The Death Of Amanda Bankston Is An All-Too-Familiar Story

The last moments Montana Blakley had with her sister Amanda Bankston were spent arguing.

It was the spring of 2015. Montana, 20, and Amanda, 19, were at their brother’s 9th birthday party, but instead of celebrating, the sisters were locked in an all-too-familiar fight: whether or not Amanda was ready and able to leave her boyfriend of four years, Matt O’Neal, whom Montana describes as “deeply abusive.”

Amanda had made numerous plans to leave O’Neal over the years, but the plans had always fallen through for one reason or another.

The night before their brother’s birthday, Amanda had made a frantic phone call to Montana saying that she had finally reached her breaking point; she swore that the very next day she would move herself and her 2-year-old son — Junior — back home with her parents. Montana in turn promised to support her in whatever way she could. The conversation ended on a positive note and Montana says she went to bed feeling more hopeful than she had in years.

But when Amanda arrived at her parents’ house the next day for the party, Montana noticed immediately that her sister didn’t have any bags. When Montana asked her if she’d changed her mind, Amanda said that she and O’Neal were going to try to work things out. Amanda then asked her father if he would babysit Junior for a few hours while she and O’Neal went for a drive to talk things through. Montana felt her frustration and fear bubble over into anger and began yelling at her sister for going back on her promise to leave.

“Montana, why are you always a bitch to me?” Amanda asked, breaking down into tears. “You’re so mean to me all the time.”

But Montana wasn’t trying to be cruel; she had snapped at her sister out of fear. But before she got the chance to say anything, Amanda was already out the door. A few hours later, Amanda and O’Neal returned to pick up Junior; they said they were going to drive to Louisiana to spend the evening at O’Neal’s father’s house.

Late that night, Montana’s phone began ringing. It was her mother calling to say that Amanda had been killed.

***

Amanda had started dating O’Neal when she was just 15. O’Neal’s aunt lived behind Amanda’s parents in Picayune, Mississippi; they met through mutual friends in the neighborhood. O’Neal was five years older and had a classic, blue-eyed, square-jawed handsomeness. Amanda couldn’t help but be flattered by the attention he paid her. She told Montana she knew he was too old for her and that their parents would disapprove, but he was charming and funny and made her feel special. Amanda and O’Neal decided to keep their relationship secret at first, and introduced him to her parents as just a friend; she hoped that if they got to know him they might warm up to the idea of her dating him.

O’Neal was a heavy drinker and drug user — mostly meth — but he’d try just about anything. He had a reputation for being volatile while drunk or high. Amanda had seen this side of him, but his aggression was never directed toward her. She told herself that it wasn’t really him; it was the drugs and the people he hung out with. She thought that with enough love and time she could help him get clean, and for a while that seemed to be true.

And then, just a few months after she began dating O’Neal, Amanda found out she was pregnant.

It became obvious that they would have to reveal the truth about their relationship sooner rather than later. When Amanda told her parents that she and O’Neal were dating, they were furious; her father threatened to press charges against him because of the age difference. But Amanda begged him to reconsider — if not for her sake, then at least for the baby’s sake. Her parents grudgingly backed down.

As Amanda’s pregnancy progressed, Montana started to notice a change in her sister. She’d always been a popular kid; she had a sweet, outgoing personality that drew people to her side. She was known for her sense of humor, and had a quick and infectious laugh. But shortly after moving in with O’Neal, Amanda grew quiet and withdrawn. She barely ever cracked a smile, let alone a joke. She stopped hanging out with her friends and spent almost of all of her free time with O’Neal.

And then one day she came to school with a black eye.

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According to Montana, the abuse only worsened from there. O’Neal would frequently call Amanda all kinds of terrible names — he would say that the baby wasn’t his, that she’d cheated on him. He would tell her that he hated her. He once threw all her clothes out on the lawn and lit them on fire. Late one night, not long after Junior was born, Amanda had shown up frantically pounding on her mother’s door until Montana let her in. She told Montana that O’Neal had come home drunk from a party in an angry mood. When she’d tried to confront him, he had grabbed her and thrown against the wall while the baby was in her arms. But even after that incident, Amanda still refused to leave O’Neal.

“She’d always say that she couldn’t, that she loved him too much,” says Montana. “It was like he’d brainwashed her. He told her she was no good and that no one else would love her. And she believed him. Sometimes he would tell her that he was going to leave her and Amanda would get so scared and she would beg and beg him to stay. He liked that. He liked that she would beg like a dog and cry for him to stay. He’d tell her he was leaving just so he could watch her do that.”

Montana’s entire family hated O’Neal — he and Montana’s father even once got in a fist-fight over his treatment of Amanda — but they continued to tolerate him for Amanda’s sake. Early in Amanda’s relationship with O’Neal, her family had tried to intervene on her behalf and O’Neal had forced her to cut ties with them; Montana and her parents didn’t hear from Amanda for months. All of their texts and phone calls went unanswered. After that, their relationship with Amanda became a tricky dance of expressing their concern, but not doing anything that would cause O’Neal to take her and Junior away from them again.

Things got a bit better when Amanda became pregnant again in the summer of 2014; she was 18 years old and Junior was nearly two. She was delighted to find out that she was having a girl, and told Montana that she planned to name her Nevaeh — the word Heaven spelled backwards, a nod to their Baptist upbringing. Tensions between Amanda and O’Neal seemed to ease, and he promised that he would stay sober, get a job, and do right by Amanda and their children.

In spite of O’Neal’s promises, it didn’t take long before his violent episodes returned. Amanda was nearly nine months pregnant the night she called Montana and said that she couldn’t take it anymore. Less than 24 hours later, she was dead.

Amanda died in a car crash on the way home from O’Neal’s father’s house in Louisiana. Witnesses said that they saw Amanda’s Chevy Blazer swerving all over the road; the windows were down and they could hear O’Neal screaming at her, calling her a cunt and a whore. The car was going 120 miles per hour when it hit a patch of water and began to skid off the road. It flipped three times before hitting a tree and finally coming to rest in the swampland at the side of the highway.

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Melissa Massey, who witnessed the crash and later gave a statement to the police, saw O’Neal climb out of the wreck and then pull Junior after him. He left Junior by the side of the highway and tried to run from the scene of the accident only to be chased down and caught by several other witnesses. Massey climbed down to where the car was and found Amanda crushed under it. Police would later determine that she had flown out the front windshield before the car had rolled on top of her. She was still alive when Massey got to her, but barely. Massey tried to comfort her, telling her that the ambulance was coming and she was going to be fine.

“I know I’m gonna die,” said Amanda. She tried to say something about Junior, but stopped mid-sentence; her son’s name was the last thing that Massey was able to make out.

When the paramedics arrived, they tried to do CPR on Amanda, but weren’t able to revive her. They also tried to save Nevaeh but were unsuccessful; both Amanda and her unborn daughter were declared dead at the scene of the crash.

O’Neal initially tried to claim that Amanda had been driving and he had been in the passenger seat, but it was clear from his injuries — marks from the seat belt on his left shoulder and bruises on his chest from the steering wheel — that he had been driving. Tox screens came back showing alcohol, meth, marijuana, and synthetic marijuana in O’Neal’s system (all of Amanda’s tox screens came back clean). Police later told Montana that O’Neal was still so high and drunk as they drove him from the hospital to the police station that he kept laughing and cracking jokes and telling them to play him his favorite song.

O’Neal was arrested on April 3, 2015. He was charged with careless operation of a motor vehicle, driving under suspension (his license had been suspended due to a previous DUI), child endangerment, vehicular homicide, and third degree feticide. At his arraignment he plead not guilty. A family member was able to pay his bond and he is currently out of jail and awaiting trial. Although it has been more than a year and a half since the accident, no trial date has been set.

Amanda Bankston’s story is brutal, but sadly it’s not unique. On average, three American women are killed every single day by a current or former male partner; 18,000 women have been killed by men in domestic violence disputes since 2003.

Amanda is part of a national crisis, one that is rarely talked about because of the stigma and fear surrounding it. Over a thousand women die from intimate partner violence every year; each one has a story as heartbreaking as Amanda Bankston’s.

***

Matthew O’Neal recently contacted Montana Blakley; somehow he found out where she was working and called her there. He told her that he is now sober and has a job and wants to see his son, who is in Montana’s care. She says that the first time he called, she hung up on him as soon as she realized who it was. The second time he called, she told him he was never going to see Junior as long as she had any say in the matter.

“You call me saying you’ve changed,” she said to him. “But why couldn’t you get clean and get a job before my sister died?”

***

All photographs courtesy of Montana Blakley

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