Father's mission to avenge son's death pays off

By Ann Dickerson, Atlanta Journal Constitution, December 17, 2005

http://www.ajc.com/metro/content/metro/cherokee/1205/17metinman.html

Billy and Kathy Inman have found some hard-won peace this holiday season, after more than five years of searching for the man who allegedly killed their only child in a North Georgia car wreck.

A suspect, who slipped away from authorities after the Father's Day weekend crash in 2000, is sitting in a Birmingham jail.

The Inmans, who live in Woodstock, were hospitalized for weeks after the crash in Ellijay and missed 16-year-old Dustin's funeral. Kathy Inman suffered spinal injuries and probably will never walk again.

Gonzalo Harrell-Gonzalez, 37, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, was arrested in November and is charged with vehicular homicide, two counts of serious injury by vehicle and reckless driving. He's being held in the Jefferson County Jail and is expected to be extradited to Ellijay, in Gilmer County, next month.

Billy Inman, 42, still angry that the suspect escaped after the wreck, believes police had the man in September, but a judge in Birmingham ruled it was a case of mistaken identity and released him. Inman was still not convinced.

For five frustrating years he has badgered police and the FBI, set up a Web site, and pasted a "wanted" poster on his faded blue van with an explanation of what happened to Dustin.

He put up posters of Harrell-Gonzalez and Dustin's story in Huddle Houses and convenience stores in small towns from Georgia to North Carolina, hoping someone would recognize the suspect.

Kathy Inman said her husband kept the case alive. "He stays up late on the computer night after night," she said. "I fussed at him, but now I'm glad he didn't listen to me. I knew Billy would get it done eventually. When he gets determined about something, he's not going to let it go."

Lt. Mike Gobble of the Gilmer County Sheriff's Office, who has worked the case for three years with the Inmans, delivered the good news with a phone call early this month: "Billy. Merry Christmas. We got him."

The twists and turns that have frustrated the Inmans began right after the crash. In June 2000, a driver plowed into the back of the Inmans' Grand Am while the family was stopped at a traffic light in Ellijay, en route to a Father's Day cookout. Dustin, who had just completed his freshman year at Etowah High School, died at the scene.

Harrell-Gonzalez, the alleged driver of the car that struck the Inmans, was taken to North Georgia Medical Center in Ellijay, then transferred to Hamilton Hospital in Dalton, where he escaped.

He was not accompanied by a police officer.

Greg Arp, who has been Ellijay's chief of police for about two years, said he's not sure why an officer didn't stay with the driver.

"I don't know what happened on that case, but I do know we're a small department with limited resources," Arp said. "In some cases, there's only one officer on duty. He's got to work the wreck, then go to the hospital."

Billy Inman, a quiet, reflective man who enjoyed hunting and fishing with his son, began his own search.

"It just kept eating at me that my son's life is over and this guy is still out there living his life," Inman said. "Nothing I can do will bring him back, but I'd like to see him get justice."

Much of Inman's anger was focused on the suspect being an illegal immigrant, and he used the Internet to ask for assistance in his search.

D.A. King of Marietta recently founded the "Dustin Inman Society," which is "dedicated to educating the public and our elected officials on the consequences of illegal immigration," according to the group's Web site. Billy and Kathy Inman serve on the board of advisers.

After years of dead ends, Inman was searching the Internet in September and discovered that Harrell-Gonzalez's father lived in Birmingham. He asked local authorities to pay him a visit and police picked up a man they thought was the suspect.

But a magistrate judge ruled that the arrested man was Harrell-Gonzalez's brother, and he was released. Billy Inman remains convinced that the man they had in custody was the man who allegedly killed his son. He kept pestering the police.

Then, about six weeks ago police arrested Harrell-Gonzalez and charged him with being a fugitive from justice. In Ellijay, Gobble began working to obtain facial X-rays of the suspect taken after the wreck. But as the days ticked by without any resolution, Inman fretted. Would he go free again?

Harrell-Gonzalez had been in jail for a month when Gobble delivered the good news to Inman.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation forensic lab in Atlanta had matched dental and facial X-rays taken while Harrell-Gonzalez was in the Birmingham jail with those taken at the North Georgia Medical Center in Ellijay, where Harrell-Gonzalez was taken after the wreck.

"I hope we can finally turn the page and get on with our lives," said Billy Inman, a salesman-driver for Tip Top Foods. "But we'll just see how it goes from here. I keep trying to get him caught, but it just seems like it's a lot of hurry up and wait."

In the Gilmer County Sheriff's office, Gobble is relieved that Inman's tenacity has paid off.

"Billy's been on a mission and I don't blame him," Gobble said. "He calls me nearly every day and I don't mind a bit. He's one of the nicest guys I know. I'm glad to see this closed for him.

"He's an amazing guy," Gobble said, "and he couldn't ask for a better Christmas present."

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