Editor’s note: The video above was from WKBN’s report on the murder in 1996.
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — Imagine trying to skip school because you woke up late — only to find out your mother was murdered.
That happened to Tara and Tyler Rust and Tinika Ellis, who were 5, 7 and 8 when it happened.
Now in their 30s, the three are hoping they can find out who was responsible for the death of her mother, Tonya Rust, who was found shot to death Feb. 23, 1996, in a chair in the living room of her Brooklyn Avenue home on the South Side.
Now a mother with four kids of her own, Tara, a Woodrow Wilson graduate, said thoughts of her mother have increased as she gets set to welcome a grandchild, something Tonya was never able to do.
“I’m excited because my mom never got to see her grandchildren,” Tara said.
Tonya was 26 when she died. She was a graduate of South High School and worked as a chef. One of her jobs was at the Holiday Inn hotel in Boardman.
“She was a sweetheart and the life of the party,” Tara said of her mother. “She liked get-togethers. We had a real tight family.”
Tyler was just 5 when his mother was killed and he said he did not have a lot of memories of her. Some of the ones he did have were of her letting him stay up to watch television with her, and when she would whip up a dish of goulash.
Now 32 and living in Boardman, Tyler said his mother spoiled him because he was the youngest and the only boy.
“I was spoiled. I was loved well,” said Tyler, who graduated from Chaney and works in sales. “She was just very sweet.”
Tinika, now 33 and going to nursing school in Atlanta, said she remembers her mother as always being in a good mood.
“She was pleasant and very sweet. She was always smiling,” said Tinika, who is the mother of a 15-year-old daughter. “She was just very outgoing.”
Tara did not know much was amiss the morning of her mother’s death as she and her siblings got ready for school upstairs.
When they came downstairs, however, they ran into neighbors who got inside who were concerned about her mother and that is when the children discovered she was shot to death.
Tinika said she remembers the day well and still has dreams about it at times.
“I remember it vividly,” she said.
She said the three woke up late because they were used to their mother waking them up for school.
Tinika said she slept in the same room as her sister and they decided to stay quiet in the hope that they would not have to go to school. They had a window open and were listening to music when a passing neighbor asked why they weren’t in school.
The neighbor, who was accompanied by a man, asked where their mother was and the girls answered that she was sleeping. The neighbor then went inside.
“We heard a scream,” Tinika said. “The man came running up the stairs to get us. They tried to cover our heads with blankets so we couldn’t see. I took my blanket off my head and I saw my mother was deceased in the chair.”
Newspaper accounts quoted a neighbor who lamented the fact that he had never heard a gunshot.
Tonya’s father, Robert Green, told WKBN reporter Catherine Bosleyt that his daughter’s death was “senseless,” and he vowed revenge.
“I can’t understand why someone would shoot a mother with three children in the house,” Green told her as he caressed the tassel that hung on Tonya’s graduation photo from South High School. “What kind of person could he be?”
Neighbors told Bosley that they trusted Tonya so much they would allow their kids to come to her house and play. One neighbor said the shooting scared him while Bosley reported other neighbors told police they heard an argument from the home the night before Tonya was found.
Tonya died in the middle of the bloodiest decade the city has ever seen, when almost 500 people were murdered. The year she was killed, Youngstown had 63 homicides, five below the record set the year before, which was 68.
Her children were left to grow up in that decade without a mother and they all said they had a rough time adjusting. The fact that they were so young made it harder for them to process what really happened.
“At first, I really didn’t understand,” Tara said. “It really didn’t hit me for a while.”
She remembers the children were given time to grieve and adjust and did not go back to school for a while.
Tyler said he missed his mother horribly and was often taunted by other kids because he did not have a mother as they did.
“Kids are ruthless, man,” Tyler said. “I got picked on a lot for it.”
Tyler said he missed having someone to talk to the way a son would confide in his mother and struggled at times without his mother in his life.
“I wouldn’t wish what I went through as a child on my worst enemies,” he said. “There were countless amounts of times I wished I could ask her about something, but I couldn’t.”
Tinika said she couldn’t stand the thought of not having a mother so sometimes she would tell people her mother was out of town.
“It took me time to accept that fact,” she said.
Tinika, who graduated from Liberty with honors, lived with another part of the family but she still kept in regular contact with her siblings.
“We were always close,” she said.
All three said their mother’s death makes them appreciate things more, especially family. Tinika said she is very protective of her daughter and called herself a “helicopter mom,” hovering over her because she does not want anything to happen to her, although she added she has been relaxing a bit around her.
“I just want to be there for her,” Tinika said.
As an adult, it is hard for her to form friendships, she said, so she keeps her circle tight and relies on family, she said.
Tara said as an adult she regrets the fact her mother never got to see her grandchildren or her own children move on in life.
“My mom didn’t get to see us graduate and have kids,” Tara said.
Tyler said the death of his mother forced him and his sisters to learn how to push through things.
“We’ve taken the punch, me and my sisters,” Tyler said. “We kept moving forward. We couldn’t afford the luxury of breaking down. It makes you grow up real fast.”
At the time of her death police had a suspect, but no one was ever charged. Tinika said she hopes with the passage of time, someone who knows something who sees how their mother’s death affected her children will get in touch with police.
“If someone knows something but they were scared, they could say something now,” Tanika said.
This story is part of a series of cold cases that WKBN is examining.
Anyone with information on the Feb. 23, 1996, shooting death of Tonya Rust can call the Youngstown Police Department Bureau at 330-742-8911 or CrimeStoppers Youngstown at 330-746-CLUE.