Hope arises where life should have ended it

Jhontue Ryals shows one of dozens of greeting cards she made while incarcerated after a fatal fire at a home where she was living. Now 27, she has been a ward of the state since she was born.
Jhontue Ryals shows one of dozens of greeting cards she made while incarcerated after a fatal fire at a home where she was living. Now 27, she has been a ward of the state since she was born.
Posted: November 26, 2010

After a turbulent 26 years in foster care, hospitals, institutions, and, finally, Philadelphia prisons, Jhontue Ryals wanted only to live with family.

On Nov. 17, she got her wish. She was sentenced to five years' probation and released to live with an aunt, Rhodina Brown, in Elkins Park.

This was to be her first Thanksgiving with family. But like so much else in Jhontue's life, it didn't work out that way.

Released from prison, Jhontue - everyone calls her by her first name - got home at 2:30 a.m. Twelve hours later, she was in Albert Einstein Medical Center with a fever of 102, pneumonia, and low blood pressure.

Hospice was called. Life at home with family, it seemed, would be short-lived.

Jhontue is in end-stage renal failure. She has had two kidney transplants - Brown donated one organ - and has been on dialysis since she was 8.

One by one, the usual blood vessels used in dialysis have clotted and closed. She now has dialysis three times a week through a shunt in her back. When that, too, shuts down - doctors say it will in a few months - Jhontue will die.

But in her latest medical crisis, Jhontue is beating the odds again. Not in time for her first family Thanksgiving. But well enough for her to perch bedside at Einstein on Wednesday, talking about going home, to school, to Walt Disney World.

"You have to be kind of strong, have the faith to accept things and keep going," said Jhontue, 27, wearing a T-shirt with the Energizer Bunny and the legend "Keeps going and going and going."

"Sure, you get kind of depressed and ask, 'Why me, why me?' Well, why not me?"

That Jhontue is out of prison is just one more irony in her life. She was awaiting sentencing after pleading no contest to setting a 2007 fire at a Spring Garden boardinghouse - a place everyone concedes was inappropriate for her - that killed an elderly tenant. She is on probation only because no prison or mental health facility can handle her Job-like constellation of health problems.

Dealt 'the worst hand'

"Why me?" is a question that Jhontue has every reason to ask.

"Most of her life has been spent in different placements, in different hospitals," said Tahl Fox, a forensic psychologist with the Defender Association of Philadelphia. "She has been dealt the worst deck, the worst hand, I've ever seen in my life."

Fox has worked with Jhontue since the Dec. 15, 2007, fire at the Pace Personal Care boardinghouse in the 1800 block of Green Street. Fox is a "mitigation specialist" whose job was to dig through Jhontue's past and come up with a case for mercy that public defenders Gregg Blender, Wendy Ramos, and Paul G. Conway could use at sentencing.

Jhontue, Fox said, has been a ward of the state since her premature birth on Oct. 10, 1983, when she weighed 3 pounds, 7 ounces. Her teenage mother named her after a perfume but misspelled it. Within a few hours of birth, nurses discovered the mother screaming at and "jostling" the infant.

Jhontue's life plays out over Fox's 121/2 page report: 15 foster-home placements; repeated hospitalizations for medical and psychiatric reasons; diagnosed as legally blind at 6; renal failure and a first kidney transplant at 10, with a second three years later; diabetes and high blood pressure at 14, caused by 13 medications she takes.

Rejected by every foster home or relative who cared for her, Jhontue acquired more than a few emotional problems. By her late teens, she had tried to hurt herself and commit suicide, and was diagnosed with major depression and bipolar illness.

"Been there, done that," Jhontue joked Wednesday.

In spring 2004, Jhontue graduated from Germantown High School. That August, in anticipation of her 21st birthday, the Department of Human Services referred her to a community treatment team to begin preparing her for treatment as an adult.

For the next two years, Jhontue shuttled between psychiatric and medical commitments in Bethlehem, Allentown, and Philadelphia as caseworkers searched for a place that could handle her many problems.

They never found one. By Jhontue's 23d birthday, she was homeless. From Oct. 13, 2006, to Nov. 27, 2007, Fox's chronology continues, Jhontue was admitted to hospitals for medical or psychiatric reasons and discharged - often to the streets - 14 times.

On Dec. 7, 2007, after being arrested for allegedly kicking two nurses who were preparing to discharge her from dialysis at Hahnemann University Hospital, Jhontue was dropped off at the Pace home, a converted four-story Spring Garden townhouse.

Thirteen male and female boarders lived there, most with mental illnesses or retardation. According to court records, Jhontue's caseworkers left her there because they literally had no place else for her to go.

Jhontue lived there for a week, sharing a room with three other women, going to Hahnemann for dialysis.

The night of the fire, according to court records, Jhontue returned to the house about 7:30 and asked for a snack because, as a diabetic, she needs to maintain her blood-sugar levels.

George Metz, 25, Pace's live-in custodian and manager, who was on probation for assault, said no. Posted house rules were that snacks were distributed at 7. Anyone who was late was out of luck.

Jhontue began screaming and swearing at him, according to Metz's testimony at a 2008 hearing, in an irrational argument that lasted for hours. Metz said he ejected Jhontue into subfreezing weather to compose herself.

At some point early in the morning, according to court records, someone smelled smoke and triggered a chaotic evacuation. It was only later, Metz testified, that he saw Charles Johnson, 77, hanging out his third-floor bedroom window, crying for help.

Jhontue was undergoing dialysis at Hahnemann, Fox said, when police arrested her on suspicion of murder.

According to defense lawyer Conway, Jhontue has never admitted setting the fire. It took more than two years before psychiatric experts decided she was mentally competent to be tried.

Meanwhile, Jhontue's health continued deteriorating, and she was moved to the Detention Center, which has a medical unit.

On Sept. 14, Jhontue Ryals went before Common Pleas Court Judge Benjamin Lerner and pleaded no contest to all the charges against her. Doctors were not sure she'd live to be sentenced.

'A debt that must be paid'

When deputies brought Jhontue into court Nov. 16, she was clearly ill. At 4-feet-11, and weighing about 80 pounds, Jhontue was lost in an oversize windbreaker whose sleeves ended about 10 inches below her fingertips.

She almost fell into her chair and tilted her head back as though it were too heavy to hold erect. Bender told Lerner that Jhontue had a 102-degree fever.

Lerner was clearly angry about the sentencing confronting him.

The victim's life was an enigma. Nothing was known about him, Lerner noted, and no friends or relatives were ever in court.

"And his loss is a terrible loss," Lerner said. "We don't know anything about him."

Assistant District Attorney Leon Goodman made a formal request for prison, citing Johnson's death and the fact that there was no guarantee Jhontue might not set another fire if angered.

"We still have to protect society," Goodman said. "In spite of everything that she's been through, there is still a debt that must be paid."

But, as Lerner noted, there appeared to be no place in Pennsylvania where Jhontue could pay that debt without effectively being sentenced to death.

"There's no question that legally, Miss Ryals is responsible for Mr. Johnson's death," Lerner said. "Morally, I leave that to other people. I'm not a judge in that area."

Lerner said others had some responsibility for "dumping" Jhontue at a boardinghouse watched over by a caretaker so uncaring that he locked her out on a subfreezing night in robe and slippers.

"The other people who are responsible for this will never have their names reported in any court proceeding, in any newspaper, in any community hearing," Lerner continued.

His voice taut with anger, he said, "They are part of the city, part of the bureaucracy, part of the power that says that in this country, we talk a lot about things like treatment courts and we pat ourselves on the back.

"But as a society and as a community, we are not interested particularly in having elected leaders who will make sure that we have the treatment to go with the treatment courts."

'Learn to forgive and forget'

Rhodina Brown says she looks forward to having her niece move in with her, her husband, Robert, and their 14-year-old son.

Besides donating a kidney to Jhontue, Rhodina Brown said, she and her husband decided to move back to Philadelphia from Orlando when they learned of her arrest.

Brown is 13 years older than Jhontue. A devout Christian, she said she had always felt a mission to care for Jhontue.

"She has had a rough, rough life," Brown said. "We can't give her back the years of that lost life, but whatever we can give her, we are prepared to do."

Jhontue has known desperation. In December 2008, a year after her arrest, she wrote Ramos about telling her aunt "how I got to this point. I just hate myself. I just hate my life, I always have."

Nor does she have illusions about her future. She has already asked for hospice care, believing she was dying and no longer wishing to fight.

But on the day before Thanksgiving, Jhontue's thoughts were about the future: regaining her health, living with the Browns, studying medicine or business, visiting Disney World.

One thing she learned in prison, Jhontue said, is "there is a whole lot of hate, coldness, and isolation. I don't want that. What you have to do is learn to forgive and forget."

Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or jslobodzian@phillynews.com.

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