Dustin Inman was a 16-year-old Etowah High School student who spent his days, like many other Cherokee County boys his age, fishing, hunting and passing time with friends and family.
If he were alive today, he would be 29 years old, but Dustin’s life was cut short when he and his parents, Billy and Kathy Inman, were in a car accident in Gilmer County on June 16, 2000.
The Inmans were on their way to visit family in Hiawassee when they stopped at a red light in east Ellijay and a car barreled into them from behind.
Dustin died on the scene, and his mother was critically injured.
Billy received a concussion and recovered, but he said Thursday the wounds cut in his family’s lives will never heal.
Kathy sustained severe brain injuries in the crash and now uses a wheelchair.
Billy said her injuries have subjected her to changes in her brain’s activity, chronic headaches, seizures and numerous surgeries.
“People don’t realize we’re still dealing with this 13 years later,” he said.
Besides having to adjust to the new realities of their lives, the Inmans have spent the last 13 years searching for Gonzalo Harrell-Gonzalez, the man the Inmans hold responsible for their son’s death, and have led a passionate fight for immigration reform.
Both of these struggles have so far been fruitless for Billy and Kathy.
But in spite of the desperation they feel in their search for closure and justice, the Inmans find comfort in the memories Dustin left and keeping his legacy alive in what ways they can.
‘I was proud to
be his daddy’
Billy and Kathy love to talk about their son.
Even the anger they feel for Harrell-Gonzalez can be changed in an instant to feelings of warmth and beaming smiles on their faces with a simple mention of, or question, about Dustin.
Billy said he and his son were always together, always talking or playing a game or heading out into the woods hopeful to bring home a fish or deer.
“I thank God every day for that kid,” he said. “I was proud to be his daddy.”
The pride Billy and Kathy feel for having been Dustin’s parents can be seen in their home in Woodstock.
In the Inmans’ living room on Treasure Way, dozens of pictures of their son hang on the walls chronicling the brief 16 years of his life.
One room over is Dustin’s old bedroom.
Inside, posters showing childhood icons are tacked to the walls, sports memorabilia is scattered about and plastic figurines still preserved in their packages are line the shelves.
Kathy said the room hasn’t changed since her son last saw it 13 years ago.
“It won’t change as long as I’m alive,” she said.
Billy stood in Dustin’s room Thursday and smiled as he told the tales behind the artifacts of his son’s life there.
Billy said some people tell Kathy and him that doing things like keeping this room just as Dustin left it only serve to keep their wounds open and keep them stalled in the pain.
“Even some of the family members say that we should get over this,” he said.
It’s an easy suggestion to make, Billy said, but it’s harder to live by, especially with what the car wreck did to his wife.
“The scars on her body from the surgeries she’s had from this, what does that do?” he said. “It’s a daily reminder.”
But Billy said he and Kathy can and do live with their lives as they are today.
What they can’t accept is the way their only child was taken from them.
“Death is something we all gotta face, every one of us,” Billy said. “But the way my son died is just unacceptable.”
Searching for answers
Harrell-Gonzalez, now 45, was believed to be in the United States illegally but was able to obtain a North Carolina driver’s license. That license was “the only real” documentation he had, Billy said.
After the accident — like Billy and Kathy, who watched their son’s funeral on a video tape in a hospital room — Harrell-Gonzalez was sent to an area hospital.
He was not under police supervision and later fled from the hospital.
Thirteen years later, he has still not been found and made to face the charges against him, which include vehicular homicide, Billy said.
Since Harrell-Gonzalez fled, an exhaustive search effort has been conducted by the East Ellijay Police Department, the Gilmer County Sheriff’s Office, the FBI and the Inmans themselves.
There is a reward of about $10,000 out for information leading to his arrest, Billy said.
Today, Billy has stacks upon stacks of paperwork on the suspect in his home and pictures of his face blown up and taped on his car in hopes that some passerby might recognize the face.
Harrell-Gonzalez also was featured on America’s Most Wanted, but Billy said even this exposure on a national scale was unsuccessful.
In late 2005, the Inmans thought justice might be in sight when a man was arrested in Alabama and was set to face the charges in their son’s death.
But the Inmans’ hopes of putting their search to rest ended when it turned out police had the wrong man, Harrell-Gonzalez’s brother.
“They got him captured in Birmingham and had one hearing there,” Billy said. “Then, (his father) shows up with a birth certificate saying it’s his brother, Roberto.”
Dental records later proved it was Roberto, Billy said.
The hearing in Birmingham was not the first time the suspect’s father came to support his son.
“For every hearing that was held on him, his dad was there,” Billy said. “That tells me that he loves his son like I loved mine.”
Billy said he understands that kind of love, and he can accept that the accident that killed his son was in fact an accident.
But he said can’t comprehend how Harrell-Gonzalez can continue not accepting responsibility.
“How can somebody walk away with doing something like this?” he said.
Billy and Kathy know they may never have a true answer to this question, but they believe they may be able to help other parents from having to ask it.
A fight for an ending
Since Dustin’s death, his parents have become active in the movement for immigration reform and hope for more rigid policies to keep out those who come into the United States illegally.
An immigration reform advocacy group also has been started in Dustin’s name, the Dustin Inman Society, founded by Cobb County immigration activist D.A. King.
Billy and Kathy said the fact that Harrell-Gonzalez was in the country illegally has made it more difficult for him to be tracked and found, because there are fewer records of his life.
“If he would have been an American citizen, he probably would’ve been caught by now,” Billy said.
Billy said he has no problem with immigrants who come into the country and follow the proper channels to citizenship.
“I’m grateful for that. That tells me they want to become Americans,” he said. “I don’t blame anybody for wanting to be here, nobody. But there’s too many ways for them to be here legally. It’s their decision to be here illegally.”
The Inmans said they’re tired of paying for that decision.
“He shouldn’t have been here in the first place,” Kathy said. “If he hadn’t have been here, we wouldn’t be in this shape.”
“I’m tired of our government,” Billy said. “This has been going on for decades, them not doing anything. There’s laws on the books already that’ve just been swept under the rug.”
The Inmans said they plan to continue this fight until something changes.
But no matter what the result of their struggles for reform and justice, Billy said he and Kathy are grateful for the legacy and memories Dustin left.
“I had an officer send me a letter — I think it was on the 10 year anniversary — and he said ‘Dustin’s memory will probably outlive all of us,’” Billy said. “And that just made me feel good, because I was proud of that kid.”