Fla. mom who killed self, 4 kids endured violence

May 18, 2012, 7:32 PM

Associated Press

MIAMI (AP) – A child welfare investigator who spoke with Tonya Thomas in the weeks before she fatally shot herself and her four children said there were no signs that the children were in distress or felt unsafe. But hundreds of documents released by state officials Friday detail a family tormented by episodes of violence over the years _ including an attack on Thomas by the children’s father a decade ago.

An investigator for the Department of Children and Families interviewed each child in the weeks before they were killed Tuesday. Each said they felt safe in their central Florida home, but the notes offered few details beyond nearly identical paragraphs with answers to the same set of questions under each child’s name. Thomas was not verbally or mentally abusive to the children and seemed eager to find a mentor for her two sons. She said her 15-year-old son Jaxs had anger issues and that the family had been going to counseling occasionally over the past six months, according to notes from the investigation.

It was initiated after Jaxs was arrested for battery against his mother in April. The 33-year-old mother didn’t pick him up from juvenile detention because she wanted to teach him a lesson, so investigators were summoned to check on the other children’s well-being.

The investigator also spoke with neighbors and school officials, and the children seemed fine. The investigator called to check in with Thomas on May 10 to see if she needed anything, but she said she didn’t. A supervisor signed off on the case on May 13.

Two days later, deputies say Thomas shot her children, ages 12 to 17, in the early morning in Port St. John, about 15 miles west of Cape Canaveral. The wounded children fled to a neighbor’s house, trying to break in, but they returned when Thomas came outside and calmly called for them to return. She fired the fatal rounds at the children, smoked a cigarette and later killed herself, according to Brevard County deputies. Seventeen-year-old Pebbles Johnson never made it back home. Her body was found in the front yard of a neighbor’s house.

The child welfare investigator who recently visited them was extremely distraught and took several days of leave, a DCF spokeswoman said.

Violence in the family can be traced back at least a decade when the children watched as their father Joe Johnson yelled at Thomas for not making dinner, then punched and kicked her, knocking her into a wall in 2000, according to the documents.

Johnson was arrested and charged with domestic violence battery. Thomas and the children went into a shelter but returned to the house nearly a month later, violating a court order. The father tried to sneak out of the bedroom window on a subsequent visit by police, and Thomas instructed the children to lie about living with their father again. Still, one of the girls told police her father had spent many nights at the house, according to the documents.

The children were removed from the parents’ care, but a judge ruled they could return roughly a month later despite DCF’s objections. Thomas was given temporary custody and would be under DCF supervision. The parents agreed to work with a caseworker, and an investigator wrote that “they love their children very much and want to keep the family together.” Thomas also told an attorney that it was an isolated incident, and that she didn’t fear Johnson, according to DCF records.

The couple was ordered to attend domestic violence support group, participate in counseling, including anger management classes, but their attendance was sporadic at best. At one point the couple said they were attending the Yellow Umbrella parenting program, but DCF requested attendance records and learned they never went.

Investigators watched the children in the home and said they “appear bonded to their parents.” Pebbles had just received an award for outstanding reading in her kindergarten class. All the children seemed healthy.

A few years later, Thomas was arrested in 2002 on a misdemeanor battery charge for striking Johnson, but the charge was later dropped. The documents also indicate that Thomas was abused or neglected as a child.

It’s unclear how much contact Thomas and the children had with their father in the months before the shooting. He was not living at the home and an investigator wrote Thomas “does not have a relationship with a partner that is supportive of her ability to protect and nurture her children,” according to documents related to Jaxs’ arrest last month.

Multiple listings for Joe Johnson dialed by a reporter on Friday were disconnected or incorrect numbers.

“This is a horrendous tragedy, While these files offer a glimpse inside the families’ home, they do not appear to contain the answer as to `why’ this happened that we all seek at this time,” DCF spokeswoman Carrie Hoeppner said.

The documents also revealed that someone called the state abuse hotline in 2007 to say one of the Johnson girls was allegedly kissing another girl and forcing other girls to kiss each other in front of her on several occasions in the school bathroom. The report said the girl had been mean to other children and that it had recently turned physical and been getting worse since Christmas. In one instance, one of the girls crawled under a bathroom stall and looked at the other girl.

One of the girls confirmed the story to DCF investigators, another denied it happened. They were placed in separate classrooms. Investigators interviewed the girls and there appeared to be no issues of sexual abuse so the case was closed.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Fla. mom who killed self, 4 kids endured violence