"He's gone and not coming back"

Posted Friday, Feb. 01, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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FORT WORTH -- Caten Hyde and Aaron Pennywell grew up together, playing street ball at night, carving pumpkins in Cub Scouts and using their parents' video cameras to film elaborate homemade movies.

They remained close even after both boys' families moved from Broussard, La., to Texas -- Hyde's to Mansfield, and Pennywell's to Houston.

In 2011, Pennywell, barely 20 years old, was killed late one night by a drunken driver in a suburb of Houston.

Distraught, Hyde, now a film student at Texas Christian University, again picked up a video camera. This time, he would tell the story of his friend.

Hyde is nearly finished with the film, a 24-minute documentary recounting Pennywell's life, tragic death and the unusual court battle that followed. He plans to enter the film, titled 1:36, for consideration at some small film festivals, and a showing in Houston is in the works.

"This was incredibly difficult. Telling a story this personal is challenging," said Hyde, 21, who served as a pallbearer at Pennywell's funeral. "You never think of something like this happening to a friend, and it was hard for all of us to grasp."

Pennywell was killed June 25, 2011. On his way home from a late-night dinner with his girlfriend, his vehicle was hit by a van driven by 38-year-old Michael Giacona.

Minutes earlier, a woman had called 911, panicked, to report Giacona, her neighbor. Giacona, she said, was drunk and had broken her window before tearing off in his van.

"He's going to kill somebody," the woman cried. "Please stop him."

Five minutes later, he crashed into Pennywell's slate-colored Ford Mustang at an intersection in Cypress, northwest of Houston.

Pennywell died at the scene.

National news

The film gets its title from the first 911 call on the scene, at 1:36 a.m. More calls poured in, with witnesses reporting Giacona walking around and acting drunk.

Giacona's blood alcohol was 0.241, more than three times the legal limit. But with no witnesses to the actual crash, authorities said they could not pursue an intoxication manslaughter charge because they did not have enough evidence to prove that Giacona had run a red light.

Instead, Giacona pleaded guilty to his second DWI and was sentenced to a year in jail.

After serving 90 days, he was granted "shock" probation.

The case made national news when court-at-law Judge Michael Fields ordered Giacona, as part of his probation, to wear a giant sign that read, "I killed Aaron Coy Pennywell while driving drunk," on four consecutive Saturdays.

Giacona served one Saturday before the judge waived the sentence because of threats made against him.

Fields also required Giacona to write a letter of apology, which Giacona refused, so he was sent back to the Harris County Jail to finish his sentence.

The Pennywell family is now pursuing a wrongful death suit against Giacona.

'Make a plan'

To piece together the film, Hyde combed through tapes of 911 calls, statements from witnesses, and police reports. Giacona, however, declined Hyde's requests for an interview.

In June, one year after his friend's death, Hyde spent a weekend with the family in Cypress, collecting about five hours of interviews with family and friends and sorting through old photographs of Pennywell playing baseball, posing with his brother and attending prom.

Aaron Pennywell's parents, Dennis and Kae Pennywell, had only one request: that the film help deter others from drinking and driving. Since their son's death, the Pennywells have spoken to high school students, church groups and college organizations, sometimes bringing along their son's car to help make their point.

"I cannot sit by and do nothing while this happens to other families," Kae Pennywell said. "We don't tell kids not to drink, but we ask that they make a plan. Call a cab. Have a designated driver. Stay there and sleep it off."

Dennis Pennywell added: "Call us. We'll come get you. If we can stop even one person from drinking and driving, this will be worth it."

'Still seems surreal'

The film, however, is about more than the crash. It details Aaron Pennywell's love of baseball and his Ford Mustang, which he washed religiously, his close relationship with his younger brother, Jack, and his struggle to choose a career. Not long before he died, Pennywell, a student at Lone Star College, had decided to pursue a degree in hotel restaurant management.

Hyde wanted to incorporate a moment or two of levity.

Pennywell was a longtime member of his high school choir, but he refused to sing at home. His mother finally asked him why he even joined.

"Mom," he told her, "it's for the girls and the trips."

In the film, Dennis Pennywell said the family is still struggling to accept their son's death.

"You would think after a while that you would start to get over it," he tells the camera. "But it still seems surreal, he's gone and not coming back."

Sarah Bahari, 817-390-7056

Twitter: @sarahbfw

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