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Family grieves for hit-and-run victim

Part of Ellenwood resident, Sonja Hardeman, hopes this is a bad dream that she is going to wake up from any time now.

She and her 13-year-old son, Deandre, were awoken Wednesday, around 11 p.m., when a Clayton County police officer came to their front door to deliver bad news: Gerald Hardeman, 48, her husband of nearly 10 years, and Deandre's father, was killed in a hit-and-run accident hours earlier on Interstate 75.

"To me, it hasn't sunk in, yet," Sonja Hardeman said. "I keep thinking it's a dream, and I'm going to wake up, and he'll come walking in the door."

She said she is planning to have her husband's funeral on March 13, at Wings of Faith Ministries, which is located at 1260 Old Conley Road, in Conley. She said she has not settled on a time. Funeral arrangements are being handled by Willie Watkins Funeral Home, in Atlanta, she said.

Gerald Hardeman's widow said his family will never completely lose him, though.

"He will always be in our hearts," Sonja Hardeman said. "He deserves a celebration of his life, because a lot of people loved him."

Gerald Hardeman was a self-employed contractor who did crown moldings and hardwood flooring, his wife said. She said he was coming home from a job in Atlanta when his 2002 Ford Econoline van flipped during a hit-and-run accident on the interstate.

Clayton County Police Department spokesman, Officer Otis Willis, III, said the accident occurred at 7:50 p.m., and that it involved four cars traveling south on I-75, just north of the westbound exit for Interstate 285. The accident was reportedly caused by a black, 1990s Trans Am, which has only been identified as having a Georgia educator license plate, Willis said.

The Trans Am was traveling in the second lane over from the median wall, and suddenly swerved into the lane to its right, Willis said.

"The driver was driving recklessly," Willis said. "The Trans Am hit a [1994] Honda, and kept going. It never did pull over."

Willis said that the accident resulted in Gerald Hardeman, driving his van right behind the Trans Am in its original lane, quickly veering to his right, and hitting a 1999 Honda that had been traveling behind the 1994 Honda. "The ‘99 Honda's front, left bumper hit the van's right, rear bumper, and that caused the van to flip," Willis said. "He [Gerald Hardeman] was ejected from the van as it flipped."

Willis did not know the model of either Honda, or the conditions of their drivers.

Willis said Gerald Hardeman was pronounced dead at Southern Regional Medical Center at 8:25 p.m.

"He was dead at the scene, that's what the doctor told me," Sonja Hardeman said.

Gerald and Sonja Hardeman met 25 years ago. She had attended an aunt's funeral in Atlanta, and was at the aunt's house afterward. Gerald Hardeman lived across the street from that aunt, his wife said.

She was 15, and he was 23.

"It was love at first sight," Sonja Hardeman said.

Gerald and Sonja Hardeman married in 2000, she said. "Aug. 18 would have been our 10-year anniversary," she said.

Sonja Hardeman said that when her husband was not at work, he enjoyed working on cars, and keeping the lawn of their Ellenwood home in pristine condition. "He took a lot of pride in everything he did," she said.

The couple co-owned a contracting business, Hardeman Contractors, which was operated from their home from 2001 until 2008. They had to shut the company down when the national foreclosure crisis brought a slump in business, Sonja Hardeman said.

The couple had two children together. Two years after they met, they had their first child, their daughter, Shanrika Hardeman, who went on to play basketball at Columbus State University and, later, Clayton State University. Years later, they welcomed son, Deandre, into the family.

Gerald Hardeman had three other children with another woman, his wife said.

"He was a good father," Sonja Hardeman said. "His children were his pride and joy."

Shanrika Hardeman, 23, said she remembers her father always encouraging her and Deandre Hardeman to find their own paths in life, and their own ways to be successful. "He encouraged me to be a go-getter," she said.

The daughter also said she and her father often stayed up late to talk about what was going on in their lives, and she'd sometimes hear him working on cars and machines in their garage. When she came home Wednesday night, and was given the bad news by her younger brother, it came as a shock to her.

"I didn't believe it," she said. "I still don't believe it ... I'm going to graduate from college [Clayton State] in May, and I hate that he won't get to see it."

Sonja Hardeman said she is trying to be strong, for her children's sake. Several family members and friends came to see her, and her children, to offer their comfort on Thursday. At times, Sonja Hardeman was able to keep her emotions in check as she greeted visitors and made funeral plans.

But at other times, she broke down in tears at her kitchen table.

"He was my joy, my life," she said as she fought back tears. "We laughed together. We played together. We did everything together."

Willis, the police department spokesman, said the accident remains under investigation, and that the department is asking the driver of the Trans Am to come forward, to explain what happened on Wednesday night.

Sonja Hardeman said she and her family would also like to see the driver explain his, or her, side of the story.

"If they know something, please come forward and tell us what happened," she said. "He has a family. We need that right now."