SAYLORSBURG — After running errands and yard work on Aug. 5, Linda and Jerry Kozic showered and headed to a municipal meeting in the Poconos that would end with him dead and her clinging to life.
Linda, a Wilkes-Barre native, thinks often of the last hours with her husband, who was also her best friend and a fellow professional musician.
That was her last sense of normalcy before Jerry and two other men were shot and killed and Linda was seriously wounded by a man who opened fire at the Ross Township building.
“We have a rock garden, and we were working on that and doing some mowing” the afternoon before the shooting, the 57-year-old said from her Saylorsburg home in the Poconos as she prepared for another therapy session last week.
The couple attended local government meetings because Jerry was considering running for supervisor in his Monroe County township.
In the middle of the meeting, Linda and the others heard gunshots echoing in the building and struggled to figure out what was happening.
“We really didn’t have time to be afraid. You had to think about what your next move was going to be based on where you thought he was,” she said.
The shooter was Rockne Newell, 59, who allegedly went on a shooting spree because township officials condemned his littered property after battling with him over two decades, police said.
Saylorsburg resident James “Vinny” LaGuardia, the couple’s close friend, suggested they escape out a side door, not realizing Newell was outside getting more ammunition from his car, she said, speaking in a soft monotone voice as she recounted the tragedy.
Vinny was shot and killed.
Jerry decided he and his wife should try to get around the building. Linda kept looking behind her, suspecting Newell was trailing them, and he was.
“I saw him shoot, so I knew. When it went in my leg, I knew what it was,” she said. “It was a .223-caliber assault rifle, so when the bullet goes in it explodes, so to speak, and does as much damage as it can do.”
Linda and Jerry had an immediate attraction when they met at the Pocono Gardens resort near Mount Pocono in 1984, which was part of the old Mount Airy Lodge complex.
She was in a singing duo. He played piano in the house orchestra.
Linda lived in Dallas at the time and commuted to work. They were both in other relationships but became inseparable once they were free to be together in 1987. They married a decade later in 1997.
“We always had that bond,” she said.
Music was their passion.
Growing up on Davis Place in Wilkes-Barre, Linda picked up basics from her grandmother, who taught piano and organ. Her late dad played the banjo, mandolin, guitar, organ, piano and ukulele. Singing was big on her mom’s side of the family.
“When we got together as kids, there were big jam sessions,” she said.
Linda graduated from Meyers High School and double majored in sociology and community service at Wilkes University. She worked in mental health in the Wilkes-Barre area for six years but left to perform because she was still drawn to music and could make more money.
Jerry’s parents discovered his musical talent when he hummed and fingered the dashboard like a piano recreating hymns he heard on his way home from church. They put him in front of a piano, and he was a natural.
“He was a child prodigy,” Linda said.
He was accepted at The Juilliard School, the New England Conservatory and the Berklee College of Music and ended up at the latter two, which had to create special courses for him because he was so advanced, she said.
When he was 20 and one semester away from graduating, Jerry accepted an invitation to tour Italy with the Harlem Opera Society from someone familiar with his skill and ability to play cold without rehearsals, she said.
“Anything you put in front of him, he could read instantly. Not everybody can do that. That’s a gift,” she said. “He was an exceptionally gifted pianist.”
He attracted a following, and people from other states came to hear his performances, she said.
The couple performed together up and down the East Coast and accepted stints on cruise ships, but later cut back on travel to care for their dogs, which became their substitute children.
“We went all over. We had quite an eclectic life I would say.”
On that fateful August evening, Jerry didn’t realize his wife was hit as he continued with a plan to get to the other side of the municipal building.
“I can’t move. I’m shot,” she said.
He got her to some chairs and frantically tried to fashion a tourniquet. A woman who had been sitting next to the couple at the meeting said she would have to sit on Linda’s wound because there was too much blood. The bullet had ripped apart her calf and severed an artery.
Newell reappeared through a side door but was limping now, she said.
“I looked right in his eyes. It was almost like both of his eyes were black. There was nothing there, no humanity at all,” she said.
Linda was propped up on her elbows because she knew she would lose consciousness and die if she laid down. Newell approached her and pointed the rifle at her head.
“I just looked at him. I said, ‘No more mister. I had enough,’” she said.
Newell surprised her by putting the rifle down and walked past her, for the time being. She was later informed Newell told his father he thought Linda was one of the township supervisors.
Linda asked Jerry to stay down and let her cover him in her blood so it would look like he was dead, but he was in “warrior mode” and stood up as she clung onto his pant leg.
Newell came back.
“I heard my husband say, ‘Oh no.’ Just like that. He wasn’t afraid. He was never afraid of anything,” she said.
She saw the bullet enter Jerry’s abdomen.
Though she was in excruciating pain, Linda wouldn’t give up on her husband.
A Reiki healer, she put her hand on his leg trying to use her energy to will his heart to keep beating.
The 911 recordings taped her screaming, “Jerry, don’t you dare go anywhere” and “Jerry stay with me” as she pleaded for an ambulance.
But the reality was in front of her.
“I knew he was gone. He went very quickly.”
Township official David Fleetwood also was shot, she said.
“What you see on TV is nothing like what the real thing is. Dying from a gunshot wound is not always quick. Unfortunately, Dave’s passing was not quick,” she said, flinching at the memory of his excruciating moans and wails.
Linda suspected her husband was blocking bullets Newell intended for her, and another witness and police later verified he jumped in front of his wife to save her.
“Newell came back in and was going to go for the back of my head, and Jerry stepped in front of me and took it so I would live,” she said.
That made her more determined to live.
“I fought tooth and nail because you can’t let somebody give their life for you for nothing,” she said.
At one point she heard a scuffle outside that turned out to be Monroe County parks supervisor Bernie Kozen and township resident Mark Kresh wrestling Newell to the floor. Kozen shot Newell in the right thigh.
Linda said Newell was “crying like a baby” and complaining he was shot in the leg.
“I pretty much told him to shut the freak up, that he was a baby and coward and that he shot me and my husband and Vinny, and you don’t hear me crying like a baby,” she recalled. “He actually shut up.”
As she wondered if someone would arrive to save her, Linda’s mind drifted to the 20 students gunned down on Dec. 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
“One of the things I thought about as I was laying there dying — and I was dying — was about these children,” she said.
She pictured them terrified and aching for their parents while being attacked.
“Your mind goes off and does a lot of things when you know your end is coming because you’re still trying to survive. I think that’s your brain’s way of trying to make you focus and do what you have to do,” she said.
Linda experienced her first sense of calm when she heard the familiar voice of Pocono Mountain Regional Police Chief Harry Lewis.
“I knew it was going to be OK because he’s a take-charge person,” she said.
Emergency medical technicians arrived, and Linda said she tried to joke with them to break the tension because they were initially shocked when they saw her condition. She was flown to the Lehigh Valley Medical Center.
Hunlock Township resident Jerry Goss, Linda’s brother and a chiropractor in Hanover Township, had been watching television coverage about the shooting but didn’t connect Ross Township with Saylorsburg.
Tears streamed down Goss’ cheeks as he recalled the phone call from a relative of Jerry’s informing him he had bad news: Jerry had been shot and killed and Linda had been shot and airlifted to a hospital.
As he drove to the hospital, Goss ached over the loss of Jerry, who had become his close friend. He couldn’t believe his music would be silenced.
“He really had a gift with his music. How could that be taken away?” he said.
When his sister came out of surgery the next day, he told the doctors he would rather inform her about Jerry’s death than have strangers do it. He wanted to wait for her to bring it up.
She awoke groggy and immediately told them Vinny was dead, followed by the question, “Where’s Jerry?” She asked three times and started tapping her hand before speculating her husband was dead.
“Jerry didn’t make it,” Goss said, hugging his sister.
Goss, who cares for their mother Priscilla, visits his sister often, and the family and Linda’s close friends were at her side to help her through her first Thanksgiving and Christmas without her husband.
He praised family members and friends who have rallied to provide financial and emotional support to Linda so she can heal. Volunteers built a wheelchair ramp to her home, painted and remodeled to brighten up the atmosphere and raised money to fund expenses because she has no medical or life insurance.
Linda has been so focused on her physical injuries, she’s just starting to confront her emotional scars, he said.
“All in all, she’s a strong person, but there are going to be moments yet,” her brother said. “She hasn’t really dealt with it all yet.”
He attended the pretrial court proceedings with his sister and now has a sense of what she went through after hearing the audio recordings.
“This fellow hits her the first time, comes in and points a gun at her a second time and shoots toward her a third time. It’s a lot to process,” he said.
Ironically, Jerry had talked about his plans to try to round up volunteers to help Newell clean up his property, even though he didn’t personally know him, Goss said.
“He was trying to figure out a way to help the guy, and Newell took out his only hope,” Goss said.
Linda has a titanium rod and artery transplant in her leg but lost sensation in her foot and doesn’t know if she will fully regain her ability to move her foot certain ways.
She forces herself to walk more but is wheelchair-bound most of the day because of the pain and her poor balance.
“The pain is 24-7. It’s a very hyper-sensitive kind of pain. If the blanket rubs on it wrong, oh God. It shivers through you,” she said.
She lost much of her hair because of the trauma and medication and still finds clumps every day. She often wakes up soaked in sweat and has some short-term memory loss.
Linda admits she’s “still in shock” and is trying to find an antidepressant that works with her chemistry. She’s found a counselor who will help her “make it to the other side.”
Singing engagements are out until she trusts her ability to remember lyrics and confidently perform in front of an audience.
Despite the pain of “reliving it again,” Linda is attending all court proceedings involving Newell. She has faith in the justice system, and she said she has “no doubt he knew exactly what he was doing.”
“We were hunted like animals. He had it figured out, and there was absolutely nothing he left to chance,” she said.
When she regains her strength, Linda would like to continue her husband’s push for more extensive background checks for gun owners. After Sandy Hook, Jerry had also launched an email campaign encouraging legislators to reconsider access to assault weapons that aren’t used for hunting, she said.
She’s also interested in starting a foundation on her husband’s behalf to supply musical instruments to children who can’t afford them, possibly generating funds with a recording of some of Jerry’s unfinished compositions.
“I’ll never forget what happened. I’ll never put it away. But you have to find your little path that runs alongside it,” she said, rubbing her leg as it was propped up to reduce the swelling.
“That’s the only way you can do it.”