Six months earlier, the Roseville High School Rockets boys’ basketball team played the Warren Wildcats in the southeast regional championship. It had been almost 15-years since any of the varsity athletic teams from Roseville had qualified for the regional tournament, but the Rockets edged out the Wildcats 49-48 with a last second buzzer beater and the win qualified them for the regional tourney. Benny Johns had attended the game to support his nephew, a player for the Rockets.
To Benny, it seemed like half the town had made the trip to Roseville. He’d sold barbecue to just about all the meat-eating carnivores in town. About the only people that didn’t eat barbecue in Warren were transplanted city-slickers from somewhere up north that called themselves vegetarians. Benny couldn’t figure out if they really didn’t like meat, or just avoided it as the in vogue “thing” to do.
On the way home from the game, Benny decided to stop off at a pizza place and grab a late supper before heading for home. He had skipped supper to make sure he allowed enough time for the 50 mile drive to Warren, and arrived at the game just in time for tip-off.
It was just before 10 p.m. when Benny stopped at a Quick Mart to fill up the GMC Yukon. In this part of Georgia most of the rural area gas stations closed between 10 o’clock or 11 o’clock, and Benny didn’t want to run the risk of running out of gas before making the trip back to Roseville. He had almost a half tank, but he decided he’d be more comfortable and put in $10. After paying the clerk at the filling station, he noticed a pizza parlor across the street and decided to stop in for a quick bite.
As he entered the door of the Pizza Palace he was greeted by a thirty-something waitress. Judging from her demeanor, Benny deduced that the waitress was definitely nearing the end of a very bad hair day. Before he could take a seat, she explained that it was almost closing time. After an awkward exchange of excuses for not being able to stop by earlier, Benny talked her into taking his order anyway and ordered a pepperoni pizza and a Coke.
“Well mister the Coke machine’s busted. The repairman will be by tomorrow, you’re out of luck tonight. You want a glass of water…or, a draft?” she explained.
He didn’t really want the beer, but settled for it anyway because water just didn’t sound good with pepperoni pizza.
The waitress returned with some bread sticks, napkins and Budweiser served in a frosted mug.
“Ummm…I didn’t order breadsticks”, Benny explained.
“They’re complimentary” the waitress replied, using a tone of voice that adequately conveyed her disappointment in Benny for stopping in just before the normal closing time.
“Anything else, mister?” the waitress asked not really waiting for an answer before turning around to head back towards the kitchen area.
About fifteen minutes later, and just as Benny had taken his last sip of Budweiser, the waitress returned with his pizza and the guest check. Feeling pressured to go ahead and take care of the bill; Benny pulled his debit card and handed it to the waitress, which she promptly laid back down on the table.
“We don’t take credit cards?” she quickly responded.
“It’s a debit,” Benny explained.
Looking at him as she would a little boy that kept refusing to do as he was told, she replied, “Pretty much the same difference, but we don’t take those either sport.”
Reluctantly, he pulled out his wallet and fished out a $20 bill. Explaining that it was all he had, he tossed the money on the table and took another bite of pizza. He meant to ask for a refill, but the waitress had snatched up the $20, sighing loudly as she did so, and again stomped back towards the kitchen. Benny decided to leave well enough alone and skipped the refill.
As Benny crested the top of the hill he noticed the flashing tail lights of the mini-van, but it was too late. The Yukon hit the van at forty-miles per hour and the front brush guard on the vehicle had hit the van almost perfectly square and slammed hard into the rear door just above the van’s bumper. The force of the blow crushed the rear fold-up door on the van, breaking out the glass, and caused the mini-van to move forward on the roadway for twenty feet or more.
Panic overcame Benny quickly as he tried to ignore the shooting pain in his leg and the growing knot on his head from the impact of his head hitting the Yukon’s driver side window. Being an older model, there was no airbag in the vehicle to cushion the impact. He had been wearing a seat-belt, but the collision left him confused momentarily, as the repercussions of what had just happened began to set in. It was dark, but from what he could tell, he wasn’t bleeding. The engine had stopped running, but Benny noticed that the head lights were still on and the front glass was still in tact. He thought about trying to restart the engine, but attempted to open the door instead hoping to survey the damage.
Not understanding why the mini-van was stopped in the middle of the highway, Benny was mad. Mad because he hadn’t seen the vehicle sooner, mad because he hadn’t been able to steer more quickly to the left or to the right and avoid the collision, but mostly mad because he’d had the beer less than thirty minutes ago at the pizza parlor.
After getting out the Yukon and approaching the mini-van, he could tell someone was hurt and in a lot of agony. Walking toward the front end of the van, he heard what sounded like the faint voice of a person emanating from underneath the vehicle. Bending down to take a look underneath the vehicle his suspicions were confirmed. There was the outline of a human body and he identified the source of the muted groaning.
“Help me,” the woman strained. “Help me mister....please. I can’t move my legs.”
The full weight of situation was bearing down upon Benny like a proverbial load of bricks and he struggled against it.
“No, this can’t be happening. No, not tonight” he cried out. “I don’t need this.”
He sank to his knees on the asphalt next to the van’s front wheel and began to whimper uncontrollably, as if somehow his own feelings of remorse would awaken him from this horrible event that seemed so real, but yet so much like a distant dream. His momentary lack of concentration and the consequences of his misjudgment that caused this misdeed would surely haunt him from this day forward.
The adrenalin from the crash was wearing off and he noticed a shooting pain in his left foot and a tingling in his left elbow. Between gasps for breath and the wheezing accompanied by the pain in his gut, his mind raced to think about what to do next. He knew the answer, but yet it seemed unclear.
“You’ve got to help this woman”, he thought silently. “That’s it,” he thought, “Get in the Yukon, reverse it and move the van from on top of her, if it starts.”
Fumbling for the keys in the pockets of his jeans, he then remembered that the keys must still be in the ignition. Benny was able to start the Yukon and he backed it up about 25 feet from the accident ruble over to the north side of the roadway and clicked on the flashing hazard lights.
Approaching the driver’s side of the van to move it, his mind racing with the enormous consequences he could be facing if someone discovered the accident and then authorities confirmed that he had in fact had a beer not 30 minutes earlier—beer he did not want to drink. He climbed in the front seat, turned the key and attempted to start the engine. Nothing happened. It didn’t crank at all. Benny took a deep breath and again, turned the key forward to start the van. Again…nothing.
It immediately became clear the Benny why the van had been parked in the roadway. The woman had been parked in the road not by her own choice, but because the van would no longer run. She had apparently been standing in front of the vehicle fumbling with the engine in a vain attempt to diagnose the problem before going for help, when the Yukon hit the rear of the van, moved it forward, and pinned the woman underneath.
In the distance, Benny saw vehicle headlights approaching. Consumed with an unexplained renewed rush of energy, he quickly moved back toward the still running Yukon, did a quick 180 degree turn and fled the headlights that would most certainly implicate him.
The tires on the Yukon squealed and smoked as he mashed the accelerator to the floor and fled the scene. Looking in the rear view mirror, he saw the driver of the approaching vehicle get out and move toward the mini-van.
He began to loosen the vice-like grip on the steering wheel and breathe a little easier as he traveled a further down the road away from the wreck. Benny began to think about what to do next.
Would it be best to stop in a motel, or try to go back home by an alternate route, hoping no one had seen him? Should he call the police? What would be the best way to develop an alibi to explain the damage to the front of the Yukon?
As he traveled back towards Roseville on the same two lane highway he’d traveled twice earlier in the evening—on the way to the basketball game and on his return—Benny’s confusion and indecision about what to do next continued to grow.
Except for a few small one-stoplight cow towns, there really wasn’t much to slow drivers down on the two lane highway. Just as the Yukon passed into the city limits of Luttrell, Benny glanced down at the speedometer and noticed that he’d been driving a little too fast, and hadn’t been paying much attention to driving. A few seconds later the rear view mirror was filled with flashing blue lights from a Georgia highway patrolman, interested in why the Yukon was traveling so fast at the late hour on the remote road in rural Georgia.
“Now what, do I do?” Benny asked himself. “I can’t win for losing tonight. This is just what I need, just what I need with everything that’s happened tonight.”
Benny slowed the Yukon and pulled over on the shoulder across the street from the Luttrell post office. He eased to a stop and put the Yukon in park. Just as he adjusted his weight in the seat to reach for his wallet in the right rear pocket of his Wranglers, the highway patrolman’s voice boomed through the loudspeaker of the patrol car’s P.A. system.
“Put your hands on the wheel and look straight ahead,” he heard the patrolman say. “I’ll be right with you momentarily.”
Benny watched in the rearview mirror as the patrolman opened the door of his cruiser, stepped out of the car and simultaneously placed his hat on his head with his left hand and closed the door with his right. The trooper was at least 6’ 4’, Benny guessed, and looked to be in his early thirties. He seemed confident, well-groomed with an athletic build. He’d probably been a football player, Benny figured.
As the patrolman approached the car from the right side of the Yukon opposite the traffic lane, Benny’s mind raced to anticipate the questions he was going to be asked to answer in a few seconds. The patrolman was going to want to know why he out so late at night and why he was traveling away from Gilman County and away from his home in Warren at this time of night.
The patrolman tapped the passenger side window with his Mag Lite signaling Benny to roll down the window. Benny reached with his left arm and pulled back the power window lever to lower the window, quickly placing his left hand back on the steering wheel.
“My name is officer Richards, sir. You mind explaining to me why you were traveling so fast this time of night?” the trooper asked, “And where you’re headed.”
In the most convincing voice he could muster, Benny explained that he had been returning home to Warren and stopped for a tank of gas and that after driving about half way home, he’d realized that the clerk must have forgotten to return his credit card and that he was trying to make it back to the station before it closed for the evening.
“I went to Roseville to watch the basketball game. My nephew plays for Warren and I went to watch him tonight. My sister thought it’d be nice if I went.”
“I own a barbecue place in Warren and haven’t been able to see a lot of the games, but since this one would have been the last game of the year if they lost, my sister thought it might be that last time I get to see my nephew play this season.”
Beginning to feel that he might be rambling too much, and fearing the trooper didn’t believe him, he decided to quit talking and await the trooper’s next question before speaking again.
“Step out the vehicle sir,” officer Richards commanded. “And show me your driver’s license, please.” Officer Richards motioned toward the rear of the Yukon between the Crown Victoria cruiser and the rear of the SUV, and met Benny midway between the vehicles.
Trying not to act nervously, but still managing to rip the plastic cover of the wallet as he tried to remove the license, Benny handed the license to the trooper as requested.
“You been drinking?” Richards asked as he peered at the license.
“No.” Benny instinctively lied.
“Wait right here, sir, but stay where I can see you,” the trooper said.
He walked around the front of the Crown Victoria and past Benny before sitting back down in the front seat of the patrol car and closing the door. The trooper made a call on the mobile radio and then typed a few key strokes on the lap top perched on a rack built into the center console.
Trying not to stare in the trooper’s direction, Benny attempted to remain calm and nonchalant. He hoped with all his strength that the patrolman would not go anywhere near the front of the Yukon and see the damage from the earlier collision with the mini-van. After sneaking a glance at the trooper’s actions, Benny quickly looked away to prevent eye contact and to not give away anything. He looked down at the ground and turned back toward the Yukon, when he noticed that the right tail light was not working.
“It must have been shorted out in the wreck. I’m busted for sure.” he thought silently.
Benny had been so focused on the tail light; he had not heard the trooper approaching from the rear and was startled at the trooper’s voice.
“What’cha lookin’ at?” the trooper questioned.
Struggling to find the answer, Benny replied, “Sorry about the tail light being out. It must have burned out between now and when I stopped for gas. I didn’t notice it earlier officer, or I would’ve waited until in the morning to drive home. I certainly wouldn’t be driving at night out here. I’ll get it fixed straight away.”
He extended his arm toward Benny and returned the license.
“Now you’d better turn around and go on home. Call the station in the morning, because there ain’t any gas stations open this late at night on this road. Everything shuts down at nine or ten ‘round here.”
Feeling relieved because it appeared that he wasn’t even going to issue a ticket, Benny accepted the license, placed it in his left shirt pocket and turned away to walk back to the Yukon’s driver’s door, hoping that he could leave the situation.
“And, sir, just one more thing.”
With one hand on the door latch, Benny turned toward the trooper’s voice, hoping that he wasn’t going to delay this thing any longer.
“Slow down. The speed limit is forty through here.”
“Thanks officer. I sure will.” Benny responded, as he opened the door.
Feeling that he’d just escaped the biggest problem of his life, Benny waited for the patrolman to get back in his vehicle and pull out before feeling it was safe to start the Yukon. He knew one thing for sure; he wasn’t driving back to Warren on this highway tonight with the accident in that direction.
Not wanting to risk getting lost on an unfamiliar side road and risk running into the trooper again, Benny decided that he would go back to Roseville and wait a few hours before attempting to go home. He felt sure they would have the wreck cleared off by 3 or 4 a.m. and it would be safe to return to Warren.
As luck would have it, the Yukon wouldn’t start when Benny turned the key. He tried it again, nothing. It clicked. Not even a flicker.
Before he was able to get out and look under the hood, Benny noticed a vehicle had pulled in at the post office across the street with the headlights off. It was a 4-door white sedan, and though he couldn’t make it out for sure, the car looked like it could be a Toyota, or maybe a Nissan. It was hard to tell because most of the imports look the same anyway.
Realizing the vehicle must have pulled in while he’d been dealing with the trooper; he thought little of it at first. Turning his attention back to the Yukon, Benny turned the key again and a few seconds later he noticed the driver getting out of the vehicle and heading for the phone booth near the post office entrance. Benny could hear him yelling from across the street. The man seemed very impatient. He paused in the phone booth for a moment, placing both hands on top of his head as if thinking about what to do next. He spun around in the phone booth appearing to be looking for something on the floor and then on the ceiling. After a few seconds he left the phone booth and headed back toward his vehicle, but about half way there he must have noticed the Yukon. The man turned and started to run directly across the highway in Benny’s direction.