At around 5:20 AM on Saturday, October 3, 2020, officers from the New Orleans Police Department responded to a medical call placed from the Sheraton Hotel at 500 Canal Street in the city’s Central Business District.
When they arrived, they found 4-year-old Jo’nyri Hawkins unresponsive. She was taken by paramedics to University Medical Center, but it was too late; Jo’nyri was pronounced dead.
According to Jo’nyri’s frantic mother, 24-year-old Amari Charles, she had left her daughters, aged four and one, and a teenage relative in the care of her boyfriend, 21-year-old Anfernee Devante Steele, at a hotel for a few hours while she attended a party. When she left, Jo’nyri was in good health. When she returned at around 5:00 AM, she found her daughter limp and unresponsive. Panicking, Amari asked Anfernee what had happened, and he explained — quite ineffectually — that she fell in the bathtub and hurt her lip.
Anfernee was not Jo’nyri’s father, but he is the father of her one-and-a-half-year-old sister.
Side note: I’m not going to make fun of the accused’s name. I’m not. I’m simply going to leave this here and move on.
Anfernee told investigators that Jo’nyri had soiled her underwear while the other children in his care slept, so he gave her a bath. Mid-bath, he said, he became sleepy as a result of marijuana he had smoked earlier in the day, so he decided to leave Jo’nyri alone in the tub in the middle of the night (you know, as
one does no one does).
At some point, Anfernee said, his “nap” was interrupted by a thump and some splashing noises, so he claimed he ran into the bathroom and pulled Jo’nyri out of the tub. Because he was worried she may have swallowed water, he said, he pressed on her stomach with his hands. Once he was satisfied that Jo’nyri was breathing normally, he told police, he got the little girl dressed and put her to bed. He said he didn’t realize anything was wrong with Jo’nyri until her mother came home and found her unresponsive.
Authorities didn’t believe it for a second, concluding that Jo’nyri’s “severe bodily injuries” were not consistent with Anfernee’s explanation but instead all but screamed physical abuse.
A search of the hotel room where Anfernee had been “caring for” the children turned up no evidence that Jo’nyri had either soiled herself or been given a bath. All of the towels in the bathroom were dry, and a pair of the little girl’s underwear left there was clean.
Further, Amari told police that Anfernee begged her not to call 911, and when EMS arrived, he tried to stop her from leaving the hotel room to meet them, saying child protective services might take the kids away “again.” Amari pushed past him to meet the paramedics in the lobby of the hotel, and Jo’nyri was subsequently taken to the hospital, where she was pronounced deceased.
According to those who witnessed Anfernee’s behavior, he began acting suspiciously right away. He followed the ambulance to the hospital, but when he got there and saw multiple members of Amari’s family had also arrived, he remained in his car and reclined his seat as if trying to hide from them.
(I swear, this guy is a walking joke.)
When the teenager who had been with him started to walk into the hospital, he said, “Remember what I told you.” While police would not elaborate on the meaning of that statement, the family thought it was “unusual.”
An autopsy conducted by the Orleans Parish coroner’s office confirmed their suspicions. The pathologist determined that Jo’nyri’s death was a homicide caused by blunt force trauma to her abdomen, which caused “massive internal bleeding.” According to the pathologist, the most likely cause of the fatal injury was a punch or kick administered with so much force that it ruptured Jo’nyri’s spleen and liver.
Also of interest: the autopsy revealed signs of prior abuse, including bruising, scars, and human bite marks, as well as a healing rib fracture, and most horribly, “vaginal trauma consistent with having an object being inserted… similar to a finger.”
(BRB; screaming curse words into a pillow.)
I want to add here that evidence of prior injuries does not necessarily mean that Jo’nyri’s mom knew her daughter was being abused. It’s absolutely possible that the little girl had been intimidated into keeping her mouth shut, and Anfernee may have explained away any injuries she may have incurred. There was no reason for Amari not to trust Anfernee; they had a child together! Some of the comments I’ve seen online condemning Amari for “allowing” this to happen just reinforce my belief that too many people have lived entirely too long without a clue what “basic human empathy” is. That kind of black and white thinking is a lot of what’s wrong with America right now. If evidence comes out that she knew or was complicit, that would be a different story. Right now, however, it appears she is a loving, doting mother who lives for her three kids and is utterly broken over her middle child’s death, and she should be allowed the respect and dignity of grieving her baby without fending off attacks from trolls. /rant
When investigators tried to interview Anfernee again after the autopsy was conducted, he was nowhere to be found. Both his mother and Amari told police they did not know where he was.
Based on the inconsistencies in his story and the mounting evidence, investigators believed Anfernee Steele first abused, then killed Jo’nyri. On Tuesday, October 13, a warrant was issued for Anfernee’s arrest on charges of second-degree murder and cruelty to a juvenile.
Anfernee, however, had made himself scarce, thus sparking a two-week manhunt. His photo circulated on Facebook as family members demanded he turn himself in; CrimeStoppers offered a $2,500 reward for his arrest and indictment.
On Tuesday, October 27, 2020, the U.S. Marshals, the New Orleans Fugitive Task Force, the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s Department, and the Houma Police Department converged on an apartment building in Houma, and, at about 1:30 PM, they took Anfernee Steele into custody.
New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Shaun Ferguson said, “The arrest of Anfernee Steele once again demonstrates how well law enforcement agencies in southeast Louisiana work together. I want to thank all involved in this apprehension, especially the U.S. Marshals, who have been engaged in the search for Steele since the warrant was issued.
“We would also like to thank the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s Department and the Houma Police Department for their assistance.”
If convicted of second-degree murder, Anfernee faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison. He is currently being held in the Orleans Justice Center.
According to Jo’nyri’s obituary, she, her mother, and her siblings lived in Houma, Louisiana, which is about 46 miles southwest of New Orleans as the crow flies. She leaves behind her adoring mother, Amari; her father, 27-year-old Joseph Hawkins; her five-year-old brother; and her younger sister, who is about a year and a half old. According to a recent post on her heartbroken mother’s Facebook page, Jo’nyri’s older brother can’t even hear her name without lowering his head, while her baby sister sits and talks to her photos.
Jo’nyri’s family said goodbye to their beloved little girl on Friday, October 16, first with a funeral at Beautiful Zion Baptist Church in Houma, followed by her interment at Southdown Cemetery, also in Houma. Due to the region’s high water table, those laid to rest in many area cemeteries, including Southdown, are interred in above-ground tombs.
Her middle name may be a tribute to her paternal grandmother, Tammy Ann Hawkins, who passed away on October 2, 2009, 11 years and one day before Jo’nyri’s death. Jo’nyri was, in fact, laid to rest with her grandma.
Rest forever in peace, Jo’nyri.
Click here for my ongoing coverage of Jo’nyri’s story.
Sources: The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate, WDSU 6, NOPD News, Jones Funeral Home, Facebook, VINELink