HOWARD CITY — It was just another Thursday night in a small town.
Two young men who had attended high school together happened to visit the local bar at the same time. They shared a conversation before going their separate ways.
In the early morning hours of Friday, one man was dead in the middle of the road just a few blocks away from the bar. The other man would take the blame for the death, but the facts of what really happened that summer night will likely never be known.
Ryan Bennett, 24, of Howard City, was sentenced on June 27 for the death of Scott Gregory, 25, of Howard City.
As 8th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Suzanne Hoseth Kreeger noted, it was a criminal case with “very extenuating circumstances.”
Montcalm County sheriff’s deputies responded to a vehicle vs. pedestrian accident at 2:28 a.m. Friday, July 20, 2012, on W. Edgerton Street in downtown Howard City. Gregory was found dead at the scene, just a few blocks away from Bennett’s home.
Bennett and Gregory had both been at Latitude’s Roadhouse that prior evening. Gregory apparently left the bar on foot. Bennett was apparently headed home in his vehicle when he came across Gregory.
Bennett’s vehicle struck Gregory in some capacity, but it’s not known if that was the cause of Gregory’s death, or if Gregory had been injured or killed before Bennett struck him.
What is known is Bennett was driving with a blood alcohol content between 0.18 and 0.19, which is more than twice the legal limit for driving. Gregory had a blood alcohol content of 0.286, which would have been more than three times the legal limit if he had been driving.
After Bennett’s vehicle struck Gregory, Bennett went to his home nearby to seek his father’s advice. His father immediately called 911.
Sheriff’s deputies discovered evidence that linked Bennett’s vehicle to striking Gregory.
According to Montcalm County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Chris Hekman, there was no physical evidence or parts left behind from another vehicle. However, Bennett’s vehicle didn’t leave any parts at the scene either. Hekman said medical evidence suggests the possibility that Gregory was struck by another vehicle as well.
‘We don’t know why’
Bennett was not charged with Gregory’s death until the following January. He was charged with operating while intoxicated causing death and reckless driving causing death.
Bennett pleaded no contest on May 16 to attempted operating while intoxicated causing death. A no contest plea is not a guilty plea, but is treated as such by the court for sentencing purposes. He also pleaded guilty to operating while intoxicated with a high blood alcohol content.
Bennett was sentenced on June 27 in 8th Judicial Circuit Court. Before he was sentenced, Gregory’s sister Amanda Gregory gave an emotional statement in court. She had come home from active duty in South Carolina to be at the sentencing of her brother’s death.
“My brother was an amazing person and we don’t have him anymore and we don’t know why,” Amanda Gregory said. “I don’t think that we’ll ever know why. My children lost their uncle, which is the biggest impact, in my opinion. He was like a second father to them. He loved my kids so much.”
Amanda Gregory said she and her family have no desire for any retaliation or retribution against Bennett.
“I don’t know all the facts,” she said. “I am concerned about some of the choices that were made that night. The accident may or may not have been preventable, but leaving and leaving him there alone was preventable.”
Bennett’s attorney Craig Haehnel noted that Bennett has no prior criminal record whatsoever. He said Bennett swore off alcohol after the accident.
“It’s personal to Ryan, not just because he was the driver, but it was somebody he went to high school with and knew and thought highly of,” Haehnel said.
Bennett spoke just briefly in court, his voice choked with emotion.
“I’m just sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry to the family. I will live with the guilt forever.”
Kreeger sentenced Bennett to 60 days in jail with credit for 13 days already served and 30 days to be suspended. Because Bennett is gainfully employed, he was not required to start his jail sentence until today. He was also sentenced to probation and alcohol treatment. He must wear an alcohol monitor after he is released from jail. He must complete 360 hours of community service and pay $7,762 in restitution to Gregory’s family, along with other court costs.
Bennett’s sentence is a delayed sentence, meaning if he successfully completes all terms of probation, the felony conviction will be removed from his record.
“This is certainly a very unusual matter and certainly a heartbreaking situation,” Kreeger told Bennett. “There was a loss of life that night and it’s very, very clear that but for the consumption of alcohol, both on your part as well as the victim, as I understand it, we would have likely had a very different outcome.
“There are some significant proof issues as it relates to how this death occurred,” the judge said. “What is clear is that you did run over him. Whether or not it was you running over him that actually caused his death is something that this court will never know. It appears that really nobody will ever know because of the consumption of alcohol.”