ELYRIA — A North Ridgeville woman was sentenced Monday to seven months in jail for abusing her two teenage stepchildren by depriving them of food and locking them in a room that was empty except for two bare mattresses while they were clad only in their underwear.
Jonna Winkler, 39, also paid a fine of $750 and was barred from having any contact with the two boys for the next five years when she appeared before Elyria Municipal Court Judge Gary Bennett. She pleaded no contest to child endangering and persistent disorderly conduct charges earlier this year, according to court records.
The boys’ father, 40-year-old Joseph Winkler, faces a potential jail term when he appears before Bennett to be sentenced on charges of child endangering and persistent disorderly conduct later this month.
Jonna Winkler defended her actions as Bennett grilled her about what life was like for the two boys before they managed to escape in February from the Winklers’ Wallace Boulevard house.
“I made a mistake … but I love my kids. I love all six of my kids,” said Jonna Winkler, who has four children of her own that police described as well cared for. Those children remain in the Winkler’s care, while the twins are with their biological mother.
As her husband unfurled a large collage of photos from family vacations, Jonna Winkler insisted those happier pictures represented what life was like for her family.
One of the victims told Bennett that he had forgiven his stepmother, but that she still needed to face the consequences of her actions, a lesson she often shared with he and his brother.
“Even after you ask for forgiveness, you still need to have punishment,” the teen said.
North Ridgeville police Lt. Greg Petek said the two then-14-year-old twin boys showed up at the police station shortly after 11:30 a.m. Feb. 22 dressed in multiple layers of clothing and carrying bags full of cat and dog food. They also had a bag from a dollar store in which they had pop, cookies and pretzels.
The boys told police they slept in a bedroom that held only two mattresses that had been stripped of sheets, pillows and blankets. They had access only to a connected bathroom where the toilet sometimes backed up, Petek said. The door to the bedroom was deadbolted from the outside and their clothing and dressers were kept in the basement, the twins told police.
Jonna Winkler said Monday that on the day the boys fled their room, she had taken her children — two from a previous relationship and two she shared with Joseph Winkler — to a home school group.
Bennett said one of the twins escaped by climbing out the bathroom window and wrapping himself in a mattress cover as protection against the cold.
He then went to an unlocked door and back inside the house before retrieving a key and freeing his brother, Bennett said. The boys then dressed, packed, gathered what little change they could find and fled with the hope of reaching their biological mother’s home.
“It was evident that the two boys had reached out to police in desperation,” Petek said.
Jonna Winkler said the deadbolts were put on the doors to keep the boys out while she was remodeling their room so they wouldn’t mess up the drywall mud being applied. But when questioned by Bennett, she acknowledged that no renovation ever took place in the twins’ room.
“I got diverted to another project,” Jonna Winkler said.
North Ridgeville police Officer Joe Roth, who worked on the case, said when he took the two teens back to the house, they began to take their clothes off and asked him to lock them back in their room so Jonna Winkler wouldn’t know they had been out. He said he refused to do so.
When police came back later in the day with Lorain County Children Services workers, Roth said, the deadbolt had been removed from the door and there was a fresh dent in the wall of the closet, near other holes that the boys said came when Jonna Winkler pushed their heads into the wall, something she denied.
“I may have bumped into the wall, but I did not push them into the wall,” she said Monday.
Roth said it appeared the twins were punished for going to police.
And while Jonna Winkler admitted she removed the deadbolt before police came a second time, she denied that she was the one who put bedding on the mattresses in the boys’ rooms.
At one point during the hearing Bennett held up photos of the two boys, who sat quietly in the back of the courtroom with their biological mother, and said it appeared they were malnourished in the pictures taken after they escaped. He said they each had put on 30 or 40 pounds since leaving Jonna Winkler’s care. He also pointed out multiple bruises on the boys’ bodies in the photos.
There were only six chairs at the dining room table for the family of eight, police said. Bennett said the twins typically ate alone in their room.
Petek said the boys told police their favorite kind of dog food was Alpo, although they “tolerated” other flavors because they were hungry.
Jonna Winkler denied knowing that her stepchildren were eating dog food. She also denied that she had locked the boys in a dog cage when questioned about it by Bennett.
She insisted that the twins and the other children in her house were well fed, although they weren’t allowed to have candy, chips or pop as a general rule.
“They were fed the same as the other children,” she said.
Roth said the other children in the house had blankets, pillows, clothing and other things one would expect to find in a child’s room.
“When you make it to (the twins’) room, it was just bare,” he said.
Jonna Winkler said she was trying to keep the boys, who she described as routinely being in trouble, in line.
“It just kept escalating,” she said.
For example, the boys reported that they got in trouble because they took free candy while they were at a veterinarian’s office. When they got home, Petek said, the boys said their stepmother patted them down and made them strip down to their underwear before locking them in their room.
Roth said the boys were routinely punished for “sinning.”
Another punishment for the boys, Petak and Bennett said, was for the two boys to run the family’s dogs up and down the street. Jonna Winkler said in court that was a chore for the boys, not a punishment. She also said she often had the children in the house run laps in the yard to burn off excess energy.
After Jonna Winkler said that the twins stole money from their sister’s purse, Bennett asked whether the boys had any money of their own. She said it was kept in the bank, but the money was spent on counseling for the boys, something the judge pointed out was only done after authorities became involved.
Joseph Winkler said after the hearing that many of the allegations against his wife were untrue or “blown out of proportion.”
He said the couple had tried to be good parents, but were dealing with the twins’ disciplinary issues.
“We know that some of our punishments went overboard,” he said. “Things kind of escalated.”
Roth said as a parent himself he was bothered by the conditions the two boys endured.
“The mom was really hard on them,” he said. “She was an evil stepmother.”