There have been times in the past year when Jeannette Stevens has thought about visiting her son’s grave at Ebenezer Rock Church in south Augusta less often.
But the Hephzibah mother is not ready to accept state autopsy reports that her 8-year-old son, Jon Quinton Foxx Stevens, accidentally drowned a year ago today in a neighbor’s pool, just as she is not ready to dismantle the child’s bedroom.
The jumble of belongings both comforts and unsettles her, she said.
An acoustic guitar sits on a stand in the corner, childhood artwork decorates the walls and a SpongeBob SquarePants doll lies upright on the bed, which remains unmade from the last time the mother slept in the bottom bunk in hopes of reuniting with the child in her dreams.
“I try to hold him in my heart, but it’s like a piece of my soul has been stolen,” Stevens, 44, said last week, while visiting the grave. “It’s hurtful and I guess that is how it will always be.”
Each trip to his grave brings back her feelings that the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office failed to do all it could to save her son and properly investigate his drowning, which she believes involved foul play.
On April 13, the date Jon drowned, police reports show one deputy initially arrived to investigate a missing-person report involving the child about 9:35 p.m., three hours after friends said
they last saw Jon in the shallow end of the pool, helping them clean it of rocks and debris.
An hour later, additional deputies arrived to help, but it was not until after a three-hour search of the neighborhood that a mother who lived next door to the Stevens family dove into the pool in search of Jon about midnight, 50 minutes before the county dive team arrived to pull the boy from the water.
Almost a month later, on May 6, the drowning’s lead investigator told the family in a meeting with a reporter and photographer from The Augusta Chronicle that she would conduct follow-up interviews to address inconsistencies in eyewitness accounts.
Gaps identified by community members include why Jon’s shirt went missing after the incident, how friends could have heard him leave if they said they were underwater, and how his body went unnoticed despite friends diving in and vacuuming the pool for 30 to 45 minutes after they said Jon left.
“I just pray the truth comes out one day,” Stevens said of the stress caused by the suspicious circumstances surrounding the case. “It is hard to go on without knowing.”
‘It never ends’
Dan Levy, the executive director of the National Organization for Parents of Murdered Children, said few truly understand what the loss of a child can do to families and how it takes a toll.
“It’s hard,” said Levy, who lost a brother to homicide. “It never ends, no matter what.”
Levy said the self-help group in Ohio averages five new cases a month in its Second Opinion Service, which has volunteer medical examiners, forensic pathologists and investigative experts review existing evidence and records for questionable deaths and investigations.
Members of the service evaluate materials and look for evidence that needs to be followed up, findings that might have been misinterpreted, areas that need further investigation and inconsistencies or conflicting information.
In 98 percent of the cases the service reviews, Levy said families receive a written opinion that’s in agreement with local authorities.
There have been at least three cases, however, in the past decade that were either re-opened, had death certificates changed or were solved, with new arrests made. Officials say one case is currently pending for possible new action.
“Families will go to the ends of the Earth to find out the truth and this service we hope will at least give them some peace to know that a second set of eyes objectively gave their case a look,” Levy said.
Stevens said she will never give up on her case. Her church, neighbors and community said they will always support her efforts.
A child missed
Ally Gentile, Jon’s second-grade teacher, said each day she goes to class she passes a plaque that hangs in the boy’s honor in the front hallway of McBean Elementary School.
Last week, the class portrait of the little boy smiling in a polo shirt with a fresh haircut brought her to tears.
“We never forget him,” Gentile said. “He is definitely missed.”
Though Jon’s class never moved his desk, Gentile said it was hard for students to understand the “finality” of his death.
Gentile said the death has been harder on the school’s second-grade teachers, who still believe the potential for injustice exists in the boy’s death.
“What Miss Stevens is going through has to be hell on Earth,” the teacher said. “There are just too many questions.”
After the Georgia Bureau of Investigation ruled Jon’s drowning accidental, the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office said its investigation was complete and that it had no reason to believe that any foul play was involved.
“No additional witnesses have come forward with any information that would lead us to believe that this was anything more than a tragic accident,” Capt. Calvin Chew, spokesman for the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, said at the time.
Last week, Chew said he is not aware of any new action on the case.
Though Stevens said she has retained an attorney and saved voice messages left on her phone by investigators, special agents and administrative executives from the GBI and sheriff’s office after her son’s death, she remains uncertain if her questions will be answered and whether peace of mind will ever be found.
Stevens said she breaks down into tears at her security job and can no longer do the daily activities she loves, such as cooking, because the last meal Jon ate was his favorite: fried chicken, baked macaroni and cheese, and creamed corn.
She has enrolled in grief counseling and sleeps with her son’s blanket every night in hopes of seeing her “baby one more time again.”
She said sometimes, just sometimes, she gets that wish when she hears the song Fire and Rain by James Taylor or passes her son’s grave on the way to the store.
“I look up and there’s Jon,” she said. “He’ll say, ‘Mom, I’m right here. It’s OK.’ ”