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Mt. Pleasant teen shooter released, told to build bench in friend's honor

Rich Cholodofsky
| Friday, March 9, 2018, 4:42 p.m.

A judge on Friday released a former Mt. Pleasant teen from a Cambria County reform school and ordered him to craft a bench to memorialize a friend he shot and killed in 2016.

Neither decision sat well with the deceased boy's family.

“There definitely wasn't no justice for my son,” Mark Gustafson said.

Both he and his wife, Leah, quickly left the courtroom after Westmoreland County Common Pleas Judge Michele Bononi accepted a recommendation from juvenile probation officials that John Burnsworth III be allowed to live in the Fayette County home of his foster parents.

Burnsworth, now 16, in late 2016 pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter for firing one shot that struck James Robert “J.R.” Gustafson, 13, in the head. The teens were visiting a Mt. Pleasant home where a babysitter was caring for three young children.

Burnsworth said he was given the gun by babysitter Brooke Nelson and told to scare Gustafson from the Church Street home. During a previous court hearing, Burnsworth said he did not know the gun was loaded when he ordered Gustafson to throw up his hands before he fired.

After the hearing, Burnsworth's biological mother blamed Nelson for the events that led to her son's arrest and Gustafson's death.

“I am very sympathetic to the family. It was a tragic accident,” Bertha Lint said. “If it wasn't for the babysitter, this would have never happened.”

Nelson, 20, of Ruffsdale pleaded guilty last week to 11 charges of reckless and child endangerment. She has not yet been sentenced.

Joshua Hudec, 33, of Mt. Pleasant pleaded guilty last year to the same 11 charges and was sentenced to serve 11 12 to 23 months in jail. Police said Hudec owned the gun used in the killing and left his three children, all under the age of 8, with Nelson and the weapon.

For the last year, Burnsworth has lived at the Appalachian Youth Services program in Ebensburg, where he flourished, according to the school's assistant director.

“I don't remember a kid who has made as much progress as John has,” Robert Kelly testified.

As a condition of his release, the judge ordered Burnsworth to undergo therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder and complete drug and alcohol treatment, if needed. Bononi also ordered Burnsworth to live with his foster parents in Lemont Furnace, to have no unsupervised contact with his birth parents, refrain from all use of social media and to avoid the Mt. Pleasant Borough area.

Burnsworth was ordered to build a bench in Gustafson's honor that will be placed in Mt. Pleasant Borough.

“I will make sure your son is not forgotten with the bench,” Bononi told the Gustafsons.

It's a memorial that they said they can do without.

“Might be a good thought, but it don't sit well with me, especially being in the town I grew up in,” Mark Gustafson said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293.

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