Writer David Kushner was just 4 years old when his older brother was murdered – leaving him fearful of the “bogeyman” throughout his childhood.
On Oct. 28, 1973, Jonathan Kushner, a sweet-natured, red-haired boy, who was only 11 years old, was abducted and murdered by John Paul Witt and Gary Tillman in the woods beside his Tampa, Florida, home.
Now married with children of his own, David, 47, pieces together the details of his brother’s death in a new memoir, Alligator Candy.
And he describes how he, his parents Gilbert and Lorraine and his oldest brother Andy, were left to cope and live their lives without Jonathan.
“In a way, I’ve been writing the book for about 44 years,” David says, in an exclusive interview with PEOPLE. “This is the story of my life and I’ve been living with it and thinking about it and researching it since I was a kid, trying to find answers for myself.”
In the years after his brother’s murder, David’s parents worked hard to give him and Andy their freedom, setting up a support community “to help them survive the seemingly unsurvivable.”
As for himself, David says: “There’s no prescription for recovery. I think everyone has their own journey.”
But the older he grew, the more David struggled with the “looming mystery” of his brother’s murder. He writes: “Every kid fears the bogeyman, the creature in the closet, the monster under the bed.
“But my bogeyman had a face – two faces – and they couldn’t be dispelled by someone telling me he wasn’t real.”
The terror and heartache led David to “self-medicate,” using marijuana in his teenage years in an effort to cope, telling PEOPLE: “I smoked a lot of pot because it was just self-medicating. But the thing is that it could make you paranoid, so it didn’t necessarily help.
Using writing as an outlet to exorcise his demons, David adds: “I think that certainly PTSD is a real phenomenon that hits – it hit me.”
David describes a childhood where his imagination ran wild, filling in the gaps of his brother’s murder. He was 13 years old when he quietly slipped into a local library to investigate without telling his parents.
“I was concerned about upsetting my parents by asking them questions when, in hindsight, I’m sure they would have happily, they would have engaged with me had I asked them details, but I didn’t want to, maybe I was also afraid to,” he says.
A SHOCKING TRUTH, A HORRIFIC MURDER
At that young age, he learned the truth. Witt and Tillman – who authorities say had gone out “hunting” for a child – had grabbed Jonathan as he biked through the woods after buying candy at the local 7-Eleven. The path between the Kushner’s home and the store went through only 400 yards of woodland.
They gagged him and locked him in the trunk of a car while they drove to a nearby grove.
Jonathan suffocated to death during the trip and the men molested and mutilated his body before burying him in a shallow grave.
“Looking back now I think that was my first act of journalism,” David says, of his library visits. “That was a very, very powerful moment, I’ll never forget that. Looking at the microfilm and just seeing the newspaper accounts it was terrifying. But it was also revelatory because suddenly I was trying to get some answers but, at the same time, the answers were raising more questions.”
In his memoir, David writes: “I realized some of the most terrible stories were true.”
David tells how he was riddled with “survivor’s guilt,” remembering how he begged Jonathan to bring him back his favorite treat, Snappy Gator Gum – alligator candy – and watched his big brother ride away on his bike.
However, he discovered that not only did Jonathan buy the candy, but it would be a key to the arrest and conviction of his killers.
Indeed, Witt’s wife Donna told police how he had brought home the candy for her son after the murder – and she herself had eaten it.
Witt was executed by electric chair in Florida on March 6, 1985. David says he was left “numb.”
“That was a powerful moment, experience,” he says, “and I suppose you take comfort in knowing that someone like that can’t ever get out and harm anyone else. It’s hard.”
“I don’t know that anything would have made any difference because it’s like, what’s done was done. Whether he was in jail or whether he had been executed, it wasn’t going to bring back my brother.”
FIGHT FOR JUSTICE
In 1997, Tillman became eligible for parole. David and his brother Andy gave impassioned speeches to keep him behind bars
“It was a total shock. It was the result of essentially kind of a legal loophole, ” David says. “It was shocking and it was terrible and scary and it was a complete surprise.”
Although he says it became clear there was “no real intention” of granting parole, “that didn’t lower the stakes because I still felt like I had to do whatever I could to prevent that from happening.”
He adds in his book: “After a lifetime of feeling impotent about my brother’s murder, I was suddenly in a position to take action. But now here we were: grown men, grown brothers, best friends. And we could do something if we wanted. We could speak. It felt like we were walking into the schoolyard to defend our brother against the neighborhood bully. It was time to fight.”
And fight they did. Tillman was given another 102 years on top of his life sentence.
HONORING A BROTHER GONE TOO SOON
Jonathan’s death has become part of the fabric of David’s life, and his memoir, he says, is an ode to the brother who was never allowed to became a man.
David says that while his family – including his father Gilbert, who died in 2010 – supported his efforts in writing the memoir, they all share one feeling: “We wish that the story wasn’t true.”
In one moment, he describes teaching his daughter to ride on the same corner by his childhood home where he last saw his brother.
He says: “I just try to give my kids the childhood that my parents gave to me, which was the sort of sense of appreciation, passion for life and enjoying it. That’s how I’ve tried to be – not to say it’s not a challenge – it’s a challenge for every parent today – but I think it’s important to try to keep it in perspective.”
Even in the midst of telling the heartbreaking story, David writes that Jonathan represents freedom for him and, after all these years, he is able to “imagine [Jon] alive.”
“I know that while his death was so tragic, he was never more alive than his very last ride,” David writes. “The wind was in his face. He was pedaling fast. He was heading home. And he was free.”