Mother pleads for info in hit-and-run death of nursing student son

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STATEN ISLAND (PIX11) – Ronald “RJ” Tillman survived more struggles than most in his 29 years, but he’d finally found a calling he was passionate about: nursing.

“He was ecstatic that he found something that he really liked,” his mother, Nancy Tillman, recalled, “and he said I know I’m going to be good at this.”

RJ Tillman was just 5 years old, when his father, Ronald, suffered a fatal heart attack in front of him.

“And he was alone with his father,” Nancy Tillman explained.

RJ Tillman had ADHD, and in high school, he also had to wear a full, body brace for two years, because he suffered from a form of scoliosis.  He wore it 23 hours a day, but the brace didn’t stop him from playing lacrosse or driving.  His mother called RJ a “sweetheart….a gentle soul.  Never judgmental about anybody.  Accepted everybody for what they were.”

RJ, a Syracuse native, eventually earned a film degree from Brooklyn College and traveled the world.  But he seemed to still be searching, and that’s when he joined the second degree program at Wagner College on Staten Island, to study for a degree in nursing.

“He was quiet in the classroom,” Professor Jane DeFazio remembered.  “However, in clinical study, he really just shined.”

DeFazio recalled RJ Tillman using a mannequin, to help a woman who couldn’t speak English learn how to properly do a breast self-examination.

“Many of the instructors were very impressed with that,” DeFazio said.  “I think he enjoyed the caring, the human connection.”

Another professor, Annemarie Dowling, remembered how RJ excelled at his studies.  “He didn’t struggle, so that means you’re either really smart—or you really like it!”

On February 12, 2012, RJ Tillman was studying in the college library for one of the toughest tests of his semester: surgical med.  His mother texted him at 6:30 pm and told him not to study too hard and to get home, to get some rest.  But Tillman never made it  home on his bicycle, after leaving the library about 9 pm that Sunday night.

“I got a call about a quarter to one in the morning,” Nancy Tillman recalled, “from a police officer. And he said, ‘Is this Nancy Tillman? Do you have a son, Ronald, who goes to Wagner College? He said, Well, I’m just calling to tell you he was in an accident this evening.’”

Nancy Tillman said she initially thought the accident wasn’t serious.  “And I’m thinking in my head, ‘broken arm, broken leg’ and he said, ‘No, I’m sorry, he passed away.’”

No eyewitness ever came forward to say they saw the crash, although two women who lived across the street ran outside after hearing it.  RJ Tillman was pronounced dead near the intersection of Howard and Highland Avenues about 9:13 pm, on February 12, 2012.

The driver was long gone—a “hit and run”—and Nancy Tillman said all that was left behind at the scene was a grill from the truck that hit RJ.

“I was first told a Dodge Durango, a dark-colored Dodge Durango,” Tillman recalled.  “And then later, one of my stepsons was told it was a white something-else”.

Last December, ten months after RJ’s death, his mother accepted his nursing pin posthumously at the Wagner College ceremony.

Now, more than twenty months after RJ died, Tillman would just like a little bit more information.

“The worse thing for me is thinking of him being alone and dying on the edge of the street, and nobody there to hold his hand and nobody to be with him.  It’s hard to get past that,” Tillman said.

“It would be nice if the person who did it came forward and took the punishment and said sorry.  And I would say, ‘Why did you leave my son dying at the side of the road?’”

“I’m not out for vengeance,” Nancy Tillman said.  “I would hope that maybe someone would come forward with information about the accident night.  Just to fill in the pieces for us.”