Imaginary Monsters Chased Jonny Holden All His Life, Then a Real One Caught Him
Brandon Thibodeaux
Jennifer Ciravolo, sister of Jonny, at his burial site.

Jonny Holden would need his sister always, even at the moment he was born in a Houston hospital when she was only 11. His translucent newborn's skin glowed a livid red. His tiny legs worked spasmodically. His body recoiled as his blood metabolized the last of the opiates he had absorbed in his mother's womb. Jonny cried and cried, until they thought his raw lungs would collapse through sheer exertion.

He would need her at 5 months old, when their mother abandoned him, and when their grandmother periodically keened and wept and tore at her own hair. He would need her when the voices he alone heard grew insistent, and when the threats only he perceived grew nearer. He would need her because she was steady, and he could never be. Even when Jonny was a grown man, she would take him into her home in Euless, where she raised her four sons alone on a gas-station cashier's wages. She would feed and clothe him, realizing in the process that two of her sons were more like her brother than she could bring herself to admit.

Jennifer Ciravolo tended to Jonny because often no one else could. Life pressed down on her as she brought up her real sons and her grandsons. Jonny would drift out of contact, back to the Oklahoma backwater hamlets where he was raised. He didn't so much walk through life of his own volition as he was buffeted by it, in sleepless waves of methamphetamine abuse and incarceration for petty misdemeanors. He spent years in a halfway house for addicts and the mentally ill. Jonny hadn't slipped through the cracks of society. He was born into them.

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 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.
Jennifer Ciravolo, sister of Jonny, near his unmarked grave.
Brandon Thibodeaux
Jennifer Ciravolo, sister of Jonny, near his unmarked grave.

Details

But when Ciravolo brought him back to her North Richland Hills home this spring, toothless and gaunt, his flame-red hair receding at the temples, she thought she had her Jonny back for good. He was 30 years old and clean this time, though he chain smoked, rocked incessantly and conversed with some unseen party. They were coming for him, he would say, but never who or what or why.

Then, one day Jonny vanished, as he so often had, and someone did come for him. This man was powerful, and his mind was sick, like Jonny's, only it was possessed of a shimmering hate. Ciravolo could not know how painfully vulnerable Jonny was in a high-risk Tarrant County jail unit, or that the last moments of his life were agony and animal panic. Her brother was finally discovered after his heart had stopped beating and his trousers were soiled in excrement.

His sister thought he had returned to Oklahoma. She did not find out about any of this until months later, when a relative posted a news story about his murder on Facebook. For the first time in more than 30 years, she looked out onto a world without him. She did not understand how he had met his end in that place, but she knew one thing, if only this: He did not belong in the unmarked grave he was buried in, near Mansfield, in a cemetery for Tarrant County's unclaimed dead. He belonged some 200 miles to the northeast, out past the tin-roofed rows of broiler chicken houses raising poultry for the Tyson plant in Broken Bow, Oklahoma. He should be laid to rest here, with his family, next to his grandmother, whose imperfect love he nevertheless mourned every day since she died.

Ciravolo had come to the tiny Broken Bow cemetery on a rise, beneath the ancient oak whose boughs sagged with acorns on a recent afternoon. She hoped one day to visit with her brother here. Cicadas droned in the dark pine woods, and timber trucks rumbled down the country road. She panned the soil around the empty space where her brother should be with the toe of her Converse sneaker.

She wanted to know how Jonny, a harmless man whose waking world was populated with monsters only he knew of, finally encountered a real one in a Tarrant County jail.


Jennifer Ciravolo opened a one-gallon plastic freezer bag that contained almost everything Jonny Holden had in this world before he was processed into a Tarrant County jail. It exhaled the odor of stale cigarette smoke. "That stinks," she said, waving a hand in front of her nose. Packed tightly inside were some 50 cigarette butts, a black Dale Earnhardt Jr. cap dusted with a patina of ash, and a few packets of mayonnaise and mustard.

That Jonny was arrested with pockets full of cigarette butts did not surprise her. He would forage for them on the street and scrounge the tarry tobacco to make hand-rolled cigarettes. What surprised her was that the jailers would pack them in with all his other things.

"Why would they do this?" she asked.

She had asked that question about any number of details surrounding her brother's death, but the answers weren't coming. It was all she could do to keep her head above water, running this household on her own with the money she made as an attendant at a Valero gas station. At 42, she had her mother's wide-set, watchful brown eyes and the pleasant gap between her two front teeth, which she occasionally hides self-consciously when she's smiling. Ciravolo had been on her own since she was 15. But, she said with dignity, "At least I never turned to drugs. I always tell myself that. I never turned to drugs, and I never stood on a street corner."

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.

"It's your fault!" he cried.

"Jacob!"

"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.

Looking back, there were so many things she would have done differently. Above all else, she would have filed that missing person report. That way, they would have known someone was looking for Jonny. That way, they would have known that someone did, in fact, claim this man.


One of Sharon Bristow's earliest memories of her nephew Jonny took place when he was roughly 5 months old. Her sister Elizabeth had phoned their mother, Catherine Ciravolo, from somewhere in the desert, between Indio, California, and Palm Springs. She'd hitchhiked to a filling station with Jonny and his brother, abandoning her car. She needed a ride.

Before long, Bristow pulled up. She tried to take Jonny from her sister, a beautiful young woman with long, dark hair. Jonny's diaper was soaked and needed changing. But Elizabeth insisted on seeing her teeth first. She said it was because she had to be sure Bristow wouldn't eat Jonny. Bristow took them back to Catherine's house in Palm Springs, where she lived with Jennifer, but Elizabeth didn't stay long. She got into an argument with her mother over the children and set off on foot with Jonny on her hip, wearing sea-green pajamas and clutching a yellow bottle of clabber milk. Bristow found them again a short time later, three miles down the road, heading for Interstate 10. She coaxed her sister into the car once again. This time, the police were waiting when they returned to their mother's house. Elizabeth was involuntarily committed. Jonny never knew his father, a roughneck Elizabeth married briefly in Pecos, Texas, so Jonny's grandmother Catherine was given custody of him.

Roughly two years later, in 1983, Elizabeth made the front page of the Record-Gazette in Banning, California. She led police on a high-speed chase, topping out at 80 mph. It ended when she rammed two squad cars. Police said they had "no idea" why she ran, the paper reported. "She said she was scared," an officer remarked, "but didn't give a reason."

Elizabeth was never more than a temporary presence in Jonny's life. He was raised by his grandmother Catherine, a switchboard operator who retired at the age of 40 following a stroke. She was a sturdily built woman, yet she had a long, graceful neck and delicate features. Jonny could have been her son. They had the same wide-set eyes, and the same gap between their two front teeth. She doted on him, but her mood oscillated wildly. Sometimes she was warm and effusive. At others, she sobbed inconsolably and threatened suicide. Jennifer had to call the police more than once. She begged them to take her and Jonny away, but they never would. It was at times like these, when their grandmother was immobilized by depression, that Ciravolo, just a child herself, fed her brother, bathed him and changed his diapers.

She was the little girl who got a Baby Alive doll each Christmas, and now she was responsible for a real one. She often took Jonny on long walks in his stroller. As they were tugged along in their grandmother's peripatetic existence, Ciravolo and Jonny were inseparable. They never stayed in one place for long, picking up randomly and moving to points in east Oklahoma, California and the Texas coast. Wherever they went, Catherine always kept fishing rods in the trunk. Ciravolo remembered crabbing in the bay near Channelview and fishing in Texas City.

Despite Catherine's tempestuous swings in mood, life with her could be fun. Or it was, until Ciravolo turned 15. She was increasingly at odds with her grandmother. And one day, when they were living in Thousand Palms, California, Catherine took Jonny and left. Ciravolo was on her own. She didn't see as much of Jonny after that. They stayed with her for a short time in California when Jonny got caught with a pistol at his middle school in Idabel, Oklahoma. Catherine abandoned the first house she had ever bought and fled with him. The bank repossessed it. After a few months, they left and relocated to Paris, Texas. Though Ciravolo didn't see Jonny daily, she called him every chance she got, and she always remembered to send him a gift on his birthday.

It wasn't until Catherine was moved into a nursing home that Ciravolo lived with Jonny again. He stayed with her and her two sons in an apartment in Euless in 2000. That year he was the happiest she had ever seen him. He was around 18 years old, though developmentally he was much younger. They fished often in Lake Ray Roberts and in a wet-weather creek that flowed past their home. He would leave with her sons for hours at a time, wandering through the woods, only to return covered in mud. She took him to his first honky-tonk in the Fort Worth Stockyards. Jonny was shy. "Nobody wants to dance with me," he told her. She pushed him in the direction of a girl who had caught his eye and said, "Go on." Jonny ambled over to her in his straw cowboy hat and asked her to dance with him. She said yes, and they swayed to a country ballad. "He had a big ol' smile on his face when the song was over."

She drove him to see his grandmother each weekend at the nursing home in east Arkansas. When Catherine was well enough to leave the nursing home, Jonny moved back in with her. It didn't last long. She died about a year later. They buried her in Broken Bow, on a rise called Oak Hill, beneath the great tree that gave the hill its name. After most of the mourners had already cleared out, Jonny remained. He knelt beside the mound of rust-red, loamy clods, wearing his straw hat and clutching a bouquet of yellow flowers. She was the only mother he had ever known. Jonny would carry a picture of her for the rest of his life. "He just lost it when she passed," Ciravolo said.

After that, he went to live with his uncle, Steve Phairas, in Nacogdoches. Phairas couldn't help but notice the frequent presence of an older man in Jonny's life. His name was Bobby Setzer, an adult protective services worker with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. It seemed odd to Phairas that Setzer so often drove nearly four hours from his base in McCurtain County to East Texas. Their relationship, Jonny told Phairas, was not platonic. He said Setzer often spoke of running away together to far-flung African locales. Phairas wasn't sure whether or not Jonny's stories were merely the products of a rich imagination. But he began to wonder when Jonny, a troubled young man with no job and no money, came home drunk, stoned and well-supplied with cigarettes.

Phairas couldn't understand why Setzer visited Jonny almost every weekend. Jonny wasn't like other young men. "If he was hungry and walking past a hot dog stand at a carnival, he'd take a hot dog. He just knew he was hungry, and he'd take something," Phairas said. "He would go in people's yards, pick up a bicycle and play with it, and they didn't like that stuff. You keep having to tell people, 'Well, it's just Jonny.'"

The truth was, Jonny had been removed from the protective services worker's caseload the year before, when it was discovered Setzer spent the night with him. On January 12, 2002, Setzer arrived in Nacogdoches to pick Jonny up. He told Phairas he was going to take Jonny to a mental-health treatment facility in Howe, Oklahoma, where the young man had been a patient, to retrieve his belongings. Phairas was troubled, but he wasn't sure what he could do. Jonny was an adult.

Phairas paid a call to Jonny's aunt, Sharon Bristow, a nurse who worked nights in a Texarkana steakhouse. What he told her didn't add up. She drove nearly two hours to Setzer's home near Valliant, Oklahoma. She pounded on his door and yelled for Jonny, but no one answered. Bristow waited for an hour and left a note declaring her intent to return for her nephew. Not long after, she received a phone call from St. Michael's Hospital in Texarkana. They had Jonny. Somehow, the young man, who didn't know how to drive, had covered nearly 50 miles in Setzer's pickup. He'd rolled it near De Kalb, Texas, some 30 miles from Texarkana. The police had stopped Jonny on his way through Broken Bow and called Setzer, who told them he had permission to drive his truck. Jonny didn't have a license and the police believed he was impaired, so it was agreed that Setzer would retrieve the truck. While they waited at the station for Setzer, Jonny took off again. Setzer filed a second report with the McCurtain County Sheriff's Department, only this time he said Jonny had threatened him with a baseball bat and stolen the truck. Setzer was quick to point out that Jonny was not staying with him and declined to press charges.

Whatever the truth, there is an active warrant out of McCurtain County dating to 2002 for Setzer's arrest for alleged inappropriate contact with Jonny. The charge is "abuse, neglect or financial exploitation of a charge by a caretaker" and false reporting of a crime. According to an affidavit filed by an agent with the Oklahoma Office of Inspector General, Jonny said Setzer took him to his house and gave him a root beer to drink. He became drowsy, "like his body was falling asleep." Setzer took him into his bedroom and "pulled his pants down, laid on top of him and put his wiener in his rectum," even as Jonny asked him to stop.

Jonny said he did threaten Setzer with a baseball bat because the man had forced him to have sex. Setzer gave him the keys to his truck and an insurance card and told him he could go home.

McCurtain County District Attorney Mark Matloff says he has reason to believe Setzer fled to Morocco.

Jonny told Bristow he was ashamed of the things he did with Setzer. He never had a father, or any male role model, for that matter. And here was Setzer, an older man, a social worker, who had taken an active interest in him. Jonny was never the same after that. Bristow says Setzer introduced Jonny to methamphetamine, and he quickly became addicted.

He hitchhiked his way to Texas to see his sister, Ciravolo. He went to the apartment in Euless where he had lived for that wonderful year, but she wasn't there. She'd moved to North Richland Hills. He walked to a nearby church. That was the secret of penniless travel he had learned from his grandmother: When in need, find a house of worship. Someone helped him track his sister down in the phone book. He called her and she drove to the church. Jonny stayed the night with her. The next day, she took him to a shelter in Fort Worth. She could see he was tweaking on meth, and she explained that he could not be around her twins, just toddlers then, in his state. It broke her heart to turn him away, but Jonny seemed to understand. Ciravolo gave him $5 and told him to use it to call her.

But Jonny drifted back up to Oklahoma. He bounced around the state, occasionally getting arrested for petty misdemeanors and one felony, including the alleged looting of dairy products from a milk truck and the theft of a Baptist church van. The court sent him to a halfway house in Boley, Oklahoma, east of Oklahoma City. In September of 2011, he washed up in the LeFlore County jail. When Ciravolo arrived to finally bring him home, he was a husk of his former self. "He was not the Jonny I knew."


As his thin frame receded from Ciravolo's house at around 11 in the morning on March 4, Jonny would have headed north, probably along Davis Boulevard. It is not known whether he walked the entire 10 miles through Keller before he ended up in Westlake, or if he caught a ride. What is known is that a little after 7 that evening, a call from the Marriott Hotel came in to the Keller police. A "suspicious white male" was seen attempting to enter the employees' locker room. He seemed to be "under the influence of an intoxicating substance." He carried an orange bucket, and he filled it with food from the cafeteria.

Less than four hours later, Keller police received a second call from a nearby Wells Fargo call center. It was cold out that night, dipping into the 30s. An employee exited the building and was walking through the parking lot. She told police she heard a man yell a racial slur from inside a Honda Civic. If Jonny did in fact use racist language, it would have surprised his sister. He grew up around her son, who is of mixed race. A moment later, the Civic's owner stepped outside and confronted Jonny. The man saw him huddled inside, broken glass from the driver's side window glinting on the pavement below. Jonny scrambled through the shattered window and fled, leaping over two concrete dividers. When police arrived, they found an orange bucket containing food, utensils, a headset with a microphone, several wall chargers, toilet paper, fruit beverages and packets of condiments. They found a bloody handprint on the concrete divider Jonny had jumped. The Civic's owner said he was missing a blue sport coat and an iPod, which was never recovered and which the police did not attribute to Jonny.

It all sounded very much like something he would do, attending to his immediate needs without giving thought to property and ownership. Jonny was hungry, so he took food. He was cold, so he broke into a vehicle and warmed himself with the coat he found inside.

Police stopped at a nearby 7-Eleven in Trophy Club. The cashier said a man came in who matched their description twice that night. In fact, he left five minutes ago, and walked west along Highway 114. His hands were bloody, and he seemed to be under the influence of some substance. Trophy Club police caught up with Jonny shortly thereafter. He admitted everything except taking the iPod. The jacket, however, he'd stashed in the trash bin of the 7-Eleven men's room.

The next day, Jonny was booked into the main Tarrant County lockup in Fort Worth. A mental health assessment recommended placing him in a suicide-prevention cell. It noted he took Risperdal, a drug used to treat the symptoms of schizophrenia. Jonny told the mental-health screener he had attempted suicide three weeks ago, by cutting. His sister says she never saw any evidence of that. The evaluation described Jonny as "psychotic" and in need of a competency evaluation to determine whether he was sane enough to answer for his crimes. When asked if he had a good support network, Jonny listed his sister.

The following day, a scuffle occurred in the infirmary. The report says Jonny struck a jailer. He said he was "scared with the officer. He didn't tell me, and he didn't let me go." He said he wanted to get back on his medication. The next several days passed without incident, though Jonny asked for his pills time and again. In talks with the jail doctor, he mentioned repeatedly that he had not heard from his sister. He listed her in his application for a court-appointed lawyer, though he couldn't remember her phone number or the street number for her address.

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.

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.


Ciravolo stood beneath an umbrella in the gray, diffused light of a drizzly afternoon. She visits Jonny each Sunday in this Mansfield cemetery. He has no marker, so she finds him by looking for the empty space between tombstones she recognizes. The marker next to his belongs to a man named Frank. She won't forget this because that is her son's name. She only got to spend a few moments there. The thunder, at first a distant rumbling, grew near. She trudged through the wet grass and mud back to her car.

A couple of weeks later, she met Bristow in Broken Bow to visit the cemetery where they would like Jonny to be moved. Only they don't have a spare six grand lying around. For now, it seems to Jonny's sister as though his bones are restless, not permanently interred in Mansfield, nor destined imminently for Broken Bow. Ciravolo feels the same way: Anxious, unsettled, as if Jonny can't rest yet, and neither can she. Too much about his death remains a mystery. Too much about his death still burdens her with guilt she carries like a heavy stone.

Bristow peered out at her through the windshield in a Mexican-food restaurant parking lot in nearby Idabel and wiped tears from her eyes. "I don't want Jennifer to blame herself." She shouldn't, she says. She did so much for him, even while raising four boys all alone like that.

Ciravolo pulled a pack of cigarettes from her pocket. She picked up the habit again after Jonny died. She lit one, drew the smoke deep into her lungs and stared out into some interminable distance, past the auction barn across the street.

"God says, 'Vengeance is mine, and I will repay,'" Bristow said. "We don't want to wait that long."

Contributions to help pay the costs of relocating Jonny Holden's grave can be made to the Justice for Jonny fund at local Bank of America branches.

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5 comments
itsonlydara
itsonlydara

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.


leeeeeeeeee
leeeeeeeeee

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

kp.ryan
kp.ryan

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. 

DavyCrockett
DavyCrockett

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
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.

 
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