Hephzibah mother asks for investigation into son's drowning

 

Suspicious circumstances surrounding the drowning of an 8-year-old Hephzibah boy has the mother asking the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office to investigate the death as a homicide.

Jeanette Stevens met with a county investigator for more than an hour Monday at her Hunters Mill home to raise questions that, in the three weeks since the death of her son Jon Stevens, have remained unanswered and, in her opinion, ignored.

Among Stevens’ chief concerns were why deputies waited four hours after she reported her child missing to search the swimming pool in which he was last seen on the evening of April 13 and why detectives have not conducted follow-up interviews to corroborate eyewitness accounts of the death.

Ashley Pletcher, the lead investigator in the case, said Monday that the investigation into the child’s death, initially ruled as accidental, remains open and that she plans to conduct a second interview with a key witness to determine whether foul play or a cover-up was involved.

A three-month backlog of autopsies at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime lab in Atlanta, however, could postpone any closure for the grieving woman.

“I am a mother, and this was my little sweetheart, my little baby,” Stevens said of Jon, the youngest of her four boys. “I have a feeling – no, I know – there is more to this story.”

Stevens last saw her son alive about 3 p.m. April 13, when she said the boy approached her to ask to go play with an 11-year-old friend.

Jon left the house wearing pants, a red SpongeBob SquarePants T-shirt and unlaced sneakers. The T-shirt remains missing, and the sneakers – sealed in a plastic bag after the drowning – were seized Monday as evidence.

It is unclear what happened after Jon went to play.

The only thing that is certain is that he went across the street to a residence on Hunters Mill Court that was equipped with security cameras.

About 7:20 p.m., surveillance video at the house shows the child going inside.

Between 6:30 and 9:35 p.m., according to a police report, Jon and the friend went into the backyard, where two teenagers were using a net to gather rocks and debris, which had eroded into a pool – its water brown and cold – from a large hill behind the house.

After watching the two older children clean the pool, Jon entered the shallow end to help collect dirt, eyewitnesses said in an account that Stevens and others strongly contest.

Those with Jon remember seeing the boy in the pool, but after they went underwater, they reported hearing the metal gate to the backyard latch shut, leading them to believe Jon abruptly left without saying anything.

Stevens said her son did not know how to swim, always wore inflatables on his arms to stay afloat and avoided water, even at the beach.

Ally Gentile, the boy’s second-grade teacher at McBean Elementary School, said that Jon was clean and orderly and, as a student who was within one point of testing into gifted education, was not the type to carelessly go swimming in a muddy pool.

“I personally do not believe he got into that pool by accident,” Gentile said. “It’s out of his character.”

Stevens said the family first realized something was awry when the boy’s oldest brother could not find Jon about 9 p.m., the usual time he went to get his sibling after work.

Although an investigator said that she interviewed all those with Jon separately and they had consistent stories, the family disagrees, saying that one account of when Jon went home changed several times.

Stevens reported her child missing at 9:38 p.m. Two deputies responded, and with the help of 15 neighbors canvassed the neighborhood and searched the Stevens household, fearing the child had been abducted. A dive team was not called until 1 a.m., around which time Jon was pulled from the pool’s deep end.

“Why not search the pool first?” Stevens said.

The final autopsy will not be available until August, when coroners in Atlanta finish studying the child’s tissue and blood for the presence of drugs.

“Unfortunately, that is true,” Richmond County deputy pathologist Johnny McDonald said of the four-month wait to get tests completed. “It takes a long time.”

Jon’s death has hit the Hunters Mill neighborhood and the Hephzibah community hard.

“Jon really was an exceptional child who was always very friendly and willing to help others,” Gentile said. “His loss certainly will be felt.”

Neighbors and members of Ebenezer Rock Church in Hephzibah, where the Stevenses worship, have rallied around the family, demanding investigators uncover the facts about Jon’s death.

“This needs to be rectified,” said Angelo Hatcher, the pastor of Ebenezer Rock Church. “There are too many gaps and questions.”

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