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The terrible end of American childhood innocence

Alligator Candy: A Memoir

By David Kushner

Simon & Schuster

242 pages, $26

By Lee Coppola

David Kushner was 4 years old when his 11-year-old brother jumped on his bike and headed through the woods near their Tampa home to buy candy at a convenience store.

Jonathan Kushner never returned. He was waylaid by two thrill-seeking men who murdered him, mutilated him, violated him and then buried him in a shallow grave.

Unlike most memoirs that record the life of the author, “Candy” delves deeply into the reaction of the author and his family to the horrendous death.

And it lays out a theory that Jonathan Kushner’s abduction spelled the end of innocence for children in the Tampa area, and possibly the United States.

Jonathan’s disappearance triggered a massive search through the woods and surrounding area. Hundreds took part. It was front-page news and the lead television story every day.

The search ended when one of the kidnappers was captured, fingered by his wife after confessing to her when large doses of alcohol loosened his tongue. His companion was then caught, and both were tried. The killer whose wife turned him in was sentenced to death and eventually was executed. The other was imprisoned for life with no chance of parole.

As a 4-year-old, author Kushner had difficulty comprehending the loss of his big brother and the bedlam that followed. His memory was of Jonathan going to the store to buy candy, of asking him to buy some for him, his favorite, Alligator Candy.

It was, he writes, as if through the years it was the unspoken topic at the dinner table. David was told his brother was hit over the head with a pipe, then gagged and stuffed into the trunk of a car. He suffocated in the trunk but, still, his lifeless body was abused before he was buried.

At 11, the author wanted to know more, so he went to the school library and pored over microfilm of the newspapers that covered the tragedy. He read words from his parents about his brother’s death that he never heard from them. He recognized the immensity of the search and the outpouring of his support his family received in the wake of Jonathan’s disappearance.

But he was troubled when his father told him his memory of watching his brother ride off to buy candy was false, that he was in the house when his brother left for the store.

It wasn’t until he was 27, now a journalist and author, that Kushner decided to piece together the puzzle that had been in his mind for years. His research included discussions with his mother he never had while growing up; interviews with police officers, family friends and search volunteers, and poring over police and autopsy reports. One critical interview could not take place: his father had died.

The research revealed to him for the first time the horrors his brother’s lifeless body was subjected to and, like a thunderbolt, hit him with a fact that was probably kept from him to spare him from blame. The reason his brother went to the store, a police report noted, was specifically to buy candy for his younger brother.

It also noted the executed killer had given candy he took from Jonathan’s pocket to his son, candy described in the police report as Alligator Candy.

“I couldn’t help imagining what might have happened had I not pressed him so hard to get me the gum,” Kushner writes. “Maybe he wouldn’t have gone.”

Kushner overcame his feelings of guilt, perhaps aided by his literary tribute to his brother. The tribute was not so much about the accomplishments of an 11-year-old, but what followed his demise and how a family came to grips with it.

But before he started writing, he faced the brutality of his brother’s last hours and the hurt his family endured before a parole board convened to hear the pleas for freedom from one of Jonathan’s killers. It turned out the one sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of parole was grandfathered under a clause in the law that allowed parole.

The news shocked the Kushners and prompted them to talk about their feelings in therapy sessions. Still, the author’s parents were unwilling to face their son’s killer and testify at his hearing. So the author and his surviving older brother did.

“I struggle to remember my brother,” David Kushner told the board, “but it is so hard, because what I mostly see, in my mind, is him struggling helplessly against two strong grown men and being murdered and mutilated.”

The killer was not paroled.

Jonathan Kushner never saw his 12th birthday but, thanks to his grieving brother, he lives on and, perhaps more significantly, represents the start of an era of not taking for granted the safety of our children.

Lee Coppola is a former print and TV journalist, a former federal prosecutor and the retired dean of the St. Bonaventure University Journalism School.