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David Kushner was just 4 years old when he asked his older brother Jon for a simple request: Snappy Gator Gum.
Kushner begged his brother to get him the alligator toy—that was also a candy dispenser—just as Jon was about to take off on his bike for a ride to the nearby convenience store on Oct. 28, 1973.
It’s the clearest and final memory Kushner has of his 11-year-old brother, who never returned home.
Decades later, Kushner, a journalist and author, revisited his brother’s mysterious disappearance and the tragedy’s impact on his Florida family in the new UCP Audio six-part podcast “Alligator Candy.”
“I’ve spent decades reporting on other people’s lives, I’ve covered hackers and gamers and criminals, treasure hunters and space tourists, civil rights activists and card counters, but the story I’ve always been chasing one way or another is my brother’s,” Kushner says in the podcast’s introduction.
After noticing holes in his own memory about the disappearance, Kushner, who serves as host and executive producer of the podcast, decided to bring the same investigative skills he’s honed as a reporter to his re-examination of his brother's case.
Kushner first delved into the mystery in a memoir of the same name published in 2016, but after the book’s release he got a series of emails from Tampa residents who were still haunted by their own memories of the case.
“I started hearing from people who had been in Tampa at the time, and hearing all of their personal stories about how they were all affected by this and how it stayed with them,” Kushner told Oxygen.com. “I got one email in particular from a woman who said ‘I was the girl who got away’.”
The young girl had been in the woods at the same time Kushner’s brother disappeared and remembered seeing two suspicious men who would later be linked to his brother’s death.
“It really got me thinking about how you know, there was my family’s experience in my book—the memoir was very much about my own experience—but there was this larger story that was playing out in the community,” he said.
As a journalist himself, Kushner admits he has a “complicated” relationship with the media, both working within it and also experiencing it from a different side as he watched his brother’s story become “sensationalized” over the years.
“That was extremely difficult, and it still is, and one of my hopes with this podcast is that I’m, you know, we’re able to bring some humanity to it and tell a story from the inside about what it’s like, how it stays with you, how it stays with all these people,” Kushner told Oxygen.com.
“Alligator Candy” is a powerful story of love, family, and perseverance in the face of unimaginable tragedy and the impact memory can have on how that trauma is internalized.
“I think we walk around in our daily lives thinking there is some kind of order, or we’re kind of inoculated, or that these bad things happen to other people and it’s just very unusual to have that shattered, in my case at such a young age, but also just such a public way,” Kushner said of the impact to his family.
While the case often made headlines, Kushner said there was little in-depth discussion in the news about trauma, loss, and grief.
“It was difficult for me to tell the story but I hope by me doing it, it facilitates other people kind of telling their own,” he said.
“Alligator Candy” is produced by UCP Audio, Kushner, Golden Globe nominated actress Emmy Rossum through her production banner Composition 8 and Transmitter Audio. It’s available at UCP Audio or wherever you listen to podcasts.
-Stephanie Gomulka contributed to this report.
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