By Daniel Silliman
The evening breeze blew out the 4-year-old boy's candle.
Avaun Rucker looked down at it, watching the last puff of smoke come off the white, tapered wax as the wick turned from orange to a brittle black.
He looked up at his father, Anthony Rucker Sr., and the boy, saying nothing, raised up his candle for help.
They stood in front of the Rucker house, 920 Canary Court in Riverdale, on Saturday. They stood with about 50 people, in the street by the mailbox, all of them holding candles in a vigil on the one-year anniversary of 34-year-old Rhonda Rucker's death.
Anthony Rucker Sr. leaned his lit candle down to his son's extinguished one, placing his other hand firmly on the boy's shoulder.
"It's still hard, without their mother being around," the older Rucker said. "It's encouraging to know that she's still remembered and loved by everyone."
A year ago, on Sept. 15, 2006, Rhonda and Anthony Rucker Sr. played with their youngest son, Avaun, in the early morning. The father prepared to leave for work, and told his wife he loved her.
"Those were the last words we ever said to each other," he said Saturday. "We both said we loved each other."
That afternoon, Rhonda Rucker was shot in the back of the head with a .45-caliber bullet and Avaun was locked in an upstairs closet, with a dresser holding the door closed.
Rhonda Rucker's oldest son, Rhyan James, then 15, came home from school and found his mother in the living room, dead, with her head covered with a white plastic bag and her ankles, wrists and neck bound with telephone cord.
James heard his brother, then 3, screaming from the upstairs closet. The teen armed himself with a knife, rescued his brother and called police from a neighbor's phone.
"It's still hard to believe," said Kimm Smithy, a family friend. "She was everything to us. You see this on TV, but you never believe it until it hits home."
As the darkness settled on the Riverdale cul-de-sac Saturday, the friends and family of Rhonda Rucker faced the television cameras and raised their candles, asking for remembrance and justice.
"Rhonda was Rhonda," Smithy said. "Whenever you called her, she was always there and she always had a smile. All we ask is that justice be served."
The case against the 36-year-old man accused of killing Rhonda Rucker and stealing a motorcycle, a GMC Suburban, a video game system and some DVDs from the home is expected to go to a grand jury in a few weeks.
Leon Phillips Jr., of College Park, was arrested 2 1/2 hours before Rhonda Rucker's body was found. He was stopped in a road block, riding a motorcycle registered to the Ruckers, and was arrested because he didn't have a motorcycle license, a driver's license, insurance or registration, police said. When he came up to the road block, he threw a .45-caliber gun into some weeds, according to police, and the gun was loaded with bullets of the same unusual brand as the shell casing found by Rhonda Rucker's body.
Phillips was previously convicted of robbery and rape in Fulton County. Anthony Rucker Sr. said he didn't know that when Phillips came to his house to repair a washing machine.
Police did not recover everything that was missing from the home, though, and speculated at the time that Phillips may have had an accomplice.
Those remembering the 34-year-old AirTran employee returned to that theme, saying they hope justice comes to everyone involved in the crime. They pleaded with the public, asking anyone with information about the Sept. 15 robbery and murder to go to the authorities.
"We're just trusting in God the killers will all be caught," said Beverly Marshall, who worked with Rhonda Rucker. "The past year has been very lonely and it has been very sad."
Marshall looked down. Behind her, a woman held a yellow poster board, with a black-and-white picture of Rhonda Rucker's face.
She smiles, in the picture, and looks up.
Anthony Rucker Jr., 14, looked at the picture, and then his father lit the candle in his hands. The younger Rucker turned to his left, using his candle to light another. Someone said, "Let's pray," and Anthony Rucker Jr. bowed his head, along with the others, and remembered his mother.