WATERBURY, Conn. — A 17-year-old drowned while fleeing police after being discovered in a stolen vehicle with three other juveniles in Waterbury. Police have now confirmed that the teen was Benjamin Payton, known to family and friends as "Benny Jr."
"I saw his mom, just like, she couldn't breathe or anything, I was just like, this is real," said Nia Cooper, Benny's best friend.
Cooper and her family grew up alongside Benny.
"He was that brother that I could trust, that friend that I never had a fallout with," Cooper said.
Now, Cooper and her friends and other family members are trying to deal with the loss of a son, a brother, a cousin, a friend, and so much more.
"We love him and we miss him," said Toni Cooper, Nia's sister and also a friend of Benny's.
Benny Jr. lost his life on March 28th, after running from Waterbury Police.
Police said at 12:13 p.m. on Tuesday, an officer was on patrol near Grilleytown Rd. when they came across an abandoned, unoccupied, car stolen out of Millertown, NY. Shortly after recovering this stolen vehicle, the officer saw another stolen car out of Ridgefield, CT. This vehicle was occupied and parked near Sage Dr.
The officer approached and four occupants immediately ran away. The officer arrested the 14-year-old driver, and another 16-year-old boy male nearby.
Two more people ran into a wooded area near Lakewood Lake. One of the teens, a 17-year-old, make it out and was arrested.
However, Benny Jr. didn't make it out. Police said he went under the water and could no longer be seen. Police and fire officials went in to look for him and were unsuccessful.
The Region 5 Dive team responded and recovered Benny Jr. from the reservoir. He was taken to Saint Mary's Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Cooper said getting chased by police was one of Benny's biggest fears.
"We've had talks in case we've ever gotten into like, a situation with officers or anything. And he let it be known that that's probably one of his biggest fears," Cooper said. "Because being an African American boy, being black, and having an encounter with police, it can go multiple ways."
Cooper thinks that Benny likely got scared, and ran.
"I'll say he ran because he was scared. He didn't know what to expect. He didn't know the outcome was going to cost him his life," Cooper said.
Another one of Benny's family members, his cousin Jynia Gibbs, spoke with FOX61 near the reservoir. She said she actually drove by the scene on Tuesday, not knowing what it was about.
"Way before I even found out it was him, I was praying to God I did not know the person. But once I found out it was him, I'm going to be honest, I completely dropped, I dropped down in tears," Gibbs said. "Because it's like, ain't no way I'm watching you grow up, and now you're gone."
Benny's family remembers him as a silly 17-year-old. They said he loved basketball. He was smart and caring. They believe he sent them a sign on Tuesday evening, with the sunset.
"The sunset was very bright. It was more yellow in the sunset than orange surprisingly, and yellow was one of his favorite colors so I was like, that's Benny," Toni Cooper said.
A family member has opened up a GoFundMe page for people to help Benny's parents pay for the funeral. If you'd like to help out, click here.
Benny was also a junior at Crosby High School in Waterbury. The district sent the following message to families and students on Tuesday:
"Earlier today, March 28, 2023, the district was notified by the Waterbury Police Department of the tragic passing of a student from Waterbury Public Schools at Lakewood Lake.
We extend our deepest condolences to the student's family. A crisis team has been mobilized to support Crosby's students and staff as they grieve.
Dr. Verna Ruffin."
All of the juveniles in the stolen motor vehicle were from Waterbury. Police said they were known to officers for other previous arrests.
The three surviving juvenile suspects have been charged with Theft of a Stolen Motor Vehicle and Interfering with Police.
Connecticut State Police have taken over the investigation regarding the 17-year-old's death.
Julia LeBlanc is a reporter at FOX61 News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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