Jhontue Ryals' tragedy-filled life ends at age 30

Jhontue Ryals, at Einstein Hospital in 2010, shows greeting cards she made while jailed for setting a boardinghouse fire that killed a 77-year-old man. She later was sentenced to five years' probation.
Jhontue Ryals, at Einstein Hospital in 2010, shows greeting cards she made while jailed for setting a boardinghouse fire that killed a 77-year-old man. She later was sentenced to five years' probation. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 09, 2014

PHILADELPHIA A ward of the state since birth, Jhontue Ryals surely would have died in prison had her health not been so bad.

On dialysis since she was 8, with two failed kidney transplants, legally blind, and diabetic from all the drugs that kept her alive, Ryals, 27, was given four months to live in 2010 when a Philadelphia judge agreed to a mercy sentence of five years' probation for her setting of a boardinghouse fire that killed a 77-year-old man.

The reality, Common Pleas Court Judge Benjamin Lerner said during sentencing, was that no prison or mental-health facility was equipped to care for her. Ryals, nevertheless, clung to life with the tenacity with which she had survived what one caseworker called "the worst deck, the worst hand, I've ever seen in my life."

Ryals, 30, died Saturday at Einstein Medical Center, several days after being admitted from Golden Living Center in Stenton with flu and fever.

"She had confronted death so many times that this time, we just did not expect it," said Ryals' aunt Rhodina Brown, who was with her when she died.

Brown, who donated a kidney to her niece, moved back to Philadelphia from Orlando with her husband and teenage son to help when Ryals was arrested for setting the Dec. 15, 2007, fire at Pace Personal Care, 1836 W. Green St.

It was only because of Brown that Lerner agreed to the carefully crafted agreement in which Ryals pleaded no contest in the death of Charles Johnson.

"She had the most difficult life I ever heard of, yet throughout it all, she always remained positive and hopeful," said Paul G. Conway, head of homicide at the Defender Association of Philadelphia.

In a hospital interview with The Inquirer two days after her sentencing, Ryals was upbeat, talking of going to school - and Walt Disney World.

"You have to be kind of strong, have the faith to accept things, and keep going," she said. "Sure, you get kind of depressed and ask, 'Why me, why me?' Well, why not me?"

It was Conway, with public defenders Gregg Blender and Wendy Ramos and psychologist Tahl Fox, who documented Ryals' life and created a foundation for the District Attorney's Office to agree to the no-contest plea to third-degree murder, arson, and related charges.

What they found made for difficult reading.

Ryals was born premature - 3 pounds, 7 ounces - on Oct. 10, 1983, to Ronda Ryals, a teen who named her daughter after the perfume Jontue. Within a few hours of birth, nurses found the mother screaming at and "jostling" her infant, who afterward was placed in foster care.

There would be 15 additional foster homes; sexual and physical abuse; and repeated medical and psychiatric hospitalizations. She was diagnosed as legally blind at 6, had renal failure at 8, and a kidney transplant at 10. She had a second transplant three years later.

By 23, she was homeless - after being admitted for treatment and discharged, often to the streets, 14 times. After she was arrested Dec. 7, 2007, for allegedly kicking two hospital nurses discharging her from dialysis, she was placed at Pace, a converted four-story townhouse where 13 male and female boarders lived, most with mental illnesses or intellectual disabilities.

A week later, according to court records, Ryals returned to the house about 7:30 p.m. and asked for a snack to maintain her blood-sugar levels. The live-in manager said no - house rules stipulated that snacks were distributed at 7, no exceptions. A loud argument ensued.

At some point early in the morning, according to court records, someone smelled smoke, and there was a chaotic evacuation. Left behind was 77-year-old Charles Johnson.

In an interview Tuesday, Lerner said he still felt "anger and sadness" about Ryals' case.

"There are her illnesses, and the way that the system completely failed to properly evaluate her needs," Lerner said. "More than five years later, I wonder if the lessons of this case were learned, whether the people from the responsible agencies could say this could never happen again."

Brown said funeral arrangements were pending.


215-854-2985 @joeslobo

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