What Happened to Johnnie Jordan?: The Story of a Child Turning Violent
In January 1996, outside of Toledo, Ohio, 15-year-old Johnnie Jordan struck his 62-year-old foster mother in the back of the head with a hatchet handle. When the elderly woman turned around to face her attacker, he hit her in the face more than a dozen times with the business end of the tool, doused her in kerosene, and torched her body.
Silver Spring-based journalist Jennifer Toth (Orphans of the Living) offers an account of the crime, its catalysts, and its long-term effects in her balanced and compelling new book What Happened to Johnnie Jordan? Toth never tries to justify Jordan's horrendous and unprovoked act, but she demonstrates that, in fact, there were two victims that winter day--Jordan's foster mother and Jordan himself.
The teen had drifted in and out of foster homes, juvenile detention centers, and government agencies throughout his young life. His parents were drug abusers and sexual predators who molested their children and occasionally pimped them out to score money and drugs. Rage was a familiar emotion to Jordan on a primal level, but he never seemed to completely grasp it--let alone articulate it to the handful of people who bothered to take an interest in him. Instead, he ran away a lot, sold drugs, self-medicated with candy and marijuana, and let violent outbursts wash over him to temporarily cure his pain.
Toth's findings about the overburdened state bureaucracies charged with protecting Jordan and the caregivers that they recruited are all too familiar. Caseworkers rarely communicated with one another or with the numerous foster parents who took Jordan in, unaware of his turbulent past and violent tendencies.
Toth's extensive interviews with Jordan, his family, and many of his government-appointed caretakers chronicle the child's downfall in excruciating detail. She occasionally peppers her work with too many references to more famous teen murderers and a few melodramatic phrases, but these are minor complaints in an otherwise impressive and important work. After all, there are Johnnie Jordans in almost every community across the United States, and in an era when any real or imagined external threat dominates our consciousness, even the media seems to be neglecting these kids.