Joby Bennett would have turned 21 on Monday, and he likely would have celebrated the milestone birthday surrounded by family.
Instead, his loved ones visited his gravesite.
“You should be here, spending the evening with your family and sitting around a fire down by the river and drinking a beer or two or three with your friends,” Courtney Jordan, Joby Bennett’s sister, wrote on Facebook.
“But instead we are here, so I’ll drink one for you.”
Bennett was killed on Aug. 6, 2016, after he pulled his truck into the emergency lane on Old Highway 90 to help a woman catch a stray dog.
According to law enforcement officials, a passing vehicle swerved to avoid missing Bennett’s truck and struck the then-19 year old as well as Bay St. Louis resident Catrina Lucky.
Lucky, who suffered serious injuries in the accident, told the Sea Coast Echo that Bennett pushed her out of the way and took the brunt force of the vehicle.
It’s been more than a year since the Bennetts lost their teenager who loved country music, hunting with his dad and his Dodge pickup truck. And Pam Bennett, his mother, said her family believes justice has not been served.
The teenager was headed home to Pearlington around 10:30 p.m. when he stopped just over the Mississippi line near the Cowan Bayou bridge.
According to the official Mississippi Highway Patrol accident report, the vehicle that struck Bennett and Lucky was on scene when Mississippi Highway Patrol officials arrived.
But Pam Bennett doesn’t believe the driver stopped immediately after she hit Bennett and Lucky. And she doesn’t believe the person who took responsibility for the crash was the one driving the car when it struck her boy. An official investigation did not find any evidence to substantiate those claims.
“If it was just an accident, why didn’t they come up that night? Why didn’t they come apologize?” Pam Bennett said.
What the official record says
On Aug. 7, 2016, Hancock County Coroner Jim Faulk told the Sun Herald the driver of the vehicle that hit Joby and Lucky stopped down the road from the accident site.
Mississippi Highway Patrol was the investigating agency. The vehicle was at the scene of the accident when state troopers arrived. Hancock County sheriff’s deputies also responded to the scene.
According to the accident report, Briana Guttierrez, 25, of Kiln, was driving eastbound in a Toyota Camry when she swerved onto the shoulder of the road to avoid crashing into Bennett’s parked truck. Bennett had pulled over to help Lucky look for a stray dog.
Guitterrez then struck Bennett, and the force from the crash caused him to also strike the side of the bridge. Pam Bennett said her she was told her son flew 114 feet.
“The woman stopped and stayed on scene and was very cooperative,” MHP spokesman Chase Elkins said in August 2016.
According to the accident report, Guttierrez stopped the car on Florida Boulevard, which is about a mile away from where Bennett and Lucky were hit.
The owner of the vehicle, Erin Doyle of Pearlington, was a passenger in the vehicle, the report states.
Elkins said Tuesday that no charges have been filed in the case.
“The case is a closed case,” he said. “The case has been been investigated and there wasn’t any evidence to go any further.”
Family doesn’t agree with authorities
Pam Bennett and her family believe Guttierrez was not driving the vehicle that struck her son.
Bennett said she believes a couple who was under the influence hit Joby Bennett, and then drove to pick up Guttierrez before authorities arrived on scene.
“Seven or eight people have went to the Hancock Sheriff’s department and gave eyewitness reports stating that they had left,” Bennett said.
The people who called 911, Bennett said, filed one of the reports.
“They said his (Joby’s) truck was the only truck on scene. There was nobody else on scene. The car was not there.”
Hancock County Lead Investigator Glenn Grannan confirmed that the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office was used to facilitate meetings between witnesses and Mississippi Highway Patrol.
“The controversy came about when they thought someone else was driving the vehicle than who was taking responsibility for it,” Grannan said.
Elkins said MHP investigated each of one the claims in the witness affidavits that another person was driving the vehicle.
“They (authorities) did not find any evidence to continue the investigation,” Elkins said.
Pam Bennett said she and her family are doing their best to move on, but she feels the case has not been fully investigated.
No sobriety tests or blood tests were given at the scene, Bennett said. The accident report confirmed that.
For her son to be thrown so far, Bennett said, the driver of the car had to have been speeding. Guttierrez was not ticketed or issued any kind of citation.
“Accidents happen, even if you’re under the influence,” Bennett said. “Nobody has picked up the phone one time and said they were sorry. There was no remorse. That’s all we want.”
Grannan said many people had theories about what happened that night, but none could be proven.
Celebrating Joby and moving on
Instead of mourning the day that Bennett died, his parents threw a party in his memory instead. Bennett said hundreds of people showed up to help them remember her son.
“It was just unreal,” she said of the crowd. “I think every friend he’s ever had showed up, rain or shine. That was really, really nice.”
Pam Bennett was able to meet Lucky for the first time at the celebration. Over the past year, Bennett said, they’ve kept up via texting or on Facebook.
“That was very healing to see her, to hug her and to see her two little boys,” Bennett said.
Bennett said Lucky is still grieving but has made a great physical recovery. After the accident, Lucky had to have many surgeries on her leg.
“She’s able to walk without the use of crutches,” Bennett said. “Physically, she’s much, much better.”
Pam Bennett said it’s been hard every single day waking up and knowing Joby isn’t with her anymore, but she and her family are trying to remember what Joby would want for them.
The party, she said, was a reflection of her son.
“We’re going to choose to do that and move on than live with bitterness,” she said.
The Bennetts said they wanted to thank the community in Hancock County for rallying around them during their time of need.
“We had such great support,” she said. “People are still coming over, calling us or checking on us daily.”
She also said her family was thankful for Sheriff Ricky Adam and the sheriff’s department’s help with the case over the past year.
“We know in our hearts what had happened,” Pam Bennett said. “The law has played against us in this particular incident.”