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Families seek light for stretch of U.S. 19

Relatives from both families who were involved in a road accident that claimed the life of a pedestrian on the last day of 2004 say street lights should be put up immediately at that section of U.S. 19.

Gregory Matthew Benefield, 22, of Homosassa was struck and killed while walking on the inside southbound lane of U.S. 19 near W McKinley Street. That point of the highway is 1 mile north of Cardinal Street and 2 miles south of Yulee Drive, and it is on a curve.

Stavros J. Spiropoulos, 19, the driver of the minivan that struck Benefield, was not charged in the accident, which the Florida Highway Patrol investigated.

Parents of both young men say the tragedy has had devastating effects.

"There were really two victims here," said Georgia Spiropoulos, the driver's mother. "I know they lost their son, but really, this is devastating to my son as well. He's sullen and won't talk about it. He's in denial. He's not doing well in school."

Spiropoulos was visiting his parents on the Christmas holidays from Nashville, where he attends college. He has since returned to school.

Benefield's funeral was attended by hundreds of people, said his mother, Michelle Spearing. She said the family hasn't been able to afford to buy their son a burial plot and his cremains are at their home.

Benefield's mother said she wants street lights on the curve where her son died. Two other pedestrians were hit and killed by vehicles in that same area in 2004.

Jan. 3, 2004, Charles S. Hutchins, 62, stepped into U.S. 19's southbound lane and was struck by a car and killed, the FHP reported at the time.

Sept. 22, there was another fatal accident. Thomas J. Naughton, 72, tried to cross U.S. 19's southbound lanes near McKinley when a southbound car struck and killed him, the FHP reported.

The Spiropouloses also want street lights there.

"That road is pretty dark from Sugarmill Woods to the SunTrust Bank," said John Spiropoulos, who is the driver's father and was in the back seat of the 1993 Voyager minivan when it struck Benefield.

"All I saw was this object flying into the windshield. There was no time to react," he said. "My son said, "What was that?' and we pulled into the grass right away."

County Commissioner Gary Bartell said he has asked county staffers to contact the state Department of Transportation to come up with a safety recommendation for the stretch of road.

"We need a recommendation from DOT on that, since they are the safety experts. It's on a curve, so a street light may not be the only solution," Bartell said Wednesday. "But if that's the only thing that can be done in a quick fashion, then that's what should happen. But we should at least get the recommendation from DOT first."

Both families have to drive by the spot where the accident occurred every day. And while it's tough for the Spiropouloses, it's heartbreaking for Benefield's family.

"I have to drive by that spot every day, and it's not right. I always thought my sons would outlive me," Michelle Spearing said.

She said her son, who did not have a driver's license and was never much of a driver, walked the road a lot.

"And there's a lot of people like him, who don't have the luxury of driving everywhere they go," she said. "They have to walk, and they deserve to be safe."

Jorge Sanchez can be reached at 860-7313 or sanchezsptimes.com.

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