LAFAYETTE, La. — Cole Kelley steered the borrowed 2004 Chevrolet Silverado right onto Green Meadow Road, the headlights piercing the darkness on this narrow, tree-lined street in an affluent south Lafayette neighborhood. He gently tapped the gas pedal while his friend, Austin Rivault, leaned in from the back seat, providing directions to a home fewer than 500 feet ahead.
Just then, Kelley glanced out the driver-side window and noticed a half-naked man in red sneakers wielding a handgun. He felt a sudden, burning pain near his left ankle.
He and his two passengers were under attack.
The 15-year-old mashed the gas pedal with his good ankle. Two more bullets shattered the truck’s back window. One struck Will Bellamy — riding in the passenger seat — in the neck.
The other round ripped through the back of Rivault’s head and killed him.
More than 1,200 days have passed since those transformative seconds. Kelley is a few inches taller, three years wiser and carries a much higher profile, wading through his first set of college courses and summer workouts as a University of Arkansas quarterback.
But time can’t — and never will — erase those early morning hours on Feb. 10, 2013. A bullet remains forever lodged in Kelley’s left tibia, and the knowledge — even as he’s learned to deal with it — that his attacker, Rivault’s killer, is a free man remains difficult to comprehend.
“To watch a man that has done that be able to walk the streets,” Kelley said before pausing to find the right words, “… You just have to be able to control your emotions.
“There are some things you can control and some things you can’t. You just have to accept it.”
‘Bad things happen’
Kelley and several friends gathered for a street parade in Lafayette a few days before Mardi Gras and afterward, went to a friend’s house to hang out. At about 1:30 a.m., Rivault confessed to the others that he had snuck out of the house to come over and needed to get home before his parents realized he was gone.
Rivault said he would walk home — about one mile — but Kelley insisted on driving him.
“I told him there was no way I was gonna let him walk home during Mardi Gras in Louisiana,” Kelley recalled last month during a sit-down interview with SEC Country. “Bad things happen at 2 a.m. during Mardi Gras.”
Kelley, just 15 at the time, didn’t have a driver’s license, but borrowed his friend’s brother’s Silverado pickup and set off on the short drive to Rivault’s home. Bellamy went along for the ride and rode up front.
Meanwhile, across Green Meadow Road and four houses down from Rivault’s home, 18-year-old Seth Fontenot was on edge.
The Lafayette Police Department denied a recent request to view the incident report from the shooting, saying the law prevented them from releasing records involving minors. Newspaper reports from the trial, though, help fill in the gaps of what both sides say happened that night.
Fontenot claimed his truck, parked outside the house, had been broken into before, and — according to a police detective’s testimony during trial — had sent a text message to a friend two months earlier that he would “definitely shoot someone,” if he caught anyone else breaking into his truck.
According to The Advocate newspaper, Fontenot testified that he was awoken by a noise outside, so he jumped out of his bed, grabbed a 9mm Beretta and looked out the window. He claimed he saw two figures in the yard, so he ran outside in nothing but boxer shorts and sneakers and yelled for the truck to stop.
When it didn’t, Fontenot testified, he fired three times at the truck. He claimed that he didn’t intend to hurt anyone, but just wanted to scare who he believed were burglars.
Kelley frantically drove away and called his mother.
“When he called me and said he’d been shot, I thought he was just talking about a paintball gun,” said Sheri Gilbeau, Cole’s mother.
When she realized the gravity of the situation, she helped direct him to Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center, where Kelley and Bellamy were treated.
Rivault was pronounced dead at the hospital.
“Watching someone die, right in front of my eyes,” Kelley said, “was the hardest thing.”
Fontenot was indicted on one count of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted first-degree murder, but didn’t face trial for the charges until two years later.
The shooting didn’t cost Kelley any football time, but did mean he had to miss the basketball playoffs his freshman year at Lafayette’s Teurlings Catholic High School.
An orthopedic surgeon told Kelley and his family that it made sense to leave the bullet in place rather than try to operate and remove it. To this day, he walks and runs with a bullet in his left leg.
It was the mental side, though, that took longer to heal. Kelley was restless at night, sometimes needing to sleep in bed with his mom. He was afraid to drive after dark.
On one Thursday night, Gilbeau, Kelley’s mother, was at a Louisiana-Lafayette football game and received a call from her son, who was driving and convinced someone was following him.
Kelley felt fortunate to have been enrolled at a Catholic school, because it gave him extra access to the faith that he credits for helping him recover. Father Hampton Davis, the school’s chancellor, provided hours of counseling.
On the football field, Kelley began to develop into a star quarterback.
He took over Teurlings’ starting quarterback job as a junior and threw for 2,984 yards and 31 touchdown passes, generating some interest from major college football programs. Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana Tech extended scholarship offers to the 6-foot-7 quarterback before bigger schools Arkansas and Oklahoma State came calling.
Then, in March of Kelley’s junior year of high school, Fontenot’s trial began.
‘A tragedy all the way around’
Fontenot retained the counsel of Thomas Guilbeau, a well-known longtime defense attorney in Lafayette. Guilbeau, a white-haired, goateed man who wears sharp pinstriped suits, boasts on his website of successfully representing dozens of homicide and sexual assault defendants during the last decade.
During the March 2015 trial, Guilbeau sought to portray his client as an immature but good person who made a mistake, but never intended to kill anyone.
He also attempted to poke holes in statements made by Kelley and Bellamy, implying that the boys were up to no good that night and might even have been in Fontenot’s yard.
“He got raked over the coals,” said Teurlings Catholic football coach Sonny Charpentier. “As a teenager to have to sit up there and defend himself … I don’t care if all of it was true — which it wasn’t — but if it was true, it still don’t give the guy a right to shoot those kids in a car leaving.
“Last time I checked, you shoot people when you feel threatened. It’s mind boggling. It’s mind boggling.”
A 12-person jury convicted Fontenot, but lowered the charges to one count of manslaughter and two counts of aggravated battery.
The next month, Kelley committed to Arkansas as his college football choice, getting that decision out of the way months before his senior season at Teurlings. But about three months after that, Kelley was back in a courtroom for Fontenot’s sentencing.
Despite powerful, emotional statements during those two hours — “I have never known a deeper aching sorrow … Seth Fontenot, you have forever changed our family,” Rivault’s mother Renee, said that day — judge Ed Rubin sentenced Fontenot to 13 months in jail.
He could have given Fontenot 40 years, but the law gave Rubin wide discretion in sentencing on a manslaughter charge.
The judge said he based the sentencing on his belief that Fontenot did not mean to kill anyone, and that, according to a report in The Advocate, his brain “was not fully mature when he pulled the trigger.”
Guilbeau’s defense proved successful, as two jurors wrote to Rubin asking for leniency for Fontenot. One even wrote that all four of the boys that night “had some responsibility for the situation.”
Fontenot was released from LaSalle Correctional Center in May after serving just 10.5 months.
“I lost a lot of faith in the judicial system through all that,” Charpentier said. “It was a tragedy all the way around.”
‘If they can make it through it, then I knew I could’
Rivault’s parents, Kevin and Renee, lobbied the Louisiana Legislature for the last year to pass a bill that would have required anyone who even possessed a gun during a fatality for which they were convicted to serve at least three years in prison.
Senate Bill 196 — known as the Austin Rivault Act — was proposed by Louisiana Sen. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, and would have taken away a judge’s discretion when it comes to sentencing some offenders.
But on May 26, the Louisiana House of Representatives voted 55 to 33 to defeat the legislation.
Following the vote, Renee Rivault told The Advertiser newspaper that she was disappointed, but vowed that she and her husband would continue fighting to change the law that allowed her son’s killer to serve such a short sentence.
Kelley, who reported to the University of Arkansas campus a few weeks ago, said that throughout much of the last couple of years, he “couldn’t bear” what had happened. But he credited the Rivault family’s grace with helping him find a way to get past it.
“They were extremely angry and sad, but the way they bounced back and turned to God … if they can make it through, then I knew that I could,” Kelley said.
“If they were able to go through it and bounce back, I felt like I had no choice but to overcome it.”
Arkansas beat writer Jason Kersey spent time with new Razorbacks quarterback Cole Kelley last month in Lafayette, La., before he reported to Arkansas. Here are other stories from that visit: