Sunday, February 25, 2018
Books

David Kushner talks about memoir 'Alligator Candy' solving the mystery of a brother's murder

On a Sunday afternoon in 1973, two brothers stood on a Carrollwood sidewalk. The 11-year-old straddled the red banana seat of his bicycle, impatient to ride to a nearby 7-Eleven.

The little brother, who was 4, pestered him to bring back a treat called Snappy Gator Gum, or better yet to let him go along.

His big brother said, "You can't. You're too young."

And then he rode his bike into the woods. He never came home.

• • •

The little brother, David Kushner, is 47 now and has written a book about his family's experience.

"People ask me about this book, out of pure compassion: Isn't it hard to write about?" Kushner says.

"I tell them it's harder not to."

Alligator Candy will be published Tuesday by Simon & Schuster. In it, Kushner tells a riveting true story that many longtime Tampa Bay area residents might remember: the abduction and murder of 11-year-old Jonathan Kushner, and its long aftermath.

Jonathan was the son of a University of South Florida anthropology professor, Gilbert Kushner, and his wife, Lorraine, an activist for natural childbirth. After the boy disappeared, hundreds of USF students and staffers, as well as many community members and dozens of law enforcement personnel, joined an extraordinary weeklong search for him. The story became national news.

Alligator Candy begins with the day Jonathan vanished, Oct. 28, 1973, and the last conversation the two brothers had. Its title comes from that candy David asked Jonathan to buy him: A plastic alligator head whose jaws opened to reveal a cache of chewing gum pieces.

For decades, David assumed his brother never made it to the store, never bought the candy. There were many things he didn't know about his brother's death. His oldest brother, Andy, who was then 13, knew more, but their parents' instinct was to protect their youngest child.

The little boy who didn't know the facts grew up to be a journalist, and in Alligator Candy David Kushner takes us on his journey as he investigates and reports his brother's death — revealing not only that Jonathan did buy his little brother's treat that day, but that the candy would be a key to the arrest and conviction of his killers.

"It's the most disturbing detail," Kushner says during a phone interview. "Such a sick irony."

Despite such disturbing details — the murder was gruesome, and the killers, Johnny Paul Witt and Gary Tillman, chose their victim at random as they were "hunting" for a child to abduct, torture and kill — Kushner found writing the book deeply meaningful.

"The questions I had were the same questions everybody had: How did my parents survive it? How did our family survive it?"

The murder of a child by a stranger is "extremely rare," Kushner says, "but everyone struggles with loss of some kind, and I hope the book explores that human experience."

Kushner is an award-winning journalist and author whose books include Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture, and The Bones of Marianna: A Reform School, a Terrible Secret, and a Hundred-Year Fight for Justice.

A contributing editor for Rolling Stone, he has written for many publications, including the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Wired and the New York Times Magazine. He is a Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University.

"I've written many crime stories," Kushner says. "For the last 15, 20 years I've been learning that skill set, so I knew how I could do (the book)." But for many years Kushner pursued other, less personal stories.

Although "the loss is always there," his family had found ways to cope with their tragedy. His parents, their son says, were part of a generation that valued activism, and that helped them deal with Jonathan's death. They became what they called "death and dying" activists, founding a local chapter of Compassionate Friends, a group for bereaved parents.

"As a kid, I was always aware they were planning conferences, bringing in people like Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and Elie Wiesel," Kushner says. "My dad was an anthropologist, and his method was direct observation and osmosis, then processing it and writing about it." After Gilbert Kushner died in 2010, his son found a book proposal on the "anthropology of dying" among his papers.

But within the family, the specifics of Jonathan's death were not a subject for discussion. "The word murdered was never mentioned," he writes in Alligator Candy. "If anything, we would use the word died, as if not mentioning the M-word would somehow make it less difficult."

In the book, Kushner describes his first attempt to learn more, while he was a 13-year-old student at Tampa Preparatory School. "It was on the University of Tampa campus, so I had access to the newspapers" in the UT library from the time of Jonathan's death. Poring over those articles was "really my first experience of journalism. Even then I was trying to learn the story."

He would be an adult when he really began to fill in the facts. Witt had been executed in 1985, but Tillman, who was 19 when Jonathan died and had been previously diagnosed as schizophrenic, pleaded guilty and received a life sentence in 1974.

The Kushner family was stunned to receive notice in 1997 that there would be a parole hearing for Tillman. They had no idea he was eligible for release, and Kushner describes his initial panic, followed by his resolve to speak at the hearing.

As he and Andy prepared for the hearing, David read some of the police reports. "All my life, I had wanted the details," he writes. "The details would kill my imagination, I'd hoped. Imagination runs wild without details."

His first response to the circumstances was horror, and he resolved, in a role reversal, to protect his parents from the worst of what he had learned. At the parole hearing, he met Capt. James Walker, who had worked Jonathan's case as a Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy. Walker told him it was "the most horrible case" he'd ever worked — and he revealed a first hint of the importance of the candy.

Tillman would remain in prison, and more years would pass. His father's death finally pushed Kushner to seriously consider writing the book: "I wanted to be the memory harvester," he writes. "I wanted to learn and tell the story, the whole story of everything. I wanted to bring Jon back to life."

Kushner says, "I started to interview people, to read primary documents, read newspapers."

He found more pieces of information, especially in the transcript of an interview with Witt's wife, Donna Witt, whose suspicions — aroused by that candy — led her to call police. "It was incredible to discover there was a good chunk of it I didn't know, just tremendous resources."

With Alligator Candy, he says, "I solved the mystery for myself." He also tells the story of his family after Jonathan's death, noting that his parents found the courage to let their surviving sons explore their world, to set off on their own bikes.

"I said to my mom, I don't know how you let me do anything after what happened. She told me, 'We didn't want you to be crippled by it.' "

Kushner says the book is also "a testament to the city of Tampa, the police force, Sheriff (Walter) Heinrich, the volunteers, to all the people who read this story and were touched by it. What we experienced from the community was so profound.

"I couldn't say thank you at the time, so this is my way of saying it now."

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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