Most mornings, Letara Bennett needed an early start and a fast pace, just to keep up. A waitress who worked the breakfast shift 30 miles away, there was no time to lose.
Her husband, Michael Bennett, also had a lot of responsibilities. The former truck driver was the father of nine children and had been out of work recently.
Before dawn on May 2, Mr. Bennett was headed west down Interstate 4, driving his wife from their Lakeland home to her shift at a San Antonio Waffle House, where Mrs. Bennett had worked the last 14 years.
He also had a job interview lined up at 7:30 a.m.
Neither made it. According to the Florida Highway Patrol, an unidentified driver cut off Mr. Bennett's SUV, causing a crash. Mr. Bennett, 37, and Mrs. Bennett, 32, died at area hospitals. Mrs. Bennett, a mother of four, had lived most of her life in Pasco County. Mr. Bennett was a Tampa native. The couple lived in Lakeland since marrying about six years ago.
Between them, the Bennetts leave behind 13 children, ages 5 to 19.
Mandy Everett, a Waffle House waitress with Mrs. Bennett, described her colleague as an "awesome worker" who gave the job 100 percent, was a favorite of regular customers and even cooked when necessary.
"Everybody who worked here loved her," said Everett, 25.
Mrs. Bennett's family members recall a woman with an excellent voice who liked to sing Beyonce, Jay-Z and gospel melodies.
"She was a kind-hearted person," said Jermeka Lewis, 31, her sister. "Her spirit was just right. Even if somebody was angry or mad, she would forget about her anger and still treat you with respect."
Mr. Bennett grew up in Tampa and graduated from Jefferson High School. He spent about a year in the Army, then drove trucks. He was playful.
Karen Smith, a cousin, said Mr. Bennett was known to sneak up on family members and put them in wrestling holds. A fan of wrestling on television, Mr. Bennett enjoyed pretending to be one character or another to all of his boys. He was immediately gang-tackled by them, the carpet turned into a wrestling canvas.
Before Letara, Mr. Bennett was married for several years to Patricia Bennett. In all, his children have resulted from several relationships, Smith said.
Mr. and Mrs. Bennett accepted each other's children when they married. "They were a package deal," said Smith. "You can't get one without the other."
They enjoyed trips to places like Chuck E. Cheese, Busch Gardens and Walt Disney World with whichever of his or her children could come along.
Still, the couple struggled financially. Mrs. Bennett's children had recently been living with her mother, Lewis said. Mr. Bennett's family said his children live in Tampa with their mothers.
Then in January, Mr. Bennett was arrested on drug charges in Temple Terrace. The arrest cost him his job driving a truck with Stephens Transport, his cousin said.
The morning of May 2, Mr. Bennett was to meet with brother-in-law Larry Lewis about a job after he dropped off Mrs. Bennett at the Waffle House. About 6:10 a.m., according to the FHP, Mr. Bennett was driving his GMC Envoy outside of Plant City on I-4 when an unknown vehicle "aggressively" cut off him off.
Mr. Bennett swerved into an emergency lane, then overcorrected — causing the SUV to collide with a truck. Mr. Bennett's SUV flipped, ejecting the couple, neither of whom were wearing a seat belt.
The driver of the car that cut in front of Mr. Bennett's car did not stop. Authorities are still looking for the dark-colored compact involved in the crash. The FHP is asking anyone with information to call (813) 631-4020.
Meanwhile, both families are struggling to cope. They lack funds for funeral expenses.
"The children are taking it hard," Smith said.
Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.