A Sister Goes to Meet Her Brother's Killer, and an Inmate Tells of Watching Him Die

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.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Brantley Hargrove

Latest Stories