On the Friday before he was gunned down while patrolling a Housing Authority of New Orleans construction site in Central City, James Bennett Jr. called one of his closest friends to reminisce about the old days — the days when they would walk the city’s Melpomene, Desire and Florida public housing developments door-to-door as probation agents.
“He knew what I was going to do. I knew what he was going to do,” said Nick Vega, now a detective with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office.
On Sunday, the men’s nearly two-decade “symbiotic” friendship came to an end when Bennett was killed while working in one of those HANO developments alone.
Now the 45-year-old officer is being remembered by those around him as a bear of a man who lived for powerlifting and policing.
Police believe Bennett was shot while working an overtime patrol near the under-redevelopment Guste housing complex. NOPD officers found him dead in his car, which had apparently rolled to a stop at a curb after he was shot, shortly after 7 a.m.
An NOPD spokesman said Tuesday the department had no new information to offer on the mystery of Bennett’s death.
“Officer Bennett was a man who showed up for work and then for no apparent reason was murdered,” HANO Executive Director Gregg Fortner said at a board meeting Tuesday. “He wanted nothing more than to show up for work, do his job, serve people, engage with the kids of our community and just make a difference in the world.”
Bennett graduated from L.W. Higgins High School in Marrero in 1988. After serving in the Army, he went on to work as an intensive probation agent for Orleans Parish Criminal District Court in the late 1990s.
He did duty as a Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office reserve deputy from 2000 to 2013, with a brief stint as a full-time officer in 2006. Then he joined HANO’s roughly 25-member police force in May 2013.
“He loved being the police,” Vega said.
Although Bennett served mostly in the unglamorous role of a reserve officer in Jefferson Parish, he was well respected by full-time deputies there. He liked the adrenaline rush of responding to a hot call, Vega said, but he was also compassionate.
“He wasn’t the kind of guy that’s going to yell at you,” he said.
Outside of policing, Bennett’s passion was powerlifting. He could bench press 450 pounds and squat 550 pounds, and he trained dozens of clients at the Westbank Athletic Club.
“He was a beast,” said Bum Lee, owner of the Gretna club. But where Bennett really stood out, Lee said, was in mentoring fellow lifters.
At a gym he used to run on Fourth Street in Gretna, Bennett gathered around himself a crew of young lifters he formed into a team he called “Dungeon Iron Sports.”
Bennett’s students dubbed him “Godzilla” for his strength, and he gave them nicknames in turn.
One of them, Steven Adams, he called “Bones.”
“I was nothing but skin and bones,” explained Adams, 23. “I was a buck twenty-five the first few years, and then I started packing on skin and muscle.”
Adams credits that growth to Bennett, who was a “father figure” to him and many others in the intensely physical sport. According to Lee, Bennett planned to continue his teaching by creating a mobile powerlifting rig to train young residents of HANO developments.
Bennett also sought to train his younger brother, Anthony, in the art of policing. When Anthony graduated from the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Training Academy after Hurricane Katrina, James Bennett insisted “like a chihuahua” that his brother train with his old buddy Vega. Anthony now works full time for the Seattle Police Department.
Bennett was married twice and had a son who lived in Texas.
Friends said Bennett was devoted to his mother, a first-generation Korean immigrant.
“He talked about her a lot,” said Lee, “and her cooking.”
Bennett was clearly aware of the dangers of patrolling New Orleans’ housing developments. In an online profile he described himself as “adaptable to hostile conditions such as working with limited equipment and long hours alone.”
But friends said he never showed fear about his job. He was a powerlifter, after all.
For Vega, the only explanation for how Bennett could have been killed is an ambush.
“I know he was caught from a blindside because he would have fought,” Vega said.
Bennett’s visitation will be open to the public from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday at L.A. Muhleisen & Son Funeral Home, 2607 Williams Blvd., Kenner. The funeral will follow at 1 p.m. Friday.
Staff writer Jaquetta White contributed reporting.