“I still have hope. I just wish the driver would come forward. Maybe his life would change too. It is hard to forget when you can’t find who to forgive,” said Georgia Cobenais in a video released January 31 by the Polk County Sheriff’s Department.
The video was part of a press conference that was a joint effort between the Polk County Sheriff’s Department, the Tribal Police and the families of Ben Juarez and Rick Cobenais.
Polk County Sheriff, Brent Waak, said the goal Friday was to revisit an unsolved case that affected Polk County and the Round Lake Community on January 11, 2014; the hit and run, double fatality that took the lives of Juarez and Cobenais.
Friends and family of both victims gathered inside and outside of the press conference room where information was shared in hopes of keeping details fresh in people’s minds. Those coordinating the event are hopeful that by sharing the story Friday afternoon, the details will spread both online and through media outlets to help solve the case.
“We are asking for a plea for some humanity today and that somebody come forward with some information on who did this,” said Waak.
The video shared with those in attendance featured Georgia, Rick’s widow who witnessed the incident and the chilling 911 call she made after the men were stricken and killed by a truck.
According to the video, witnesses said Rick Cobenais, concerned over Ben Juarez’s ability to drive, took his car keys. An altercation ensued that spilled into the traffic lanes of County Road E. A truck approached from the north and hit them.
Evidence at the scene and witness statements indicated that after striking the pair, the truck stopped. The driver and a front passenger exited the vehicle and began to approach the scene before abruptly running back to the vehicle and fleeing to the south.
Law enforcement, the families of the victims and the entire Round Lake Community are haunted by two spine-tingling questions, “Who were the subjects in the truck and why did they leave?”
Tribal police chief Frank Taylor said, “These two families have wanted answers as to who is responsible for this tragic event that took Rick and Ben away from them.” He said the victims were part of the Round Lake community that has not had time to heal properly knowing the persons responsible are still out there.
“It’s time for those who are responsible to do the right thing and restore the faith back in humanity. It’s time to honor those families who are grieving daily about their loss and help them find closure. For the driver who did this, it is time for you to come to reason and lift the guilt that has been with you for the past six years,” said Taylor.
He feels expressed closure is necessary for the families affected and for the ones responsible. He said, “It cannot be easy to carry the shame and guilt for so many years. It can’t be easy to know you are the one responsible for causing so much pain. It is time to end that and come forward.”
Cobenais was 41 at the time of his death. He was described as a father, a grandfather and a respected member of the community who loved every second he lived.
Juarez was 27 and known for his work ethic, his smile, his ability to fix things and the kindness he showed everyone.
The video expresses the heartache family members constantly feel. Shirley Juarez, Ben’s grandmother who raised him said, “I think about him all of the time. What would he be doing now? I miss him a lot. He was my baby.”
Georgia and Shirley have heavy hearts but they admit closure is possible if only they knew who was responsible and why they left. Without knowing they fear they will never truly be free. Georgia said, “I don’t know why things happen the way they happen, but I hope at some point I could learn to forgive them. If the show were on the other foot, would they want me to stop?”
The gravity of the situation is not lost on those still investigating the situation all these years later. Found at the scene were several pieces of the exterior of the vehicle, which match a dark-colored Ford truck. In the days after, law enforcement identified all of the Ford F150 and F250s in the surrounding area, which were approximately 1,700.
“We do not have a license plate. It was dark and this was a horrific chaotic scene for the family when this happened. The eye witness accounts are very difficult because of the tragedy that was occurring,” said Waak.
To date, more than 100 leads have been investigated. With each day, the trail gets colder but those who know the case best feel they are just one tip away from breaking things wide open. “We are not going to give up just because it has been six years. We are still going to go out and do what we need to do to bring resolution to this case and to the families,” said Taylor.
Waak was a patrol sergeant at the time of the incident and was called to the scene, as was Taylor who sees the aftermath on a daily basis within his community. To both, the fact that the case remains unsolved is incomprehensible. “Six years removed from the actual date of this occurrence, but to the family members it happened yesterday. They want closure. They want answers,” said Taylor.
“I never thought six years later we still would be searching for these answers. Whoever went through that area had no way to avoid this crash, but what is troubling is that they didn’t stop, they didn’t render aid, they continued on leaving us with all these family members wanting closure. It is hard to say goodbye to your loved ones when you don’t have all those answers,” said Waak.
Rick’s son, Thomas Fowler spoke at the conference. When speaking of the individuals who fled the scene six years ago he said, “I don’t hold grudges against them. As an Anishinaabe we are taught that forgiveness gives us peace, but I do not have anyone to forgive. My peace has been disrupted for five years.” He described how since the incident he has had anxiety over people walking and jogging on the local county roads. “There are two individuals out there who feel it is ok to run someone over and keep going. I need peace so I can move on with the rest of my life. I am ready to forgive these two individuals. Be a man. Do the right thing. I cannot keep reliving this,” he said.
Shirley also expressed sadness at the conference that memorials have been placed for the two victims, but seem to get taken down.
During Friday’s gathering, Georgia said she does recall a blue bin being in the back of the truck, but found a decent description of the individuals to be difficult because of the fact that they were wearing hats and it was so dark out.
Waak is asking that if there were any witnesses that have not yet come forward, that they please do so. “Maybe there is one little detail they can provide to help us with this case,” he said.
All those involved are hoping that by coming forward, the truth will also set the driver and passenger who drove away that night free and that it is never to late for everyone to move forward together.
Shirley said, “It hurts me a lot that they can just be out walking around or working or having fun when my grandson is dead. I’m not angry anymore but I was at first. I can’t stay angry forever but it does hurt a lot.”
A tip line has been set up. If you call the Polk County Sheriff’s Department at 715-485-8300, you will be directed to the tip line.