When Brian Aitken confided in his mother during a moment of emotional distress last year that life wasn't worth living, he never could have imagined the words triggering a chain of events that ultimately landed him in a New Jersey state prison.
But that's precisely what happened, according to an account of the events by Aitken's father, Larry, and attorney, Evan Napper.
Brian Aitken, 25, a successful media consultant, had been in the process of selling his home in Colorado and moving to a suburban New Jersey apartment to be closer to his son, 2.
But on the afternoon of Jan. 3, 2009, the stress of a recent divorce and messy cross-country move caused him to crack. Aitken stormed out of his parent's suburban home in Mount Laurel, N.J., hopped into his car filled with belongings and set out on a drive to cool off.
Aitken's mother, a social worker trained to be sensitive to suicidal indicators, instinctively dialed 911 but abruptly hung up, second-guessing her reaction. But police tracked the call, came to the Aitken's home and greeted Brian when he returned to make sure he was OK.
Then, they asked to search his car.
Buried in the trunk, beneath piles of clothes and boxes of dishes, was a black duffle bag holding a boot box containing two handguns; "unloaded, disassembled, cleaned and wrapped in a cloth," his father said.
There were also several large-capacity magazines and cartons of hollow-point bullets.
Aitken had legally purchased the guns at a Denver sporting goods store two years earlier, he said.
But transporting a gun without a special permit or in a handful of exempt situations is illegal in New Jersey, giving officers no choice but to arrest Aitken and charge him with a crime. The magazines and bullets are also illegal in the state, experts said.
Aitken and his family believed the incident was a fluke because the weapons were disassembled and locked in the trunk, Aitken had cleared FBI background checks and even inquired about gun laws in New Jersey so he could be in compliance after the move.
"For quite some time I was pretty confident as soon as intelligent people with logical minds took a look at what happened they might slap him with a fine or something," Aitken's father Larry said. "When the prosecutor came down with an indictment, I was dumbfounded."
But after a two and a half day trial in August, a jury convicted Aitken of the charges and a judge sentenced him to 7 years in prison. So family and friends have launched a grassroots campaign to set him free, even appealing to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for a pardon or reprieve.
"It's a perfect storm of injustice," attorney Napper, who specializes in gun law, said.
"Lawful possession of a firearm in New Jersey is exemption-based," said Napper, adding that moving from one residence to another is one of the exempt instances for carrying a weapon outside the home.
Aitken had been making several trips to and from Colorado between late 2008 and early 2009, his father said, ferrying his belongings to New Jersey where he spent some time living with his parents and other times living with friends while he found a more permanent dwelling.
"As anyone who has moved cross-country will tell you, it's a messy process," Larry Aitken said.