In Grief, There Is Triumph : Andolseks Refuse to Take No for an Answer


Two large tire tracks, baked hard by the sun, still run from Louisiana 1 across the front lawn of the house once owned by Eric Andolsek.

It will be a year Wednesday, but you can still see where a flatbed diesel truck veered off the road, picked up one of the strongest offensive linemen in the NFL as he weeded his lawn and threw him more than 50 yards.

You can still see the spot in his sister’s yard where Eric Andolsek, a 286-pound lineman for the Detroit Lions, landed and died at the feet of horrified family members.


The family still sees it.

Eric’s father, Lou, who built four adjacent houses for the family on five acres in swamp country, wakes at 2:30 most mornings.

“I feel my pulse going boom, boom, boom, " he said. “And every truck out there, I hear. Every single truck.”

When Eric’s sister, Renee Clement, pulls into her driveway, her fingers strangle the steering wheel.

“I can’t look out my front window anymore without seeing him laying there,” she said.

But something else haunts the family, whose lives were once as simple and easy as a crawfish boil.

It is the memory of James Bennett, the driver of the flatbed diesel, walking out of a courtroom five months after the accident, a smile on his face.

Tests found traces of cocaine in Bennett’s urine two hours after the accident. Witnesses say he had displayed erratic behavior during and after the accident, including failing to apply his brakes until after he had hit Andolsek at an estimated 50 m.p.h.

But because the cocaine could not be directly linked to the accident, he was charged only with failure to maintain control of his vehicle.

Bennett pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 days in jail and fined $175. He served only 14 days, on nights and weekends, and kept his driver’s license and job.

For the two women in Andolsek’s immediate family, grief soon turned to anger.

“My regret was that, while my son was on the ground dying, I had a portable phone in my hand, calling the ambulance and his wife,” said Jackie Andolsek, Eric’s mother, her eyes reddening. “I should have put down the phone and picked up my shotgun.

“I should have walked outside and killed the son of a bitch who killed my boy.”

Instead of breaking the law, though, she and her daughter changed it.

The two schoolteachers wrote dozens of protest letters, handed them out for others to mail, pestered officials and tracked down their legislators.

Their persistence alienated the local district attorney, confounded friends and puzzled others in the family who wanted to get on with their lives.

“They went off the deep end,” said Walter (Butch) Naquin, district attorney of LaFourche Parish.

Last month, Jackie Andolsek got a phone call from state representative John (Jube) Diez, who was standing on the floor of the Louisiana House of Representatives, holding the phone in the air.

In a moment, she heard the passing of a bill written specifically for the Andolsek family that strengthens the state’s vehicular-homicide law.

Another phone call later, Renee’s screams of triumph could be heard through the hallways at a Thibodaux junior high school.

Now, as in many other states, including California, if a suspect in Louisiana is under the influence of drugs, vehicular homicide can be charged and the prosecutor does not have to prove a direct connection between influence and negligence.

On Aug. 15, the Andolsek bill will become law.

Finally, perhaps, a tormented family will again be able to spend an entire night with eyes shut.

Then again, maybe not.

During long afternoons, Jackie Andolsek still traces those tire tracks with her shoe.

“The man murdered my son and he never even lost his license,” she says. “My God.”


Several times a week, Andolsek’s relatives drive a mile down Louisiana 1 to visit mausoleum No. 17 in tiny St. John’s cemetery. The memory of Eric has helped renew in them the strength they once gave him.

“Eric was a strong, strong man because that whole family is strong,” said Bully Gonzales, a longtime friend. “Take his mama. You get in her way, she’s knocking you down.”

When Andolsek was growing up here, the youngest of three children born to a cabinetmaker and high school teacher, that strength was exhibited in mostly quiet ways.

He was suspended once from elementary school because he confronted a bully. He was arrested once, too, but only because he and Gonzales had been racing through town, chasing a gang of troublemakers.

When Lou went to the jail to pick him up that night, Eric was on his knees.

“I thought he was sick,” Lou recalled. “But it turns out he was just praying that I wouldn’t kick his butt.”

Lou weighs nearly 300 pounds, but Eric and his friends were more awed by Eric’s mother. Jackie Andolsek is tall and lean, a Cajun--a direct descendant of the Acadians who settled here more than 200 years ago after their expulsion from Canada.

“His mom was always a tiger,” Gonzales said. “If she got mad at you, she’d tell you. When all of us kids did something wrong, she’d line us up and whip us all.”

That belief, that right is right, was passed along by Jackie and it came in handy after her son died.

Clement called Naquin, the district attorney, five times in hopes of persuading him to charge Bennett with vehicular homicide.

When Naquin finally met with the family and explained the lesser charges, she called him five more times in hopes of taking the case to a grand jury. He eventually allowed it, but her carefully scripted testimony was not enough to bring about an indictment.

“Only time the district attorney called me back was when I threatened to write an article in the newspaper,” Clement said. “He said, ‘Who are you to make judgment calls for your family?’ I said, ‘I’m somebody whose brother has died, that’s who.’ ”

Eric would have been pleased with his family’s fight, but probably uncomfortable with the publicity.

He did not revel in the prominence of being one of the guys who blocked for Barry Sanders while helping the Lions get within one game of the Super Bowl in the 1991 season.

Andolsek liked playing football, but what he really enjoyed was being part of this tight-knit community of 14,035 nicknames.

The mayor of Thibodaux is known as “Checkerboard.” The police chief is called “Nookie.” Andolsek was “Big E.”

Folks here buy crawfish at Chevron stations, eat shrimp spaghetti and drink at Goober’s and Pookie’s. The air is thick with humidity and mosquitoes. The pace is slow.

Once, when asked what he wanted to do when his football career was over, Andolsek shrugged.

“Be a sugar cane farmer,” he said.

His ability as an all-state football guard in high school drew him 90 minutes north to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, but he returned home nearly every weekend.

And although he went on to earn a starting berth with the Lions, he never really lived in Michigan.

Instead, he returned to Louisiana during the off-season. He helped his father build the gray frame and brick house two doors down from his childhood home. A pair of Andolsek’s Size-14 shoes are still on the back porch of that house, untouched since his death.

His wife, Cheryl, 27, has not yet had the strength to move them.

“I don’t know if I have made any forward progress from this,” she said slowly one recent afternoon. “Every day I say, ‘Cheryl, what are you doing now?’ I never know.”

Cheryl was not involved in the fight to change the law, mostly because she couldn’t take the pain.

“No matter if he was shot or if he was killed by a man on cocaine, it doesn’t matter, he’s still not coming back,” she said. “To go through that emotional torture every day, I don’t need that.”

Eric had been planning to go fishing. But he was concerned about getting home late, so he phoned Cheryl, a medical technician, at the hospital in nearby Houma.

And he promised to weed the front lawn first.

“A friend told him that because I might be mad that he would be gone so long, he should do something for me before he left,” Cheryl said.

So Andolsek was weeding at 12:50 p.m. on June 23, 1992.

Andy, his brother who lived next door, had recently sprayed herbicide in his ditch and normally would have sprayed Eric’s at the same time.

“But I ran out of the poison,” Andy Andolsek said. “So I said, ‘Heck, Eric can do his own yard.’ Sometimes I wonder, what if I had gotten a refill?”

Andolsek was last seen alive moments before the accident, when Renee Clement waved to him and blew her horn as she drove past.

Renee was dropping off one of Andy’s children. As she turned into the driveway, she saw, in the distance, a green and orange truck swerving down the road.

“I thought, ‘You know, a lot of accidents happen around here,’ ” she recalled. “But I didn’t think anything else.”

Moments after pulling into the driveway, she heard the sounds that she still hears today.

“There was a loud bang, then a bang-bang-bang,” she recalled. “I looked to my left and Eric was not there anymore. I got out of my car and saw him laying in my front yard. Then I saw that same truck, rolling through my yard.”

The truck had veered off the road and into the small ditch. It missed two utility poles, hitting Eric. A witness reported that he saw Andolsek tossed high into the air.

What happened next, after Renee realized that her attempts at mouth-to-mouth resuscitation were failing, became the crux of the crusade.

Renee said it was “five or six minutes” before Bennett, the driver, left the truck. When he finally emerged, she said, she confronted him, saying, “How could you be so stupid?”

She said he replied, “I dozed off.”

After Bennett had been taken into custody, his story changed twice.

According to police records, he said that he had hit the accelerator instead of the brake.

And in a statement given later that day at LaFourche Parish Detention Center, Bennett claimed that, because the air conditioning was broken in the truck, he was wiping his face with paper towels and didn’t realize the truck was leaving the road.

Bennett also claimed then that he had applied the brakes, but because of the bumps in the ditch, the truck would not stop.

In all statements, Bennett said he never saw Andolsek. The police report stated that no braking appeared to have begun until after the truck had hit Andolsek.

Bennett broke an interview appointment for this story and would not return repeated phone calls.

Two hours after the accident, blood and urine samples were taken from Bennett.

Two weeks later, John Ricca Jr., a forensic scientist with the Louisiana State Police, reported that “cocaine was detected in the specimen of urine labeled James E. Bennett.”

But he also reported: “I cannot prove that cocaine was present in the blood at the time of the accident, or if it was, that the level present would have produced impairment to the degree of causing this accident.”

The difference in finding cocaine in the urine rather than the blood is major, according to Randall Baselt, director of the Chemical Toxicology Institute in Foster City, Calif.

Baselt said that traces can still be in the blood up to 1 1/2 days, but they can be found in the urine for up to four days.

“If cocaine is found in somebody’s urine, we know he took the drug . . . but we don’t know how long ago he took it,” Baselt said.

It was that inability to prove that the cocaine caused the accident, plus a decision to ignore Renee Clement’s testimony, that led Naquin to decline to pursue an original charge of vehicular homicide.

“The law is clear,” Naquin said. “There must be a causal connection between the accident and the intoxication or drug influence. None could be proven here. The mother and sister were out of control.”

Asked if Clement’s statements that Bennett claimed he had fallen asleep were taken into account, Naquin shook his head.

“We had enough statements saying otherwise,” he said.

Jackie Andolsek said: “We all wondered, if the same thing had happened to the D.A.'s son, how much further would he have gone with the case?”

And so the women began their campaign. But with nobody actually listening, friends and family became worried.

“I told them, ‘You are just punishing yourself, you are making your life miserable,’ ” Andy Andolsek said.

Mike LaGarde, sugar cane foreman in the St. John’s community where the Andolseks live, added: “We all felt what happened was a terrible shame, but we figured that what the women were doing was just their way of taking it out on somebody.”

But the women persisted, talking to anyone who would listen, making calls in hopes of having Bennett’s license suspended, studying local driving statistics.

Then, finally, they received a call. It was from representative Warren Triche.

A few days later, the Andolsek women were testifying before the House Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice. Once the hearing began, one amazing thing followed another.

“We’re just telling our story, and all of a sudden one of (the lawmakers) says: ‘An innocent man was killed in his yard and nothing was done?’ ” Renee recalled. “Then they all started saying things. I couldn’t believe it. Finally, after all this time, somebody was listening.”

Afterward, away from the legislators, the women filled the capitol hall with sobs. Soon they learned that somebody had heard.

“The women did their homework,” Rep. Diez said. “They knew what they were talking about. It was hard to vote against a grieving mama and sister.”

The new law would have been no assurance that Bennett would have been convicted of vehicular homicide, because the prosecution must prove that the driver was under the influence. But he probably would at least have been charged with that crime.

“This is a perfect example of how a law comes out of a real-life situation,” said Stephen George, coordinator of the legal division of the Louisiana House Legislative Services.

But real life goes on here in Thibodaux, where Lou Andolsek doesn’t work much past 2 p.m. anymore because being in his back yard then reminds him of the afternoon he heard the screams.

And Cheryl Andolsek can’t work enough. She tries to arrange the schedule at her new job at Thibodaux Hospital so she is too busy to be depressed.

“I worked Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day,” she said. “Sometimes I will try to get on the schedule for the night shift the day before big days, so I can just sleep away that day.”

Jackie Andolsek and Renee Clement try to savor their little victory.

But about 8 o’clock every night, about the time Eric would often bound into one of their homes with mud on his pants and a fat redfish in his hands, the victory seems hollow.

“One thing I still kind of wonder,” Jackie said. “If this law had been effected earlier, do you think my boy would still be alive? I know I should be grateful, but still, I kind of wonder.”