As a journalist and author, David Kushner has investigated and told hundreds of stories, from hackers to Civil Rights activists, criminals to card counters. But the one story he has pursued the longest is his brother’s. That story begins on a sunny Sunday morning, October 28th, 1973, when 11-year-old John Kushner biked into the Florida woods headed for the 7/11 and never returned. And now David is piecing together just what happened to his big brother in “Alligator Candy.”
“Alligator Candy” is a six-episode podcast about John Kushner’s disappearance. David was just 4 years old when John vanished and has very few memories of his brother, including the investigation. The 25-minute long episodes feature David piecing together police reports, interviews, and his own memories to see what his 4-year-old self didn’t see before.
In the first episode, David introduces us to his childhood in 1970s America. It was a fairly typical life: no seatbelts, no helmets, and no cell phones, so be home before dark. He tells us what he remembers about life before that late October day, about the few memories he has with John. Through interviews with his eldest brother, Andy, who was 13 years old the day John biked into the woods, and their parents, we learn even more about the young boy.
He was diagnosed with Auditory Deficit Disorder and had some trouble in school. Speaking of school, we learn that the Kushners sent their sons to what David calls “hippy school,” where there were no grades and teachers had long straight hair and flared jeans. John loved airplanes and had a copy of a real pilot’s handbook that he would read to David before they would play with a remote control helicopter.
But John’s life was cut short by two men in the woods that day. It was just a few days later that Johnny Witt admitted to his wife that he and 19-year-old Gary Tillman had killed John and buried him in a shallow grave. When Witt’s wife turned the two men in, Witt horrifically confessed that he and Tillman were in the woods looking for a child to kill for sport.
In “Alligator Candy,” besides just family, David speaks with investigators, police, and reporters about those days where no one knew what happened to John. David speaks with Daniel Ruth of the Tampa Tribune, a young police reporter who remembers the horrific crime. He also speaks with Sue Carlton, the journalist who covered the parole hearing. And David talks with a few of the many, many Tampa residents who lives were undoubtedly changed by John’s murder. Before this, Tampa had never experienced a crime of such brutality, and in a way, those two men not only stole John’s innocence, but the entire city’s.
It’s easy to see why “Alligator Candy” has been nominated for Podcast of the Year at the Ambies. While it is certainly a true crime story, it’s not the true crime story we are used to. It’s not full of gruesome details or harrowing retellings of a victim’s final moments, but it comes from a place of love. David remembers so little about his brother and knew even less about the investigation until he wrote his book Alligator Candy. This podcast somewhat reads like that book as well: it’s told directly from David’s point of view.
As for the name of the podcast, before John hopped on his bike for the last time to head to the nearby 7/11 convenience store, David asked him for “Alligator Candy.” The candy was really called Snappy Gator Gum, a gum that came in a little plastic alligator head. It’s the last memory anyone has of John. Be sure to check out “Alligator Candy;” it’s bound to be your next great heart-wrenching listen.