He called the office around a month ago, a bit earlier in the year this time. Billy Inman had read of my early retirement and wished me well. Usually, he got in touch a couple of weeks before Father's Day, since it was that weekend in the year 2000 when he and his wife Kathy lost their only child, 16-year-old Dustin.
The almost two decades-old news story is known by most people in Gilmer County. To recap, the Inman family, of Woodstock, was headed to Lake Chatuge for a fishing trip on Friday night of Father's Day weekend. They had stopped at the red light at the intersection of Highway 515 and First Avenue in East Ellijay around 11 p.m. Suddenly, a car slammed into them from behind doing 60 mph, instantly killing Dustin and the family dog in the back seat.
The collision smashed the Inmans' car into the rear end of another vehicle, severely injuring Kathy and Billy. Both were airlifted from the scene. For 19 years now, Kathy has never risen to walk from a wheelchair, and still struggles with a traumatic brain injury.
The driver alleged to be at fault, an illegal immigrant named Gonzalo Harrell-Gonzalez, tried to blend into the crowd at the scene. But witnesses pointed him out, and through someone translating he told officers he had fallen asleep at the wheel. He then complained of stomach pain and was taken by an officer to the hospital in Dalton. He was admitted, then later walked out of the hospital and out of custody, not to be seen again by those investigating the wreck.
The pre-Father's Day call from Billy, asking if I could again write something about the search for Harrell-Gonzalez, didn't come this year. He died peacefully of natural causes while resting in his easy chair two weeks ago, according to news reports.
Whenever Billy called, I would ask him if there was anything new to report on the case. Most of the time there wasn't. However, in 2015 we published a "Gilmer County's Most Wanted" lead story on the front page of the Ellijay Times-Courier framed like an old-time "Wanted" poster. A local law enforcement officer told us it ruffled the feathers of some officials in the U.S. Marshals Service, but hey, we just made phone calls and asked questions. It's pretty much common knowledge now he was last known to be in Monterrey, Mexico.
There were times I discerned Billy just needed to talk, and I was glad to listen. Even though we'd never met in person, a friendship formed. Over time, some spiritual questions were ventured. One day, I asked if he had forgiven Harrell-Gonzalez.
“I've had a lot of time to think about it, Mark,” he said. “I've forgiven him, but I still want to see justice done.”
That quest for some type of closure drove Billy, and also led to immigration reform in Georgia. Yet there didn't seem to be vindictiveness in him. In an article titled "The Deadly Consequences of Unforgiveness," Dr. Steven Standiford, chief of surgery at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, said refusing to forgive makes people sick and keeps them that way.
“It's important to treat emotional wounds or disorders because they really can hinder someone's reactions to the treatments, even someone's willingness to pursue treatment,” he told CBN News. Standiford said “forgiveness therapy” is now used by some doctors as an integral part of treating disease, including cancer.
Dr. Carol Tanksley, a board-certified obstetrics and gynecology specialist and reproductive endocrinology specialist, is rather blunt on the topic of unforgiveness: “Bitterness and unforgiveness doesn't pay. Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die ... it's terribly toxic physically, not to mention emotionally and spiritually.”
Tanksley said research at major universities has shown unforgiveness has been associated with high blood pressure (understandably), “bad cholesterol” levels, immune problems, chronic pain, cancer and decreasing the flow of blood through the coronary arteries.
“The research keeps piling up, but the basic message is the same,” she said. “Beyond being bad for your emotions and your soul, unforgiveness hurts your body.”
And speaking of the soul, many years ago a story from the Philippines was published in several major newspapers throughout the vast island chain. It centered around the near-death experience of a Christian doctor. According to the physician, he died temporarily and was being escorted around heaven by an angel. But then they came upon a disturbing sight — and like the parable of Lazarus and the rich man from the Bible where transparency is shown between the splendor of heaven and the darkness of the netherworld — he could look down into hell. His mother-in-law was there.
“How can this be? My mother-in-law was a Christian,” the doctor said he asked the angel in disbelief.
“She refused to forgive someone,” the angel replied.
Harsh? You decide. Jesus himself said, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Is that too “preachy” for you? If so, just disregard it. It's your call. However, I issue no apology in such an important matter. As for Billy, he was dealt an extremely difficult hand by life — his only heir was stolen, as was his wife's mobility. Yet after his death more than one person in the Georgia media remarked that for the first time in 19 years, Billy and Dustin are together again.
I would have to concur with that. And I hope they went fishing up there on Father's Day.
Mark Millican is a former staff writer with the Daily Citizen-News.