He complained of auditory hallucinations and about feeling depressed. On March 16, the jail doctor recommended a transfer to a different tank, known as 55-B, within the same jail. Somehow, between then and March 19, Jonny wound up in a different building entirely. It was known as the Belknap Unit, and it housed high-risk inmates.

His attorney, Abe Factor, said he planned to have Jonny evaluated by a psychiatrist. He was confident they could go before the judge and secure Jonny's release for time served.

A jewelry clerk identified Steven Lawayne Nelson, 24, as the man who used 67-year-old Judy Elliott's credit card. That's not what Arlington police wanted Nelson for. They wanted him because Elliott had been discovered on March 3, 2011, beaten nearly to death in Arlington's NorthePointe Baptist Church. They wanted him because its preacher, a clean-cut 28-year-old man named Clinton Dobson, had been suffocated with a plastic bag until his heart stopped beating.

Jonny Holden (far left, in overalls) with his grandmother Catherine Ciravolo in the nursing home.
Courtesy Jennifer Ciravolo
Jonny Holden (far left, in overalls) with his grandmother Catherine Ciravolo in the nursing home.
Jonny and his sister, Jennifer Ciravolo.
Courtesy Jennifer Ciravolo
Jonny and his sister, Jennifer Ciravolo.


The cruel irony of it was that Nelson had been released from a behavior modification program only two weeks earlier. In May 2010, he placed a trash bag beneath his girlfriend's feet and put a kitchen knife to her throat in their DeSoto apartment. He choked her until she almost lost consciousness. She called the police but declined to press charges, cutting prosecutors' case off at the knees. According to one progress report from the behavioral program filed less than two months before Dobson was murdered, Nelson had developed "healthy communication and conflict resolution skills."

Nelson quickly became known as a problem inmate in Tarrant County. He was repeatedly written up for dousing other inmates in a solution of urine and feces and for tangling with jailers. In one photo of him following a fight, his face is lacerated and swollen. He is shirtless, and his torso is heavily tattooed and well-muscled, like it was carved out of wood. He talked of doing 300 to 500 pushups per day.

In another incident, he shattered the light fixture in his cell with his fist. In a photo of him in the infirmary, he's being treated for a cut on his hand. Nelson's mouth is a drawn up in a winning smile, but it looks disconnected entirely from his darkly rimmed eyes. Like Jonny, he took Risperdal, a powerful drug used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

On February 12, Nelson had been moved to the Belknap Unit, a series of single cells arrayed around a central day room, where each inmate gets one hour alone. Nelson leaped up onto a table and smashed three sprinkler heads in protest of his relocation to the high-risk unit. He pummeled the television with his fist.

At around the time Jonny was moved into the Belknap Unit, Nelson was written up for tossing a mop bucket filled with urine in another inmate's eyes.

The last mental-health evaluation for Jonny read more like an incident report. On March 19, at around 10 in the morning, an emergency code was sounded in G tank. Jonny was found hanging by the neck from a blanket fashioned into a noose and looped around the bars of his cell. He was not breathing, and he had no pulse. He had defecated and urinated on himself. EMTs were working on him by the time his mental-health assessor arrived. After 35 minutes of chest compressions, the doctor wrote, Jonny had a weak pulse. But he could not breathe on his own. He was taken to John Peter Smith Hospital, where he died.

The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide. Ciravolo says an investigator with the Tarrant County District Attorney's Office told her they had begun building a case for murder when they found DNA evidence beneath Jonny's fingernails. The DNA, she says she was told, was a match for Nelson. Prosecutors declined to comment.

Ciravolo and Bristow did not learn of Jonny's death until May. An in-law posted a news report about him on Facebook. Ciravolo's niece saw it and called her. "When is the last time you spoke to Jonny?" she asked.

"Well, it's been a while. He got mad at me and took off."

"I read on Facebook he was murdered in jail."

Ciravolo was doubtful. "Where?"

"Somewhere up in Oklahoma, I think."

"Are you sure?"

"Well, let me get back to you."

Ciravolo immediately phoned Bristow and relayed what she had been told. Neither believed there was any truth to it.

But her niece called back. It wasn't Oklahoma. It was in Tarrant County, and it was Jonny. He had already been buried.

That same month, Nelson was written up for threatening one of his jailers. According to the report, he yelled, "I got me an inmate. I'm going to get one of you. I'm going to get me a blue or purple suit."

Nelson declined an interview when I arrived at the Belknap Unit after initially consenting to one.

The Tarrant County Sherriff's Office has sent its completed investigation to the district attorney. To date, no indictment has been issued for Jonny's murder. Ciravolo has been asked to testify at Nelson's sentencing for the murder of the preacher. The district attorney is seeking the death penalty.

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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.