Pick up a newspaper or watch the evening news and you will be exposed to an endless litany of brutal murders. We digest the story, perhaps even experience a brief pang of grief for the victim and move on — turn the page, flip to another channel.
But every murder is the first chapter of a deeper story about the anguish of the family and friends of the victim who are left behind. It is a lifetime sentence of heartbreak.
In October 1973, 4-year-old David Kushner watched his older brother Jonathan speed off on his bicycle to buy some candy at a nearby convenience store a short distance through the woods from the family's Carrollwood home. Jonathan never came back.
Waiting in the woods were Johnny Paul Witt and Gary Tillman, two very twisted, very evil men, who abducted and subsequently brutalized and murdered Jonathan. The boy's disappearance became a national story and mobilized an entire community as hundreds of law enforcement officers and civilian volunteers from all walks of life searched day and night for him.
Jonathan's murder and the extraordinary toll it took on the family are eloquently told in Alligator Candy: A Memoir, by his brother David Kushner, who more than 40 years after the fateful day is still struggling to come to terms with the worst moment of his life.
I covered Jonathan's murder as a 24-year-old police reporter for the Tampa Tribune. And that meant spending several days and many long hours with Jonathan's parents, professor Gilbert Kushner, who was the head of the anthropology department at the University of South Florida, and his wife, Lorraine.
Months earlier I had covered another brutal murder of two little girls. In the years to follow, their surviving family members descended into a dysfunctional emotional black hole of divorce, substance abuse and brushes with the law.
This would not be the Kushners' fate. In David's account, this was a family bound and determined to honor the memory of a son and a brother taken all too soon but still very much a part of their lives.
Today David Kushner is a successful journalist whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, GQ and the New York Times Magazine. Alligator Candy, a reference to the confection he asked his brother to bring back from the convenience store, is as much a compelling piece of reporting as it is a front-row seat to the drama of a survivor trying to understand the unknowable: What if? What if? What if?
Who knows how Jonathan's murder would have influenced the future lives of David and his older brother Andy, today a successful musician, had it not been for two extraordinary parents in Gilbert and Lorraine Kushner. The husband and wife, father and mother I observed over those gut-wrenching days so long ago were a testament to incredible grace and dignity fully preserved as their world imploded around them.
It was true more than 40 years ago. And it is true today. You would be hard pressed to find two more decent people, who taught an unwitting master class in how to live in the wake of such an unspeakable tragedy. (Gilbert died in 2010 after a distinguished career at USF; Lorraine, a mental health counselor, still lives in Tampa.)
David Kushner vividly captures his parents' dignity as he revisits the murder of his brother, learning new and often horrific details about the crime. Witt was executed in the 1980s. Tillman continues to serve a life sentence.
As part of his research for Alligator Candy, for the first time David reviewed the entire case file of his brother's murder. In doing so, the son began to experience a role reversal over how much gruesome detail to tell his parents about what he had learned.
"I wanted them to live the rest of their days just as they had done so far, taking sanctity in the comfort their boy had not suffered," Kushner writes. "Because to have suffered was to have been aware, and to have been aware was to have known that — in that familiar thicket of woods so close to home, while his little brother waited and his father watched football — he was being killed. I decided not to say anything; at least not unless they asked. And if they asked, I supposed, I would figure out what to do then."
In the end Alligator Candy is a raw story about courage, survival and most certainly about love. It's also about defeating the demons of our memory. And thus it is only fitting that when his daughter was old enough to get her own bike, David Kushner taught her to ride on the same street where he last saw his brother. And for good reason.
"He was never more alive than his very last ride," Kushner writes. "The wind was in his face. He was pedaling fast. He was heading home. And he was free."
Contact Daniel Ruth at [email protected]