Ben Francis wanted to be a deckhand like his dad. If he could cook for the crew, all the better. "I taught him how to cook, and he loved it, especially omelets," said his mother, Teresa Sampson of Pinch. "He went to night school at Hurricane High so he could get his GED and take safety classes to work on the barges. He was outgoing, a clown. He liked to fish and hunt with his dad. He liked rock music, the stuff we can't understand. "He was a good kid, 6-foot-1, sandy hair, good looking. More friends than you could ever imagine. He had his whole life ahead of him." He died in May, the Friday before Mother's Day, a month short of his 18th birthday. "We were going to get together and cook on Mother's Day," his mother said.
On his last night alive, he'd planned to go to Wal-Mart with his friends to pick out Mother's Day gifts. Over and over, his friends called the house. When they couldn't reach him, they came over. They found him lying in the yard, dead.
He'd been riding an ATV. The four-wheeler crashed into a tree in front of his house on Mill Creek Road. His head hit the tree.
Teresa Sampson was visiting a friend. She kept calling home to check on her son. She worried when he didn't answer. Her friend's son heard about the accident on the police scanner. She raced home, heart thudding with dread. "I saw all these lights. The police were in the house." And she knew. They buried him in a white T-shirt and blue jean shorts, the kind of thing he always wore. "I put my Black Hills gold ring on his finger," his mother said. "He always wanted it." His friends took up a collection to buy him a headstone. His mother strongly supports legislation for ATV safety. "They ought to outlaw ATVs," she said. "You ought to have a driver's license and have to pass a safety course to get one. You shouldn't be allowed to ride one with somebody else. If you're going to be on them, you should have to wear helmets and gloves and kneepads. "I'm very against them. They've killed too many people." Her life has "gone to hell" since she lost Ben, she said. Behind on house payments, she's close to losing the house she shared with him. "My son was my life. He is all I had. I had to spend Christmas at his grave." To contact staff writer Sandy Wells, use e-mail or call 348-5173.