TAMPA — Britta McKenna is unsure if the two men were dressed like Robin Hood, or if that’s how her 12-year-old brain processed the event.
“I remember costumes,” McKenna, 59, said. “They had a bow and arrow. That I know.”
McKenna and a friend came upon the men while riding bikes through Carrollwood woods to a 7-Eleven for candy.
They were hunting little animals, they told the girls. Come closer, they beckoned.
“I had a feeling something was wrong,” said McKenna, who now lives in Illinois. “Ride like the wind,” she whispered to her friend.
It was less than two weeks later, McKenna estimates, that the same men abducted 11-year-old Jonathan Kushner on Oct. 28, 1973, in those woods as the boy pedaled home with candy from the same 7-Eleven. They killed him.
“I’m the one who got away,” McKenna said.
That story, sent decades later in an email to Jonathan’s brother David Kushner, inspired a podcast on the tragedy.
Titled Alligator Candy and hosted by Kushner, the first three of six episodes are available on May 26 through ucpaudio.com.
Alligator Candy is also the title of Kushner’s 2016 book, which details the murder of his brother.
The book follows Kushner as a journalist and brother seeking to learn the full story behind the murder that his parents rarely discussed. Kushner was 4 when his brother was killed.
The podcast brings in other voices: his mother, Lorraine, and brother Andy Kushner, Tampa Bay Times journalists Dan Ruth and Sue Carlton, who covered the abduction and a parole hearing respectively, and those from Tampa who, like McKenna, were impacted by the tragedy.
“It’s like throwing a rock in the pond,” said Kushner, 52 and now living in New Jersey. “My family took a direct hit and then the ripples went out across town and affected generations.”
The murder stole Tampa’s innocence. Prior to it, few thought such a crime could occur here.
“It was shocking,” McKenna said. “This was still a town where kids ran free with little supervision. No one thought we were in danger.”
Jonathan went to the 7-Eleven to buy candy for Kushner and himself. Kushner wanted “Alligator Candy,” gum sold in a plastic alligator head. His brother never returned.
Days later, Johnny Witt admitted to his wife that he and Gary Tillman killed Jonathan and buried him in a shallow grave near 56th Street and Sligh Avenue. The wife turned them in.
Witt confessed to authorities that they were in the woods looking for a child to kill for sport.
Witt was put to death in the electric chair in 1985. Tillman, who was 19 at the time of the murder and had been previously diagnosed as schizophrenic, is serving a life sentence.
From the tragedy, Kushner has found inspiration that he addresses in the podcast.
“This is also a love letter to the city, thanking everyone who came together for my family,” Kushner said.
The search for Jonathan was massive. Hundreds volunteered nearly around the clock for more than a week.
One of the stories he tells in the podcast, Kushner said, is about a real estate agent who walked into a biker bar for help in the search for Jonathan.
“It’s like the Blues Brothers scene where the needle scratches and everyone looks up,” Kushner said. “The bartender takes out a baseball bat and hits the bar to get everybody’s attention. The next thing you know, all of these bikers went and searched the woods.”
Later, one of those bikers visited Kushner’s home. Covered in mud, Kushner said, the biker said to his dad, Gilbert Kushner, “Give me rougher ground.”
Kushner’s parents — his dad died in 2010 — formed a support group for parents who lost children. Still, the murder was rarely discussed around Kushner.
“It was weird because I knew that everybody knew what happened and who I was,” Kushner said. “It was frustrating. I just wanted people to stop pretending they didn’t know.”
Writing the book was “cathartic,” he said.
His brother Andy Kushner, who was 13 when Jonathan was killed, also used the word “cathartic” to describe being a part of the podcast.
“Back in 1973, there just wasn’t any support for young teenagers going through something like this,” said Andy, 61, who lives in Maryland. “To now talk with my brother about it, to talk with my mother, it brought up angles and perspectives I’d never thought about. It brought me closer to my family and to my brother Jon.”
After the book was published, Kushner said, he was inundated with emails from those who lived in Tampa at the time of the murder. One was from former mayor Pam Iorio.
“I told him how I remember how the community pulled together for his family,” Iorio, 62, said. “But I also remembered how it was the first time we all realized that something could happen to a child. Prior to that, we lived blissful lives. We never thought we were in danger.”
Another email was from McKenna.
She rarely thought about the murder as an adult, McKenna said. Then she was invited to speak at a women’s leadership conference in Illinois in 2018.
Discussing how a single decision can affect the rest of your life, McKenna brought up her run-in with the killers.
“My decision to run changed my life,” she said. “Talking about it publicly for the first time was like an out-of-body experience. It shook me up.”
She reached out to Kushner.
A line from her email read, “I’m the girl who got away,” Kushner said.
Kushner remembered reading her story in police reports while researching the book. She was among those who stepped forward with information during the search for his brother.
“We emailed back and forth,” McKenna said. “I sent him my condolences. Months later, he emailed me again out of the blue that he was doing a podcast and would like to interview me.”
The two had not spoken on the phone or in person before the virtual interview for the podcast. McKenna said it was emotional and that she cried.
“Her email was the impetus for this podcast,” Kushner said. “It’s so unique. The girl who got away and the boy whose brother did not find each other as adults. It’s one of the stories I needed to tell.”
HOW TO LISTEN
To subscribe to the Alligator Candy podcast, visit ucpaudio.com/podcast/alligator-candy.