not to come. That’s one of our biggest regrets. That we didn’t immediately go down there. We look back and we’re like, ‘How could he have told us to not come?” Rodney said.
After learning Brown agreed to an open plea deal, Austin’s parents began coordinating with the prosecuting attorney, Catherine Schneider — who was later dismissed from the case — to discuss a time to meet to prepare, to which she responded she could meet a day before the sentencing hearing on Jan. 6. The hearing was later rescheduled for February.
When they requested to meet with more time in advance, Schneider responded to Rodney in an email, “I know this is hard for you all, and I’m not trying to minimize your loss but, rather, explain where I’m coming from and keep in mind that I do not work for you all and cannot legally give you my entire trial strategy for your approval or disapproval. We have given this case much more attention and time than an average case and will continue to do so. But you have to understand there is not a lot that we can change.”
“That was very insulting for us, that it didn’t feel like it was being taken seriously,” Rodney said. “I mean, I get it. She’s busy. She’s got all this caseload and what have you, but we’ve lost our only child. We’ve lost our son. We’re trying to get some sort of justice.”
Schneider declined to provide a comment to the Star-Telegram.
After learning that the judge changed the jail portion of Brown’s sentence from 180 days to 90 days, the prosecutor told Rodney and Bonnie in an email that it could not be “legally possible for the sentence to be changed without both parties present.”
Rodney believes that a matter of commitment from all parties involved was lacking in Brown’s case.
“You can’t give a strong sentence because you can’t really give the time and effort,” Rodney said. “The more people that come through the system, the less time they have for a judgment. The less punishment, the less people are deterred from committing a crime. You get to a point where nobody’s getting justice.”
Hays County District Attorney Kelly Higgins took over the case and Rodney and Bonnie’s next step was to schedule a hearing to try to keep the original 180-day sentence. Tibbe denied the motion to review the punishment.
“The court made periodic surrenders to the county jail a condition of probation. It is the terms of those surrenders that is in controversy,” Higgins said in an emailed statement to the Star-Telegram. “There were no other offenses to be charged in this case. It was a terrible accident resulting in the loss of a beloved and admired young man.”
Almost two years after Austin’s death, Rodney and Bonnie have decided to take matters into their own hands by pursuing legislation.
“For us, this is making something horrible that we should be able to grieve and try and move forward into something that we’re having to fight and relive and try to get some modicum of justice,” Rodney said.
Enforcing the law and Rodney and Bonnie’s support from the community
As Rodney and Bonnie continued to push for a review of the judge’s sentencing, Higgins told Rodney in an email on April 20, “From my view, there is nothing requiring review within the case itself. The only controversy in my view is the erroneous sentencing. There were mistakes made within the sentencing hearing, to be sure. In the end, the sentence is what the judge wanted it to be, despite the failure to pronounce it in open court.”
Higgins “told us that he would fight for (Austin),” Rodney said.
After meeting with a senator to discuss their concerns, the Salyers were recommended to have the case reviewed by another district attorney.
“All they have to do is change it back to 180 days and we’re done with this,” Rodney said.
Although feeling let down by the justice system, Rodney and Bonnie received support from local law enforcement.
“While it may have been the 50th time I’m working with a survivor, it better feel like the first time for that family or those members,” said Matt Carmichael, Texas State University police chief.
“I think that’s where we can sometimes lose sight and, quite honestly, it can be that we’re not providing a level of service because maybe we’re disconnected,” Carmichael said about law enforcement working with surviving families of victims.
While Texas State University police were not involved in Brown’s case, Carmichael has been an advocate for Austin’s parents.
“These are good people who lost their only child and they don’t feel served,” Carmichael said.
Additionally, the TSU police department established an award in Austin’s name.
Carmichael believes victim advocacy is an area that the justice system and police need to work on the most.
“When a case is adjudicated, that family still needs advocacy,” he said. “We can do better.”
Austin was also recognized by Texas State police in the Leave No Victim Behind 2020 annual conference that was held at his university.
The conference’s philosophy is to “create a non-traditional conference environment that focuses on delivering best practices from those who have experienced or responded to major violent incidents.” Victim advocates, local law enforcement, attorneys, and other professionals are invited to attend and speak at the conference.
“It’s not just about Austin. It’s not just about us. It’s about the example that they’re giving to the community,” said Rodney about the justice system. “It’s just really disappointing that our system is not fighting for accountability. That’s really what it comes down to, is accountability.”
Rodney and Bonnie have also hoped to receive support from Jennifer Lundy, the executive director at Texans for Judicial Accountability, which aims to demand change and accountability in the justice system.
The organization is currently trying to make complaints against judicial officers public through the State Commission on Judicial Conduct after they have been investigated, as complaints are currently private, according to Lundy.
“There are some egregious complaints and we don’t know who did it,” Lundy said. “That keeps them, in my opinion, from doing the right thing because it really doesn’t matter what they do… We’ve got to make a change there.”
“Our judges are elected, which is why we need to be able to see what they’re doing,” Lundy said. “It’s a state position and an elected position, and it serves greater scrutiny. I think it’ll make a big difference in the way we are treated.”
Additionally, they filed a lawsuit on May 10 in a Bell County District Court against Gabriel Brown; his father, Gregory Keith Brown; and his former girlfriend, Chantel Monique Veal, alleging their involvement in the wrongful death of Austin. They are seeking over $1 million in monetary relief for the pain and suffering both they and Austin suffered as a result.
Gabriel, Gregory, and Veal all denied the allegations in their response to the lawsuit and are representing themselves.
After filing the suit, Rodney and Bonnie ended up meeting with another district attorney, who is helping them continue working with senators to rework legislation on gun laws.
“That’s our next goal,” Rodney said, “is to try and work with some folks and see what we can do to fix some of these problems.”