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Posted: 3:33 a.m. Thursday, June 21, 2012

Grandfather of boys killed in Lake Lanier crash paints tragic picture

By Jay Black

The man charged with being drunk and crashing his boat into a family’s pontoon “hung around for 10 minutes, then left” as the Prince family scrambled to save their kids, said the grandfather of the boys killed in the crash.

Mike Prince was not one of the 13 people on that pontoon boat Monday night when Paul J. Bennett allegedly crashed into it while he was drinking. But Prince spoke to his son Mike Jr. who was driving.

Prince says his 15-year-old grandson found the body of his 9-year-old brother Ryan not far from the pontoon. He wanted to save his 13-year-old brother Griffin, but couldn’t go into the water.

"The only reason he didn't get Griffin was because he wasn't wearing a life jacket," said Mike Sr.

The grandfather says the family was on their way home from testing the new Avalon pontoon with friends. Around 10:30 p.m. Monday Bennett rammed into them, virtually head-on, investigators say.

The pontoon was hit on the right side, which has a green light that would give it the right of way. But investigators wouldn’t go as far as to say which way the boat was going.

 "It's a direct impact regardless of the direction," DNR Law Enforcement Section Maj. Stephen Adams said. Both boats were moving when the collision occurred, he said, adding that the suspect's boat "was going faster."

The pontoon was one of the better parts of the family boating business. Mike Sr. opened Grass Shack in Buford 21 years ago. His two sons, Mike Jr. and David now help run it.

Search crews tried for a second day to find the body of 13-year-old Griffin. They have been using dive teams and sonar to scope the waters of Lake Lanier. Divers will head back out again Thursday morning to try again.

Divers are searching waters 100 feet deep. The bottom is complicated. It’s filled with trees and low visibility. Authorities also aren’t exactly sure where  the wreck happened.

Griffin is an 8th grader at Lanier Middle School in Gwinnett County. His grandparents say he enjoyed riding dirt bikes with his brothers and was an avid Boy Scout.

"I had seven grandchildren. I have five now," said Mike Prince, who was in Key Largo on business when his wife called to tell him about the accident.

The boys’ parents are inconsolable and relying on their Mormon faith to get them through this, Mike Sr. says.

A memorial service will be held for the boys once Griffin’s body is found. A fund has been set up in their names. Donations can be made at any Wells Fargo branch. A memorial Facebook page for the Prince boys also has been set up.

Bennett, 44, of Cumming was arrested in the early Tuesday, about three hours after the wreck. He is charged with boating under the influence and could face homicide charges, according a spokesman with the Department of Natural Resources. He could also be charged with failing to render aid.

His boat, a 21-foot Sea Fox fishing boat built in 2002, was found tied to another vessel at the Bald Ridge marina where he was arrested.

Bennett was released on bond later Tuesday. He could not be reached for comment.

Dave Campbell, who has a boat at Bald Ridge, said Bennett has lived on a houseboat at the marina for several months. He called Bennett "hardworking and extremely likable."

"I don't think he has a bad bone in his body," Campbell said.

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