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Ricky Costner Jr. was gunned down by a co-worker inside a Delaware Avenue restaurant three years ago, bringing a promising young life to a tragic end.

But from Ricky’s death has come the chance to help others get a new beginning, thanks to a scholarship that bears his name and assists students pursuing a degree in the culinary arts at Erie Community College.

That’s the path Ricky planned to take before his life was cut short at 18.

Friends and family gathered Saturday at the Costner family home on Ashland Avenue for a fundraiser to benefit the Ricky Costner Jr. College Scholarship Fund.

And while the scholarship – which ranges from $500 to $2,000 each year – helps students pay their college bills, it has done just as much to help the Costners with their grief and heartache.

The family still searches for closure, as the man accused of murdering Ricky has yet to stand trial.

“It always makes me happy to talk about Rick,” said his father, Rick Costner Sr. “It hurts a little bit, but his life was so short, his story needs to be told. I like to let people know he existed. He mattered to a lot of people – and he still matters to me.”

Ricky Jr. was killed the morning of Jan. 16, 2010, and his father remembers every painful detail. It happened right before his eyes.

He woke up Ricky Jr. in the morning and the two drove together to Merge restaurant, where Costner was the manager and his son had recently joined him as a sous chef.

As Costner counted the cash at the register and staff prepared for opening, the alleged gunman, Ernesto Arechavaleta-Taureaux, the dishwasher, opened fire.

Ricky Jr. went down. His father was hit once, then twice. A struggle ensued.

“I could have killed Ernesto,” Costner recalled recently. “I had him on the ground. I had his gun. I remember thinking, ‘Kill him,’ but I didn’t.”

While the chef held down the gunman, the father turned his attention to his only son, who was on the floor gasping for air.

As police and medics arrived, a wounded Costner was whisked off in one direction and his son another – the two never to see each other again.

“I remember going to the funeral home, and I just couldn’t see him. I couldn’t look at him,” Costner said. “The worst week of my life.”

Justice has been slow for Costner, 50, a real estate investor who no longer works in the restaurant business, and his wife, Catalina.

While Arechavaleta-Taureaux was charged with murder, he was sent to a state psychiatric center for treatment that may make him legally competent to stand trial.

A hearing is scheduled for Wednesday to determine whether he’s gotten better enough to face a courtroom trial, explained Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita III.

“He has to be deemed competent to stand trial,” Sedita explained. “The judge already ruled that he’s not competent to stand trial, because he has a mental illness – schizophrenia – and he’s delusional.”

“Take him to trial anyway,” Costner said. “He gets three meals a day in a facility when Ricky is in the grave. That isn’t justice for any family.”

After leaving Hutchinson-Central Technical High School a few credits shy of graduating, Ricky Jr. earned his general equivalency diploma from the Adult Learning Center.

Ricky Jr., one of four children in the family, liked to play video games and flirt with girls, and he was a whiz in the kitchen. He learned the restaurant business from his father and planned to go to ECC for a degree in culinary arts with dreams of one day owning a restaurant.

So when the family started receiving donations after Ricky’s death, they came up with the idea of the scholarship.

The fundraiser is the fourth annual with proceeds directly benefitting the scholarship, one of more than 100 handed out each year by the ECC Foundation.

“Our scholarship program means as much, or more so, to the donors, as it does to our students,” said Jeff Bagel, ECC’s associate vice president of foundation and alumni relations. “It’s a way they can continue to carry on the memory of their loved ones.”

“This one is unique because Ricky didn’t go here, but by his family and friends starting a scholarship, they’re able to help the other Ricky Costners of the world who want to get their start in the hospitality industry,” Bagel said.

Costner recalled attending the luncheon when ECC awarded the first Ricky Costner Jr. scholarship.

“When they mentioned Ricky’s name and scholarship, it hurt like hell,” Costner said. “But to see that kid and how proud he was to earn the scholarship, it just made me feel good.”

email: jrey@buffnews.com