CLEARWATER — Suzanne Conway sent her then 15-year-old son nearly 1,000 miles away to Clearwater to keep him safe from the unimaginable horrors of a notorious juvenile detention center in New Jersey.
But then something even more unthinkable happened.
Jason R. Henderson, 16, was shot to death June 9 in his bed in his small apartment a couple of blocks from the Gulf of Mexico on Sunset Point Road, the apparent victim of murder.
"It was just me and him against the world," said Conway, a single mother, in a telephone interview from New Jersey. "I just want to know why it happened."
So far, Clearwater police cannot give her an answer. Detectives still are investigating the death and aren't releasing any information about possible suspects or motives, Clearwater police spokeswoman Elizabeth Watts said. But the killing was likely not a random act, she said.
That's no consolation to Conway, who says she reads the text messages from him telling her he loves her. And she takes comfort in Jason's two dogs, Buddy and Diesel, who follow her around the house.
"They're all I have left of my son," she says.
Two years before Jason Henderson turned up dead, he was a normal kid who did normal kid things, Conway said.
He grew up as an only child in Mount Laurel, a quiet suburb of Philadelphia dotted with lakes and public parks. He attended Harrington Middle School, a public school with small class sizes and above-average test scores. Teachers there loved Jason, Conway said.
But the lanky kid with dirty blond hair and bright blue eyes preferred spending his time outdoors, fishing and racing his all-terrain vehicle. And he loved animals of all kinds.
Still, he had a hard time with the transition into Lenape High School in September 2008, his mother said. He found the pace of ninth grade overwhelming. He had trouble getting to class on time, and then he stopped wanting to go to school at all.
He also found new friends who smoked pot and encouraged him to do the same, she said.
He switched schools twice that year and was placed on "supervised probation" at home for the summer. School administrators made him take a drug test when he fell asleep in class. Police said he tried to sell marijuana to a friend at the mall. He also was caught shoplifting cold medicine from a drug store twice.
"He was good. He had a good heart," Conway said. "All teenagers go through the rebellious years at 15 or 16, and that's what it was — just kid stuff."
Jonathan Hertz, 19, was one of Jason's best friends from New Jersey. He described Jason as a quiet, fun-loving kid who got sucked into some rough-and-tumble social circles.
"He was a follower. He just wanted to fit in," Hertz said. "I think he grew up too fast."
At the end of the summer of at-home probation, Jason missed curfew. In September 2009, a juvenile court judge sentenced him to enter Daytop, a substance abuse residential center for teens in Pittsgrove, N.J.
But after a couple of days, Jason walked out and caught a ride home. What he didn't realize was that Daytop was a one-strike-and-you're-out facility; he could not go back.
Conway said Jason's social workers told her police would not let him stay at home.
His next destination: the New Jersey Training School for Boys, the state's largest juvenile detention center, in Jamesburg, N.J.
"This is a place where nobody would want their child to be," Conway recalled Jason's social workers telling her. "It's the worst of the worst."
People described the facility to her as "prison for children."
In 2007, 11 boys at the New Jersey Training School for Boys were charged with aggravated assault and riot after they attacked the guards at the facility, according to the Newark Star-Ledger.
"He wouldn't have come out," Conway said. "And if he lived through that, he wouldn't have come back my child anymore."
The way Conway saw it, she was running out of options.
But there was one other possibility. Jason had a godfather. He lived in Clearwater.
Conway bought Jason a one-way ticket to Florida.
After arriving in Clearwater, Jason lived with his godfather for four months, then moved into his own apartment in January. He found one job in roofing and another helping out at the flea market. He also earned money as a handyman.
Rick Lintzenich of Dunedin hired Jason to help him out at the flea market. He said Jason was exceptionally hard-working.
"For no reason whatsoever, he was just inherently responsible." Lintzenich said. "He didn't have any big desire other than to make it here and to do okay."
The 16-year-old was "turning into a man in a hurry," Lintzenich said — he grew from 5-foot-5 to 5-foot-11 in the few months that his boss knew him.
"He was still a kid, even though he was trying to struggle with the world of adults," Lintzenich said.
But Jason had not dropped his drug habit, Hertz said.
It was only a couple of weeks before his death that Conway began to suspect that her son might be doing drugs again. He started to call less frequently.
On June 8, she went online and searched prices for plane fares to Florida. Maybe it was time to pay Jason another visit in Clearwater, she thought.
The next day at 7:59 a.m., a resident at the Del-Mar apartment complex called 911 after he heard three gunshots from the apartment next door. Clearwater police Officer Brian Rogers arrived at the door of unit No. 2. Rogers knocked on the door. No answer.
After obtaining a key from the landlord, Rogers stepped inside and looked around.
He found Jason in his bed, with a gunshot wound to the head. He was pronounced dead at 8:39 a.m.
According to the search warrant report, police found two live rounds, six marijuana plants on the back porch, a bottle of oxycodone pills, a marijuana grinder and empty boxes for firearms in the closet.
Police also removed Jason's three dogs: two full-grown pit bulls and a black-and-white spotted pit bull puppy.
Conway said she cannot believe that her quiet, dog-loving son — her only child — has vanished from her life.
"All he wanted to do was come home," she said. "He just wanted to come home. He was afraid and I was afraid for him, and I ran out of options."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Martine Powers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4224.