Friends and neighbors remembered Brandon Holt Wednesday as a 6-year-old with a contagious smile, who liked to play in his quiet McCormick Drive cul-de-sac in Toms River with his 4-year-old friend.
Since Monday night, when Brandon was fatally shot by the same 4-year-old neighbor while the pair were playing, those who knew the 6-year-old have been grieving for the child and for the families affected by tragedy.
"Brandon had the most precious and most contagious but shy smile," said Ruthi Blaum Grabowski, who had the chance to meet Holt last week when his grandmother brought him to Grabowski’s work at BottomLine Casino Arcade in the Holiday City Mini Mall.
"His grandma had just bought him a 'Restore the Shore' zip-up sweatshirt, which he was proudly wearing," Blaum Grabowski said.
The 4-year-old boy obtained a .22 caliber rifle from inside the residence where he lived with his family, who have been described as "hunters" by those who know them.
The 4-year-old's parents were "nearby" when the incident occurred on the lawn to the left of the home, said Toms River Chief of Police Michael Mastronardy. The mother of the 4-year-old called 911.
"I can't get over it," said neighbor Barbara Pistone, who lives a few houses down from the cul-de-sac where Holt lived. "Honest. It's tragic."
According to Pistone, the neighborhood is, like other neighbors have said, "very quiet."
A knock on the door at the Holt's residence Wednesday by Patch reporters went unanswered. Not long after, two children exited the Holt home, where it appears family has gathered.
As they walked through the neighborhood, one cried as the other rubbed her back.
Yesterday, the street bustled with reporters, their news vans lining the street. On Wednesday, they were gone.
A woman was seen packing her vehicle in the driveway of the home of the 4-year-old. She later left.
Authorities on Monday night, after the shooting, removed weapons from the home where Holt was fatally shot in the head, according to police.
Children were outside the home when the 4-year-old boy went inside to get the rifle, and then shot Brandon about 15 yards away, the chief said. Mastronardy did not say if the 4-year-old pulled the trigger, or if the rifle accidentally discharged.
'He was a very good kid'
Barbara Silva, a family friend, remembers Holt as a good and energetic kid. Although she didn’t know his parents, Silva knew Holt’s grandmother well.
Grandma Donna, as she called her, was visiting Silva that tragic night. She received a phone call at 7 p.m. that something had happened to Holt and she had to get to Jersey Shore University Medical Center quickly, Silva said.
"She didn’t know what happened," Silva said, adding that Grandma Donna left in a rush.
Silva turned on the news next morning. Headlines pointed to McCormick Drive in the Cedar Grove area of Toms River.
"It didn’t hit me until I saw Cedar Grove," Silva said.
Silva and her husband received a call from Grandma Donna around 1 p.m. Tuesday in which they learned Holt had been shot.
"I can’t believe this," Silva said. "She was so close to him. It’s just breaking my heart from one grandma to another. I can’t fathom what she’s going through.
"She’s a very loving grandmother. She’s always talking about her grandkids, especially Brandon. I could just see the love in her eyes as a grandma. Every time she came over it was always Brandon, Brandon, Brandon," Silva said.
Grandma Donna always boasted about Holt, who loved his grape popsicles, Silva said. Holt had visited along with his grandmother several times.
"He was a very nice, well-mannered boy," Silva said. "He was a typical boy. He was a very good kid."
A neighbor wrote on Toms River Patch that Holt often played with their dog and called him a "strong boy."
As a grandparent, Grabowski can’t imagine how a family copes with such a loss, she said. Grabowski’s husband and Brandon’s grandfather are "good friends" and members of the Manitou Park Fire Company.
"My heart just hurts for all of them," she said.
Community reacts to 'terrible tragedy'
Though Brandon attended St. Joseph's Grade School, Toms River Regional is rallying behind the community. The district is providing counseling services to students at the nearby elementary school who may know the family or heard of the incident, and may be affected by the tragedy.
"There are counselors available at Cedar Grove for any student that needs assistance," said district spokeswoman Tammi Millar. "The principal, Jeff Ryan, is available to any parents that may have questions or concerns."
Toms River Regional is also ready to provide counseling services to St. Joe’s if requested, Millar said.
Millar said that losing such a young student is "a tragedy."
"Our hearts and prayers go out to his family during this difficult and painful time," she said. "Although Brandon did not attend Toms River Regional Schools, he was a member of our community and we are stunned by this horrible loss."
Representatives from St. Joseph's did not immediately return requests for comment.
On Tuesday, township officials shared similar sentiments about Holt's death.
"It's a tragic thing that happened," said Mayor Thomas Kelaher Tuesday night. "It's a terrible tragedy."
Kelaher, as well as Township Council President George Wittmann, told Patch after the regular Township Council meeting that their thoughts are with the families.
"I think it's a terrible tragedy that a 4-year-old boy was able to get a hold of a rifle that was loaded," Wittman said. "I think it's incumbent upon gun owners to keep their firearms in a safe location where they cannot be accessed by children."
"I think it's horrible," said Pistone, who came home Monday night to see a swarm of police on her street. "I can't believe that someone had all these rifles in their house."
"There definitely should be some kind of gun control," Pistone said. "There's no doubt in my mind, after all this."
Pistone has a 13-year-old granddaughter who visits her on McCormick. The teen has friends in the neighborhood, but on the other end of McCormick, away from where the shooting occurred.
"Thank God she plays down that end," she said, gesturing in the opposite direction of the cul-de-sac.
Even as a friend of Grandma Donna’s, Silva does not know all the details yet. But did say she is “pro guns.”
“We have guns here. Our guns have always been locked up. How can a 4-year-old pick up a gun and shoot someone. Right now, I’m very upset with his parents,” she said. “It’s got nothing to do with politics. I’m sure it was an accident, unless the investigation says something else.”
A person who identified herself as "Heather B," an as Brandon's cousin on Toms River Patch, said she lives in Michigan and keeps in touch with her family. But she hadn't had the opportunity to meet Brandon, she said.
“I wish I had gotten to meet him. We were actually trying to plan a family reunion so we could meet each other’s kids as they have only met my oldest themselves. Now we will have to do it at a funeral,” she said in an email.
Pistone said that she spoke with neighbors who said talk of a memorial is circulating the neighborhood, though no concrete plans for one are yet in place.