She had four sons, two of whom have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a condition characterized by swings from dizzying mania to catatonic depression. She grew accustomed to fielding exasperated calls from Jacob's elementary teachers, along with Marcus' periodic collect calls from jail. By now, her two grandsons spent so much time with her she might as well have been their mother. Despite it all, she was holding this family together. They'd had this house now for seven years, and it was the only home her twin boys had ever known. If she could not give them the material things, she would give them the constancy of place — that stability neither she nor Jonny had growing up.

Ciravolo began placing Jonny's ashen belongings back into the freezer bag. Her son Jacob wandered over. "You shouldn't have made him mad so he wouldn't die," he said to her, plaintively.

"It's OK, Jacob," she said, softly.

The last known photo of Jonny, taken at the halfway house.
Courtesy Jennifer Ciravolo
The last known photo of Jonny, taken at the halfway house.
A photo of Steven Lawayne Nelson taken in the infirmary following a fistfight with his jailers.
Tarrant County Sheriff's Office
A photo of Steven Lawayne Nelson taken in the infirmary following a fistfight with his jailers.


"It's your fault!" he cried.


"You killed Jonny!"

"Jacob, go sit down."

She tried not to take it to heart. She couldn't, not with him. "You know he's different?"

Jacob sulked away, muttering to himself. "He didn't know Jonny well," she said. "But I think it bothers him. He knew he was his uncle."

She carried the reeking bag of Jonny's things back to the garage.

The first time Ciravolo and Jonny's aunt, Sharon Bristow, went to visit him in a LeFlore County, Oklahoma, jail, they broke down. It was September 2011, and he'd been picked up on a warrant for a 6-year-old charge for failing to appear in court. His bright red hair was long and stringy, and his teeth were all gone. His 6-foot-tall body was skeletal at 110 pounds. He swayed back and forth, eyes fixed on the ground. Occasionally he would look at these women he knew and his face would light up with recognition. Soon, though, he'd lower his head and continue rocking, lost to his interior world.

The second time Ciravolo came to LeFlore County, in late February 2012, was to take Jonny home. The district attorney's office wasn't interested in prosecuting him. They simply wanted to get rid of him. Jonny was released on his own recognizance, on the condition that he not return. His sister drove him 250 miles back to her home, where he would bunk on the couch until he got on his feet. She envisioned him living in a small apartment within walking distance of her. Jonny had never had his own place. He yearned for a normal life, though he'd never known one. He wanted a family and a porch where he could sit, watch cars pass and smoke cigarettes. He wanted dentures so he could smile without shame.

If Ciravolo had doubts about the likelihood of Jonny becoming the husband and the father he so badly wanted to be, she kept them to herself. She drove him to the DMV for his state ID. She drove him to the Social Security office to reactivate his disability benefits. She treated him to Pizza Inn near her home. It was the first slice he'd had in years. His eyes roved the restaurant constantly, and he twitched. Jonny was often anxious. To a man who feared the world, crowds were unsettling. "It's OK," she would explain to their waitress. "He's just different."

Jonny was happiest at home with her. One evening as they ate dinner, he sat across the table, and it looked as though he were glowering at her. "Jonny," she said, "why are you looking at me like that?"

His expression softened, as if he'd just been brought out of a daydream. "Like what?"

"Like you want to kill me."

His eyes widened, and he looked utterly stung. "Jennifer!" he cried, "I would never hurt you!"

"Jonny, Jonny," she rushed to reassure him. "I was just kidding."

He looked befuddled, then he burst into uproarious laughter, his bare, pink gums glistening, and they all laughed with him.

It was good to have her brother with her again, but Ciravolo could see that Jonny had changed. Ever since he left the jail, he'd been off his medication for schizophrenia as he waited for his government assistance to kick back in. He was obsessed with the end of days, when God's children would ascend to heaven and everyone else would be left behind in a time of tribulation. He saw things that were not there, and she caught him talking to invisible entities. Ciravolo wasn't sure if he had even slept. His hygiene, as ever, was wanting. He chain smoked. One of her twins had severe allergies and asthma, and the scent bothered him. Finally, one Saturday morning, as she fried bacon and eggs, she saw that he was wearing the same boxers he'd had on for the last three days. She tried to hector him into the bath. "You are going to shower. You are going to put on clean underwear. And you are going to scrub those hands."

Jonny stormed out of the house. He said he was going to go see his girlfriend, Wendy, who still lived in the halfway house in a small town east of Oklahoma City. He set off north. It wasn't the first time Jonny had wandered off like that. It was early March, and Ciravolo figured he'd be back once the weather grew cold or he got hungry. When he didn't return that night, she called the local police to file a missing person report. They wouldn't take it. Jonny hadn't been gone long enough, and he was an adult besides. The police told her to call back in 24 hours. But she didn't. She figured he was going to see his girlfriend. He didn't drive, but he had always found a way to get around. Ciravolo let the matter drop. The immediacy of her boys and her job pushed Jonny to the periphery.

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My Voice Nation Help

thank you. to the family for telling this story. to the writer for capturing it so well. and for the paper, for printing it.

truth is, i'm just like "those people" both the article and comments are related to. i'm a lot like jonny, from the opioids in utero to the methamphetamine abuse i now attribute to a mental health issue + circumstances i couldn't face without it. i am just one of the lucky ones, who got out of the cycle before ODing or jail got me first.

i'm MOST disturbed by the chain of events leading to jonny's death and how much the prison F&ck#D up...

HOW does this prison justify such colossal errors like putting a petty-criminal in a high-risk cell block?

HOW does this prison justify the fact that an inmate was not in solitary as a punishment (at the least) following repeated attacks using HUMAN WASTE?!

HOW were Jonny's repeated attempts to get his medication denied?

i really hope someone is held accountable. his voice should be heard. thank you for lending it.


Wow, this is a fantastic article about an event I don't think anyone knows about.  Kudos to the Observer.


A very well written story of a horrific subject.  


All the best to the family and I hope they receive donations to cover the interment. 


Awful story. The sister is a good person. I don't think a lot people fully understand the depths of hell mental illness and drug addiction drives a person to.

Myrna.Minkoff-Katz topcommenter

Jennifer Ciravolo is truly an angel of mercy.  Living downtown, I see so many Jonny Holdens every day and I get heartsick looking at the wreckage their bodies and minds have become.  I always remind myself that these are people who have mothers and fathers, sister and brothers.  I imagine them as the children they once were.  So very sad.