By Esteban Parra, The (Wilmington, Del.) News Journal
NEWARK, Del. — Patricia Buckworth lay on her bedroom floor, her abdomen burning where she had been shot.
A few feet away, her 19-year-old son, Rodrick, also was down, blood from two bullet wounds seeping into the tan carpet. Then she heard it:
"This is not happening. This is a dream."
Neither Patricia Buckworth nor her son were talking. Those were the last words of her neighbor, Jason Lee Brunson, 41, before he shot himself and collapsed over her.
The 40-year-old single mother pushed the man off her, rushed to her son and together the pair fled the apartment they had called home for eight years, Rodrick Buckworth yelling for help as they ran outside.
"We were born as singles, but we live as a pair," the teen told his mother as they waited for help in the parking lot.
He likely saved her life, rushing to shield his mother when Brunson kicked their door open and began firing. Brunson, a ground-floor tenant, took to his death whatever motive led to the June 10 rampage.
The two had encountered each other for the first time four days earlier in the hallway, where Brunson inexplicably accused her of being loud and making fun of him.
Violence is not a stranger to Rodrick Buckworth, who sings under the name "El Rod" at community events, trying to spread the message of respect and nonviolence as a way of dealing with the murder of his 20-year-old cousin, Aunyea Marian Hawkins. Her estranged boyfriend, Leon K. Perkins, killed her following a struggle in his Wilmington, Del., apartment in 2002.
Perkins is serving a life sentence.
Rodrick Buckworth was 7 when that happened. He credits his cousin's death, family and his mother's teachings for shaping him to be who he is and rise above violence.
That's why when "the devil" knocked on his door, the teen, who also runs track at Wesley College in Dover, Del., said he knew he had to protect his mother.
"If I'd run out of that house without my mom, what kind of man would I have been?" he said. "I protect my mom first, disregard me."
The two have a way to go before they fully recover.
"He's smart, he's charismatic and he is my hero," his mother said. "I know he doesn't want to hear that part of it, ... but not everybody would do that."
Patricia Buckworth, a receiving supervisor at Burlington Coat Factory, still has a bullet in her abdomen. She can't stand or walk for long periods, much less lift heavy items. Last week, Rodrick Buckworth wore bandages on his neck where one bullet passed through and a cast on his right forearm where another struck and fractured a bone.
The teen said he would like the wounds on his neck to heal or at least look like scratches before he returns to work at World Cafe Live at The Queen in Wilmington.
The two started counseling Thursday.
Spokesman Sgt. Jacob Andrews of New Castle County police said investigators have no motive for the triple shooting.
Brunson, who had lived in his apartment for six to eight months, had no criminal record in Delaware. But he had been convicted in Maryland of driving under the influence and a marijuana offense, and he was arrested in April near North East, Md., on a theft charge.
Brunson also served from 1993 to 1997 in the Army.
He had two children, according to his former wife of more than 15 years, Tina Brunson, who contactedThe News Journal following the incident.
"As you can probably imagine, my family and I are truly devastated," she said in e-mail. "We are still grieving and mourning our loss, the loss of Jason. We are looking for answers as well. The truth is, we may never know the reason behind this tragedy."
Tina Brunson wanted the Buckworths to know she was sorry for their ordeal and wished them well on their road to recovery.
Patricia Buckworth and Jason Brunson met June 6 when she and a friend were getting ready to go out for the night.
"We were on our way out to go to dinner — our normal ritual is I do her hair and we go out to dinner," she said, adding that they talked before leaving her apartment. "You know girlfriends, laughing, talking."
But when the women walked into the hallway, she said Jason Brunson and another woman met them. Patricia Buckworth recalled the man telling them, "You guys were making a lot of noise in there. You were really loud, I thought you were in the hallway. I think you were over there talking about us.' "
Patricia Buckworth said she'd never seen him before. When Jason Brunson told the women he was an Army vet and showed a card identifying him as a disabled vet, Patricia Buckworth's friend thanked him for his service.
The man alluded to having mental-health issues, Patricia Buckworth said, but she could not remember his exact words.
James A. Coty, spokesman at the Wilmington Veterans Affair Medical Center, declined to comment on whether Jason Brunson was a patient.
That was the last Patricia Buckworth saw of him until four days later.
A sudden break-in
Patricia Buckworth had finished showering and was on Facebook, dozing off. Her son was lying on the couch in the living room watching TV.
It wasn't quite 6 p.m. when Rodrick Buckworth heard knocking at the door. When he asked who it was, he heard no response.
When a second round of knocks came, still with no response, Rodrick Buckworth decided not to answer.
"I wasn't going to open the door just for anybody," he said.
Rodrick Buckworth, a slim 146-pound athlete, jumped up when the person on the other side kicked the door. By the second kick — the one that burst the door open — he had darted for the hallway leading to his mother's room.
A shot rang out, missing him.
The noise woke Patricia Buckworth, who quickly put on a pair of pants and a tank top before her son got into the room. She also grabbed her cellphone and began dialing 911.
Rodrick Buckworth shut the door behind them. He moved his mother, who was asking what was going on, to the side and shoved her dresser in front of the door.
"I felt a little tug at the door," he said. "I felt pushing."
Then, he heard shots and smelled gunpowder.
"My mom said she was shot," he said. "I didn't know what to do, but I still had to be that brave person that I am and take care of my mom first."
He continued pushing the dresser against the door and another shot rang out. This one struck him in the neck, and he fell to the ground.
Jason Brunson pushed the door open, entering the room, "slow, like it was his house, like he was comfortable there," Rodrick Buckworth said.
"When he got in the room, I thought life was over for me and my mom," Rodrick Buckworth said. "I really didn't know what to expect. I just knew I was young and I wasn't ready to go."
In shock and unable to get up, the teen suddenly realized something had happened to his right arm because he couldn't move it.
Then Jason Brunson spoke.
"How did you do this?" Rodrick Buckworth remembered hearing him ask. "I'm thinking, 'Is he asking me how did I get in the room that fast, put the dresser in there?' "I didn't know if he was talking to himself. I didn't know what the case was."
A few feet away, his mother watched in horror.
"This is not happening," Jason Brunson said after walking toward Patricia Buckworth, where he stood over her.
"I can still see the gun in his hand by his side," she said.
Then Jason Brunson uttered his final words: "This is not happening. This is a dream."
"I heard one gunshot and he landed on top of me," she said, her eyes welling with tears.
Jason Brunson's legs collapsed onto her body.
"I don't think I had enough time to be afraid," she said. "At that point I knew he was dead. At that point I just knew to get out of the room."
As the two ran out of the building, Rodrick Buckworth knocked on neighbors' doors asking for help. Outside, the teen began shouting for help, telling people he had been shot.
A UPS driver and several neighbors called 911.
Patricia Buckworth remembered her son telling her he was fatigued.
"Please, please don't close your eyes," she told him. "I love you. I need you to stay awake. I need you to be here with me. I need you to stay awake."
As she insisted he not fall asleep, first responders arrived.
Both were taken to Christiana Hospital in Newark.
Patricia Buckworth was the first to be released. She watched over her son as much as she could. Despite his mother's watchful eyes, at times the teen felt alone and thought about that night.
Rodrick Buckworth, 19, hugs his mom, Patricia Buckworth, before leaving June 25, 2014, to have lunch with friends.(Photo: Jennifer Corbett, The (Wilmington, Del.) News Journal)
"I couldn't do nothing else but think about it," he said. "I was in the hospital, I had to think about why I was in the hospital. Nobody was there to stay with me. My mom was there, but she was in a different room. She could not come down."
So he thought about the incident and wondered why it happened.
Both are out of the hospital and staying with family.After leaving the hospital, Rodrick Buckworth said he was unable to sleep the first couple of nights.
"I would close my eyes and then I would wake up because I thought about it," he said. "I thought 'What if it were worse? What if I couldn't open my eyes no more? What if I wasn't here? What if my mom wasn't here? What if it was just me and not her?"
Neither will return to their apartment — a place Patricia Buckworth moved to try and shield her son from the bad influences of their old Wilmington neighborhood.
Although their physical wounds are beginning to heal, they still have emotional scars to confront thanks to Jason Brunson, whom Patricia Buckworth can refer to only as "the neighbor" or "the shooter."
Her sister dropped a fork the other day, reminding Patricia Buckworth of the sound the vase filled with marbles made when the dresser was moved.
"I've never been one afraid of thunderstorms," she said. "But it thundered the other night and I just woke up and I said, 'OK, is this going to be forever embedded in my mind?'"
She asked her son to touch her, "just so I knew that someone was there," she said.
Patricia Buckworth said she worries about track meets.
"Is he going to freeze up when he hears that gun go off?" she asked, admitting she's not sure how she will react.
But Rodrick Buckworth is confident he will return to school in the fall as well as continue to perform.
"School is definitely still my option," he said. "I have to go back to school to better myself. I can't let this stop me from what I've got to do. I have to finish what I started."
Despite it all, Patricia Buckworth said everything happens for a reason.
"For me, right now, embrace the relationships that you have," she said. "The friends that you have, the people that are in your circle, do not take for granted that someone will always be there."
Contributing: Terri Sanginiti and William H. McMichael, The (Wilmington, Del.) News Journal