A Sister Goes to Meet Her Brother's Killer, and an Inmate Tells of Watching Him Die
A photo of Steven Lawayne Nelson taken in the jail infirmary, following a fistfight with jailers.
Tarrant County Sheriff's Office
Jennifer Ciravolo woke early Wednesday morning, knowing that day she would look into the face of the man accused of killing her brother in a Tarrant County jail. She got her sons dressed and packed for elementary school. Instead of the uniform she wears to her job as a cashier at a Valero gas station, she pulled on a pair of nice slacks and a red blouse with flowing sleeves. She fixed her wavy, dirty-blonde hair, and smoked a cigarette with her aunt, Sharon Bristow, a nurse who was up that day from Palestine, where she treats prison inmates.
They looked out on the fake cobwebs Ciravolo had strung from the trees, and at the plastic tombstones in her North Richland Hills yard. Today was the day, they believed, when Jonathan Holden's family would finally speak for him.
They loaded the boys into Ciravolo's Chevy sedan and dropped them off at school. Then she steered for Fort Worth beneath a slate-gray sky. They pulled into a parking lot a couple of blocks from the courthouse and lit another cigarette as they walked. Steven Lawayne Nelson had been found guilty just days before in the capital murder of an Arlington preacher, whom Nelson suffocated with a plastic bag during a robbery. And according to the Tarrant County Sheriff's Office and medical examiner, he had also killed Ciravolo's brother while they were both inmates in the high-risk Belknap Unit. (Holden's life and death were explored in a recent cover story).
The Tarrant County District Attorney's Office had asked Ciravolo and Bristow to testify at Nelson's sentencing hearing for the preacher's slaying. This was the most high-profile case his office was handling. The pastor of NorthPointe Baptist in Arlington was a beloved, 28-year-old man named Clinton Dobson. He left behind a grieving young wife and a bereft congregation. If the prosecutors could tie Nelson to another killing, the death penalty his office sought was all but assured.
Ciravolo was uncharacteristically quiet as she walked down the sidewalk along Belknap Street in Fort Worth. She was nervous. She was afraid she would cry, or lose her temper on the stand and say what was really on her mind: That she believed the jailers were as responsible for her brother's death as Nelson.
Holden was the kind of guy who would get chewed up in Tarrant County lockup. He was born into the margins of society, in withdrawal from the drugs he had absorbed in his mother's womb. Their mother abandoned them both because she could not care for herself. They were raised by a deeply troubled grandmother whose mood swung between mania and debilitating depression. Holden was later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He heard voices no one else could, perceived threats that did not exist.
He was never capable of living on his own. He was often picked up for petty crimes, but he was more likely to become the victim than the victimizer. A social worker once drugged and raped him. He became addicted to methamphetamine, but he was getting clean.
When Holden was 30, he came to live with his sister. Ciravolo wanted to help him get on his feet. They got into an argument one Saturday morning in early March over Holden's poor hygiene. She wanted him to take a shower. He stormed out of the house, declaring that he was bound for Oklahoma to see his girlfriend, who lived in a halfway house for recovering addicts and the mentally ill.
That night, the temperature edged into the 30s, and Holden wasn't dressed for the weather. He was probably lost, wandering around the Westlake/Trophy Club area. He stole some food from the cafeteria of a Marriott Hotel. He broke into a parked car and wrapped himself in a jacket he found inside. Before long, its owner found him, and Holden fled. Police picked him up a few hours later.
Within days, Holden was transferred to the main jail in Fort Worth. After roughly two weeks inside, he was moved to the Belknap Unit, just a few cells down from Steven Nelson.
Ciravolo and Bristow took the elevator to the third floor and disappeared inside the district attorney's office. On the eighth floor, the sentencing hearing was about to resume. Deputies led Nelson to his attorneys' table, where he sat silent and almost motionless for the entire proceeding. He wore an untucked, loosely fitting white dress shirt, a blue tie and khaki slacks. His skull was shorn except for a small patch at the top. His anklets and handcuffs were tethered by chains wrapped around his waist.
He's only 25, but his face makes him seem older. He has large, watchful eyes, and on this morning there were bruise-colored bags beneath them. Nelson was quiet now, but he thrived on chaos. Months ago, he wrapped his fist in a towel while he was alone in a jail day room and pounded the sprinklers on the ceiling until water gushed and the floors gathered large standing puddles. A jailer filmed everything from behind the water-streaked Plexiglass of a watch booth. Nelson approached, wiped some of the water off of the glass with a towel and peered inside, his mouth drawn up in a jack-o-lantern's grin. And just the day before, on his way back to jail from court, he asked a deputy if he wanted his stun cuff -- a plastic device fastened to the ankle of a prisoner that delivers an electric shock if needed.
"No, it's fine where it is," the jailer said. Namely, around Nelson's ankle.
"No, it isn't," Nelson replied. He had removed and destroyed the device.
Nelson was double jointed, flexible enough to move his cuffed hands over his head from the back to the front. The hairs on the back of that deputy's neck must have stood on end. Nelson was powerful. He had bragged about doing 500 push-ups a day. With his cuffed hands in front of him, it isn't difficult to imagine him killing a deputy who turned his back. It was no surprise, then, to see him surrounded by a handful of deputies as he took his place next to his attorneys.
Nelson's eyes followed intently the first witness all the way to the stand. He was an inmate finishing a two-year bid for family assault, whom the district attorney's office asked the media not to identify for fear of reprisals. On March 19, the man explained, he was in the Belknap Unit's G tank -- two rows of 10 single-inmate cells, in between which were a narrow hall and a picnic table. The inmate, whom we'll call Frank, was in the cell directly across from Ciravolo's brother.
Frank didn't know much about Holden, but he'll never forget him. He was "weak, meek and mentally challenged," "little more than a boy," he said. Holden was the newest arrival to this tank, and had been there for only a couple of days.
That day, Nelson was in the central day room for his hour-long rotation. Frank knew him as "Rico." So did Nelson's ex-girlfriend, whose neck he once put a knife to. Nelson was a paranoid schizophrenic, like Holden. Rico was the manic, violent expression of his madness; she often begged Rico to return her boyfriend to her. It was Rico who cavorted past the cells with a blanket tied like a cape around his neck, and a broomstick he strummed like a guitar as he mounted the picnic table.
Earlier, Holden had been muttering to himself, as he often did, and used a racial slur. It was out of character for Holden, who grew up with Ciravolo's son, a young man of mixed race. It nevertheless caused a furor in G tank. "In my opinion, he was putting up a front that he could take care of himself," Frank said. "And he obviously couldn't take care of himself."
Now Nelson approached Holden's cell. He drove the broomstick through the bars of the cell door like a spear, jabbing at Holden. Holden flattened himself against the back wall of his cell, attempting to fight Nelson's thrusts off with a blanket. This went on for more than five minutes. Finally, Nelson stopped. He told Holden, whom Frank called "the boy," to leave this tank. Nelson told him to push the intercom button in his cell and threaten suicide. Holden did, but no one answered.
The jailer on duty would later say he had stepped away for a few minutes. Nelson suggested they stage a convincing suicide attempt. He coaxed Holden back over to the bars and asked him to turn around. It isn't clear whether Nelson used his blanket or Holden's. But one of them was looped around Holden's neck. Nelson gripped the two ends and drove Holden against the cell door. He placed his feet on one of the horizontal cross bars and pulled with all of his weight and all of his strength, until Holden's feet were lifted a few inches off the ground.
Nelson talked to Holden as he strangled him for roughly four minutes. He told him, "This is what I do out in the world." At some point Holden defecated. Nelson peered into his eyes to make sure he was dead. He lowered him to the floor, where Holden crumpled to his knees as though he were praying, his back leaning against the corner where the bars meet the wall. Nelson tied the corners of the blanket around the bars in simple knots facing the outside. They were loose, but strong enough to support a little of Holden's weight. His bottom wasn't quite touching the floor.
Nelson picked up the broomstick, strummed a few imaginary chords, and hopped around antically on one foot. Frank called it a "Chuck Berry dance."
The jailers didn't discover Holden hanging there for 15 minutes. Frank wrote the word "murder" on a piece of paper and passed it to investigators. After 35 minutes of defibrillations and chest compressions, emergency responders located a weak pulse. They lifted Holden onto a gurney and rolled him out of G tank. The floor in front of his cell was littered with plastic bags, medical product wrappers, and marked with a single streak of feces where they had dragged him out of his cell.
"I watched the whole thing from beginning to end. I was traumatized," Frank said. He admitted he did nothing to help Holden, and neither did anyone else in G tank. Holden died at the hospital, his brain starved of blood and oxygen, damaged beyond all recovery. The circumstances that day, along with DNA detected beneath his fingernails, all pointed to Nelson.
As Frank stepped down from the stand, Ciravolo remained in the district attorney's office several floors below. In fact, as a procession of jailers, medical examiners and forensics experts testified, she never entered the courtroom. She was afraid of what she might see and hear. She decided it would be better if her aunt testified. Ciravolo couldn't trust herself.
But at 3:30 that afternoon, the trial recessed for the day. The prosecutors decided they didn't want Holden's family to testify after all. Perhaps they were confident they had already secured a death sentence for Nelson.
She fumed all the way back to North Richland Hills. Nothing ever changes, she said. She had not learned of her brother's death until months after, when he'd already been buried in an unmarked grave for Tarrant County's unclaimed dead. She couldn't afford to move his body to the family plot near Broken Bow, Oklahoma. And she couldn't get an answer for why her brother, a sick, vulnerable man accused of a small-time property crime, ended up in the same tank as a living monster. No charges have been filed in Holden's murder.
She hung a fake cobweb that had detached from the eaves of her small, ranch-style house. It fluttered lightly in the breeze. And she felt, here at the end, that nobody wanted to hear what her brother's family had to say about him. He lived his short life as an invisible man, and now she feared he was nothing but a dead cipher in the jurors' minds. She worried they would think he had a family that did not care, that he was just some faceless victim of Nelson's hands -- a means to his killer's end, in an accounting for a better man's death.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.