JACKSONVILLE, FL - At 19 years old, Thomas ‘TJ’ Nunley’s next chapter of life was just beginning. He was excited to start college and become a graphic designer.
But he never got that chance, he was murdered in December of 2012.
“I think my favorite thing to see now are sunflowers because that was our thing, sunflowers,” tells TJ’s mother, Dena Westbrook, as she sits in her Jacksonville home.
TJ was the middle child, with two sisters. He had picked up his mother’s green thumb and his father’s love of music. Gardening while blasting Beatles music is how Dena likes to remember her son.
Not how his life ended in Arlington on December 9, 2012.
TJ went for a walk along Ft. Caroline Road as he often did to clear his head when working on a music or art project. His parents, on their way home from a Christmas party, drove past the crime scene. Not knowing yet it was their son that had been shot in the chest and died.
“I think this one was a robbery attempt gone bad, he was found shot in the roadway,” explains Sgt Dan Janson with the Cold Case Unit at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.
Dena says when she got the news she didn’t want to believe it. She called out TJ’s name in their home… but was only answered by silence.
“He could have given a lot to the world, he could have been a productive member of society. He could have given the world beauty…. a lot of beauty,” she said through the tears.
On a table, she spreads out pictures of TJ’s life, from his first picture as a newborn to the last picture ever taken of him at a wedding. Pictures that show he was a beloved uncle, creative spirit, and a cherished son. His loss is still felt in every aspect of his family’s lives.
“I think the hardest part for me was going to the grocery store and still buying all the things I would buy for him. I did that for a long time,” says Dena.
As the years have ticked by Sgt Janson admits this is one of their more difficult cold cases to crack.
“We have very limited evidence, there was no video in the area. So anybody who saw anything at that time of the morning involving him would be most helpful,” says Sgt Janson.
While difficult, he says it is not impossible to solve. Crime doesn’t happen in a vacuum, people talk and someone out there has information.
“It happens in many ways and different forms, but information does come to us,” he says.
Dena says she firmly believes there are people out there who know who killed her son. Though her faith in God has helped her through TJ’s death, she worries that her son’s killer could take another life.
“Losing your child and not knowing who did it, so that person could do it to someone else. That bothers me more than anything because I don’t want anyone else to feel this pain. It is horrible,” tells Dena.
As Dena and her family wait for justice, she says they plan on scattering TJ’s ashes underneath a backyard tree and planting more sunflower seeds. So even on the darkest day, they can still see something beautiful taking root in TJ’s memory.
If you know anything about the murder of Thomas ‘TJ’ Nunley you are asked to call the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office or Crimestoppers at 1-866-845-TIPS and you can remain anonymous. There is also a $15,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in this case.
For more on TJ Nunley’s murder and a look at other Cold Cases, visit Project Cold Case.