Highway renamed for fallen officer

By Brian Knox | Published Saturday, August 26, 2017
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A Family Honor

A FAMILY HONOR – Deroy Bennett was on hand Wednesday as a sign dedicated to his late father was installed on U.S. 380. James “Poncho” Bennett, a Decatur Police officer, was killed while on duty 37 years ago. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

Under a cloudy, yet not quite overcast sky, Wednesday morning, a brown sign dangled from the end of a crane between two metal poles on the side of U.S. 380 at Decatur’s east city limits.

Texas Department of Transportation employees preparing the sign to be attached to the poles were probably not used to their work attracting such a crowd, which included several officers.

To those officers, the sign has special significance for the name that it bears: James “Poncho” Bennett, the only Decatur Police officer to be killed in the line of duty.

That sign, and another that would be placed at the west city limits on U.S. 380, officially renamed the stretch of road as the James “Poncho” Bennett Memorial Highway.

Bennett’s son, Deroy Bennett, was 9 when his father was killed while making a traffic stop on April 3, 1980. He was also on hand Wednesday to watch the signs go up.

Remembering an Officers Sacrifice

REMEMBERING AN OFFICER’S SACRIFICE – Lt. Gerald Wright (left) and Decatur Police Chief Rex Hoskins (center) worked for more than a year to have signs installed along U.S. 380 in honor of late officer James Bennett. Bennett’s son, Deroy (right), is the city fire marshal and a former Decatur Police officer. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

“Way too many emotions really,” Bennett said. “It’s something I thought I’d never see, but I’m glad I am.”

Turning away from the sign and looking back east, Bennett pointed to a spot about a quarter-mile down the road.

“Right there. See that entrance to the oil well to the left? Right at that hill,” he said.

The spot is one that Bennett and Decatur Police officers know well. It’s the spot where 37 years ago, 45-year-old James Bennett stopped a vehicle matching the description of a car involved in the theft of a firearm in Bridgeport earlier that morning.

According to witnesses, 17-year-old Hijinio Veloz Jr. got out of his car with the stolen rifle and pointed it at Bennett. A passing motorist told a Messenger reporter she and her family saw Veloz shoot the officer.

He died at the scene.

Decatur Police Chief Rex Hoskins said the department originally wanted to place a marker at the site where Bennett was killed, but he said the marker would have to be set back from the road, and you would have to stop to read it.

The signs provided a better option, in his opinion.

“This way, people would see it more,” Hoskins said of the signs. “You’d have to stop to read the memorial, like a historical marker. This way, everybody who drives through here is going to know it.”

Hoskins said Lt. Gerald Wright headed up the effort to work with TxDOT to have the signs placed along U.S. 380. The Decatur City Council also gave the department its blessing to pursue the project last summer.

The entire process took about 12 to 15 months, the chief said.

Sizing up the sign, Hoskins noted its color is similar to the color of the Decatur Police uniforms at the time Bennett was killed.

He nodded his approval.

“It’s something to honor his name. He gave his life for this community. The family has suffered all this time. It’s just another way of honoring his memory,” he said.

The Decatur Police Department is also working with the Bridgeport Police Department to possibly have a section of Texas 114 in their city renamed for Bridgeport officer Randy White, who was killed April 2, 2009, while assisting with a police chase of a suspect in a stolen vehicle.

As the sign was being prepared to slide onto the last two bolts to secure it in place, the sun broke through the clouds, bathing the sign in brilliant sunshine.

A sign that will ensure that an officer’s sacrifice will not go unnoticed.

“I hope it’s the last one that has to be put up around here,” Hoskins said.

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