A father's promise kept, family mourns the loss of a son

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On a dusty road in Stagecoach with the lights of emergency vehicles piercing the Friday night darkness, Johnnie Lee Hill kept a promise to his son.

He checked to see if J.J., 18, was still alive.

"When he got his driver's license we were talking about whether to be an organ donor or not, and he was scared that he wouldn't be dead and they'd start cutting him up. He asked me to promise to make sure he was dead so that wouldn't happen," said a broken hearted Hill on Monday, the words muffled by his tears.

Hill, 38, knelt beside his son's lifeless body and pressed his fingers against the boy's wrist, searching vainly for a pulse.

"Unfortunately, I was able to keep that promise."

Johnnie "J.J." Lee Hill Jr., 18, was killed in a single vehicle rollover on Cheyenne Drive about 8:30 p.m Friday.

According to the Lyon County Sheriff's Department, the truck was traveling south faster than the posted 25 mph when J.J. lost control on a curve. The truck rolled three to four times before coming to rest on its wheels. J.J. was pronounced dead on the scene of severe head trauma.

It is unknown whether alcohol was a factor in the crash. Alcohol was found in the vehicle and the accident remains under investigation.

Three passengers in Hill's 1971 Ford truck, which J.J. had taken without his father's permission, were injured.

Fourteen-year-old Tanya Newton was listed in fair condition at Washoe Medical Center on Monday. The other two were treated and released.

A half hour before the 8:30 p.m. accident, J.J.'s little sister, Jessica, 12, said goodbye to her older brother. She wanted to go for a walk, but being the protective one, J.J. told her she had to stay in while their parents celebrated Valentine's Day in Reno.

"I heard the (accident) and I saw lights," Jessica said. She called her brother's cell phone because the noise had scared her. "Then I heard the sirens and I just took off running to them." Someone stopped Jessica before she saw J.J.

Brother-in-law David Gentry called Hill and his wife of 21 years, Jan, on their cell phone. Both Hills are corrections officers.

"He said he'd heard on the scanner that there was an accident and J.J. had been thrown from the vehicle," Hill said.

A short while later, the Hills' oldest daughter, Jennifer, 23, called.

"She said J.J. had wrecked my truck but had ran into a fence. We thought he was OK."

The two headed home to Stagecoach, traveling along Highways 395 and I-80 until they passed Fernley, where Hill's cell phone worked again and he called Gentry.

"That's when he told me they had pronounced J.J. dead at the scene. That was tough," he said, crying gently. "We were about 30 miles from there."

"The last thing he said to me was, 'I love you, Mom,'" said Jan Hill, her head bowed, weeping. "And I said, 'Please be good while we are gone.'"

"Each of us got to share that one thing in individual separate conversations," said Hill. "We got to tell him we loved him and hear the same back."

Hill said nothing in life prepares a parent for the loss of a child.

"We never considered we'd have to bury our children" he said.

Hill described his son as an "in your face" boy with goals he'd begun to realize.

J.J. had just started working in construction as an apprentice to a master journeyman. He had bought his first truck, a Bronco, and was going to pick it up with his dad Saturday morning.

After years of rebelliousness from their only son, Hill said his namesake was becoming a man.

"He'd been searching all along for his little groove in the world and he finally found it.

"His favorite thing to say was, 'You can't phase this,' meaning, 'I got the Bronco, I got the job, I got the hair. I'm the best,'" Hill said, chuckling.

An honor-roll student, J.J., held the wall-climbing, pullups and wall-sit record at his school. He was selected into the University of Nevada, Reno Upward Bound college prep program.

"He was just awesome," said Jessica.

Last year, J.J. and his father took a week-long motorcycle trip to Seattle which Hill called "phenomenal."

Not much for team sports, his son excelled in individuality, Hill said.

"When he turned 18 he got his tongue pierced. His basic life's philosphy was he was invincible."

From dying his hair green in seventh grade to shaving it off completely, J.J. wasn't afraid to be who he was, he said.

"He was so loving of life. He couldn't stand when people were mean to each other," Hill said. "For all the trouble he got himself into, it was never harmful of anyone else."

The Hills are grateful for the outpouring of support from neighbors and strangers alike.

"If it were not for the people in Stagecoach, the friends that we have and he had, I don't think we could have made it," Jan Hill said. "We've had so many people who J.J. touched come to us."

"There have probably been between 150 to 200 people flowing through the house," Hill said. "This showed us how many people he meant something to."

A memorial service for family and friends will be 5 p.m. Thursday at the Stagecoach Community Center.

J.J. is survived by his mother and father, two sisters, 11-month-old neice Arionna Michelle; grandmothers Bettye Brace of Stagecoach and Ruth Wolffe of Denver; grandfather Johnnie Lee Hill of Fallon; aunts Gayle Adcock and Cricket Von James, and numerous cousins.


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