Felony charge filed in racing death
Faith Huffman | News-Telegram News Editor

March 22, 2005 -- The 19-year-old Sulphur Springs man accused of driving the second vehicle in a Gilmer Street race which claimed the life of 19-year-old Octavio Perea Jr. Thursday night turned himself in Monday on the second-degree felony racing on a roadway charge.

Joseph Paul Bennett surrendered himself to Sulphur Springs Police Cpl. Byron Irving at 11:34 a.m. Monday in the lobby of Hopkins County Sheriff's Office, was booked without incident and released Monday afternoon after posting $20,000 bond.

SSPD Investigator Monty Tipps said Tuesday that racing on the roadway would normally be a Class B misdemeanor offense, punishable with a fine up to $2,000 and/or 180 or less in jail. However, the charge was enhanced to a second-degree felony due to the nature of injury resulting from the race and subsequent wreck. The law increases the offense category to a felony anytime a roadway race results in serious bodily injury or death.

Since the race concluded with the Saltillo teen's car smashing into a telephone pole, killing him, the charge was enhanced. Bennett faces two to 20 years in prison and could be assessed an optional fine up to $10,000. However, probation could be an option, as Bennett is not known to have any previous offenses.

"When we were kids you might get a ticket for racing. Today, you can go to jail because of injuries and deaths," Tipps said. "We've had two deaths resulting from racing in the last year."

Tipps said police presence will be increased in areas where racing is suspected, with patrol officers "watching more closely" for racers and charging those caught doing so.

"We got information its happening on the weekends frequently," he said. "Officers are out there, and if they can be in the right place and right time will catch them."

In addition to more police awareness of the racing problem, Thursday's accident served to make many local young people more aware of the dangers of racing, and the potential consequences.

"There were eight witnesses in this offense. Each talked about how senseless this is. Most were in their teens or early 20s. Two lives were altered: one lost and one changed. Before, they probably thought racing was not big deal. They know now the consequences," Tipps said.

Police Chief Jim Bayuk said Friday following the incident that speed was a primary factor in the wreck, and witnesses on a nearby parking lot told accident investigators they could hear the cars coming very fast "from the roar of the engines."

"I will say this - it was very, very fast," Bayuk said. "We don't know where the race started, but when they hit the split, the speed was way too excessive."

Bennett and Perea were said to have raced north on Gilmer Street at high rates of speed until they reached the Gilmer Street-Oak Avenue split, where Bennett braked and was able to avoid sliding, but Perea's car slid out of control. The driver's door slammed into a utility pole, wrapping the car around it and killing Perea almost instantly.

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