HAMILTON, Ohio (FOX19) - A Hamilton mother is still overwhelmed with sorrow four years after her son’s murder, but police are now revealing they are only steps away from solving the case.
In what has been called a brutal crime, CJ Sandle was shot and killed inside his home in January 2016.
Rebecca Sandle, CJ’s mother, calls it the worst day of her life.
“I remember hearing a scream, hearing a loud bang, trying to figure out what’s going on... opening my door, seeing my back door wide open," Rebecca said. “It’s cold. It’s dark, and I hear more shots, and I’m not understanding what’s going on.”
Rebecca says she heard gunfire that startled her out of deep sleep. Immediately, she felt frantic because she knew she was not alone in her home.
She says her then nine-year-old daughter’s room was down the hall, and CJ, who had just turned 20, was sleeping in his room upstairs.
“I hear somebody coming down the stairs, and I think it’s gonna be CJ, and it’s not, and this person I can’t see puts the gun to my head," Rebecca said. "I plead, and I beg to not shoot me, and at that stage, all I can think about is what it’s gonna feel like when this bullet goes into my head.”
The man with the gun, Rebecca says, spared her life and then disappeared into the darkness. She says she then rushed to CJ’s side. At that point, everything went blurry.
“They came in and said, ‘I’m very sorry, but your son didn’t make it,'" Rebecca said. "Then my life as I knew it had changed forever, and they ruined my life that day, and they took my heart. They killed my baby, my baby, that I held in my arms.”
CJ’s life began in New Zealand. After two years there, Rebecca says they moved to Australia.
“Really kind kid," Rebecca said. "Did a lot of things for other people.”
By 2001, it was time for a big change. They packed up and headed to the United States, ultimately ending up in Hamilton.
Rebecca said it took CJ time to adjust, but it was not long before he found friends - some Rebecca trusted, others she did not.
“There was a circle of friends that no, I didn’t get a good vibe from them," Rebecca said.
Four years later, Hamilton police say they believe it is that crew of so-called companions that are the missing link in CJ’s unsolved murder.
“CJ Sandle had a lot of friends," Detective Melvin Gray said. "A lot of those friends know what happened. We have reached out to them, and now, I’m just hoping they see this and come in.”
Rebecca says some of the “friends” have shown her sympathy during her darkest hours, all while holding on to a disturbing secret.
“You can’t run from the information you have," Rebecca said. "For the rest of your life, you’re going to carry that burden of knowing what was done to your friend, that you called your friend.”
As days turned to weeks, weeks to months, months to years, police say brand new leads turned into dead ends, and hot tips went cold.
“I have gone sleepless nights thinking about what do I do next, what could I do, what should I have done, and basically plot it out. So yeah you take it home, it wears on you," Detective Melvin Gray said.
Now, Gray believes the countless hours pouring over evidence is finally paying off. He says they are closer to solving the case than they have ever been.
Detective Gray revealed that they do have a suspect, and they have a motive.
“We know why it happened, but I can’t get into any of that," he said.
For the first time, police are also revealing that the crime could be connected to other cases.
Rebecca admits that her son was not perfect. In the days before his death, she says he may have made a mistake that angered the wrong person.
“Nobody can do something bad enough to deserve what was done to CJ," Rebecca said. "I didn’t do anything to deserve to what was done to CJ, nor did his baby sister.”
Left now only with memories, Rebecca is painfully waiting for the phone to ring, hoping for the call that would change her life.
Until that happens, she remains stuck in a painful cycle, continuing to wonder what could have been.
“He might be married. I might have a grandbaby, but we’ll never know, will we?" Rebecca said. "I do know one thing, he would tell me 'don’t cry mom and don’t stop fighting. Never ever ever stop fighting.”
Every year, Rebecca honors her son with a “random act of kindness” day. On the anniversary of CJ’s murder, January 13, she asks people all over the world to do something nice for someone else.
Family and friends run a “Justice for CJ” Facebook page to keep the community updated on the case.
There is a $5,000 reward for information on CJ’s murder.
Anyone with information is urged to call Hamilton Police at 513-868-5811.