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'Can't unsee it': Loved ones of man killed by Billings police mourn loss

Rock and Dabney embrace outside of Bullis Mortuary
Posted at 6:20 AM, May 06, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-06 08:20:17-04

HARDIN — On Friday in Hardin, loved ones of James Bennett spoke out for the first time after the 45-year-old man was shot and killed by Billings police Tuesday.

They're mourning the loss of Bennett and hoping for answers as to what exactly happened.

"James made everything an adventure," said Mary Rock, James' partner, on Friday. "He was just so outgoing and so bright."

Rock's world was forever turned upside down on April 30. It all started with a missed phone call.

Mary Rock
Mary Rock

"James was battling with depression. It comes with having cancer and a number of other things," Rock said. "He had decided to stay with his brother for a few days until we go to the doctor and we can get things squared away. And so that's why he was in Billings. He called me and I told him I couldn't talk. I was like, 'I'm going into this appointment.'"

Rock would never speak with Bennett again.

Her decision to decline that call is one she said will haunt her for the rest of her life.

"It's my biggest hurt, you know. I should’ve stopped for that moment," said Rock. "But I didn’t.”

James and Mary
James and Mary

Now she’s left grieving.

"I'm really upset. Honestly, I'm angry,” said Rock.

The first viewing of Bennett’s body took place Friday ahead of his celebration of life planned for May 11.

"Life is short," said Quincy Dabney, a friend of Bennett's and the mayor of Lodge Grass, on Friday. "There's a lot of forgiveness that needs to happen."

Quincy Dabney
Quincy Dabney

Bennett was shot and killed by Billings police on Tuesday. Rock claims he was suffering from a mental health episode related to his stage four cancer battle. She said he was in Billings for a doctor's appointment that day and had recorded a Facebook Live video minutes before his death, talking about his struggles.

"To see the part of the video that I saw, I can't unsee it," Rock said. "To know how scared he was beforehand because he felt something was gonna happen.

Bennett’s family is left questioning whether the five shots were necessary.

"We can 'what if' this thing to death, but we're not allowed to," said Rich St. John, chief of Billings police, at a press conference on Wednesday. "Allow us to finish the investigation, let those independent reviews take place, let the facts come out, and we'll see how things went on."

Chief St. John
Chief St. John

The Montana Division of Criminal Investigation has since taken over, but Billings police argue there’s much more to this incident than what you see. The officer who fired the five shots, Zach Wallis, has been placed on paid administrative leave, which is typical procedure for officers involved in shootings.

Billings police also said Bennett had a criminal history in Billings, and his family admits he was a convicted felon who often carried around a machete.

"That was his protection," Rock said. "In his live video, he also states, 'I carry a machete and a knife.'”

Still, questions remain.

"I think as a mayor and dealing with law enforcement all the time, which I respect, there's always two sides of the story,” Dabney said. "I know it's a heightened atmosphere with everything going on, but I didn't see any other pistols drawn."

Dabney grew up with Bennett. He and others wonder if there could have been another outcome—one that would have kept their friend and loved one alive.

Rock and Dabney embrace outside of Bullis Mortuary
Rock and Dabney embrace outside of Bullis Mortuary

"I was needing a big brother or someone to look up to. And James was that guy, man," Dabney said. "(He was) a big, tall, strong guy. But at heart, he was, how you would say, like a teddy bear."

"He always had a smile. But when you're in a crisis, you don't have that smile," Rock said. "And I don't think that they took the right measures to see if he was okay.”

To read MTN's initial report on the incident, click here.