A father nearly killed his son in a gruesome crime. One of the detectives on the scene later adopted the child.
“We can’t imagine life without him,” Mike Blair said.
Eight-year-old Ronnie lay helplessly in a hospital bed in Tampa, his small body barely visible beneath the layers of gauze that covered him.
Mike and Danyel Blair sat beside him in silence on either side of the bed, as the movie “Power Rangers” played on the mounted TV screen. They carefully held his wounded hands.
Mike Blair, a detective with the Hillsborough County Sherriff’s Office, was at the scene the night it all happened, the night Ronnie was nearly killed by his own father.
It had only been two weeks since the brazen attack on March 18, 2018, when Ronnie’s father, Ronnie Oneal III, killed his girlfriend, Kenyatta Barron — Ronnie’s mother — and his 9-year-old daughter, Ron’Niveya, Ronnie’s sister. Oneal soaked his son in gasoline, lit him on fire and stabbed him multiple times. Ronnie was the sole survivor of the horrific family massacre.
Blair, 45, was part of the law enforcement team called to the family’s home in Riverview, a community south of Tampa.
“It was extremely gruesome,” Blair said. “It was chaotic. It was violent.”
After that night, Blair was involved in the case on a limited basis, but the troubling scene stayed fresh in his mind. Then another detective mentioned that Ronnie — who was being treated in the intensive care unit for severe burns, multiple knife wounds and internal trauma — was a football fan.
Blair reached out to some contacts he has with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the hope that the team might be able to donate a jersey and other sports paraphernalia to Ronnie. The team was eager to support the boy.
Along with the football team’s executive staff, Blair visited Ronnie at Tampa General Hospital on March 30, 2018. He was the last to leave the room, and as he started walking away, Ronnie grabbed his hand and gingerly asked: “Hey, can you stay and watch a movie with me?”
Blair explained to Ronnie that he had to go to work, but he promised to come back later that evening. He had a date night planned with his wife, he said, but knowing her, she would also rather be at the hospital than out at a restaurant.
When he called to let her know the change of plans, “I was kind of shocked because at the time, he tried to keep work and life compartmentalized,” said Danyel Blair, 42. “It surprised me in a good way that he was willing to take me into that world and allow me to meet this kid.”
At the hospital, the couple — who have been married for 23 years and have five children between the ages of 15 and 23 — felt a strong connection to Ronnie, whose sedation medicine was wearing off while they were there. He was itchy and uncomfortable and seeking comfort.
“As a mom, just the act of caring for a child immediately felt maternal and was a bonding experience,” Danyel Blair said.
She found it deeply distressing to look at Ronnie, whose frail body was hooked up to countless machines.
“He had skin grafting over 30 percent of his body, he had a breathing tube, he had a feeding tube,” Danyel Blair said. “He had extensive damage. Nobody had expected him to live through what he did.”
Ronnie’s guardian ad litem, who was appointed to him by the state of Florida to represent the child’s best interests during his father’s case, was there that evening, too.
“We exchanged pleasantries, and I gave her my number and said if there’s ever anything Ronnie needs to please call me,” Mike Blair said.
Five months later, she did. In August 2018, the Blairs got an unexpected call and were told that Ronnie was in dire need of a foster home after two failed placements.
“Do you know of anybody that can take him? There’s going to be a lot of medical appointments,” Ronnie’s guardian told Mike Blair.
Without hesitating, Mike Blair said: “Just bring him to our house. We’ll take him.”
At the time, he hadn’t even consulted with his wife or children. But “I already knew what the answer was going to be,” he said.
“I’ve had a heart for fostering and possibly adopting for many years,” Danyel Blair said.
Although Mike Blair was concerned about blurring the boundaries between his work and home life, “I knew it was the right thing to do,” he said.
Ronnie arrived at the family’s home in northwest Hillsborough County at 6:30 p.m., with only the shirt on his back.
By the end of his first evening with the Blairs, “we made the decision to adopt him,” Mike Blair said. “The biggest thing that we wanted to give him was stability and a place where he knows he’s safe. Whatever we needed to do to move towards that, we were willing to do.”
“We kind of jumped off a cliff and figured we’d land okay,” he added. “And we have.”
Integrating Ronnie into their family did not come without challenges. For one, the Blairs had never fostered a child, which meant they had to go through a lengthy approval process, including background checks and home surveys.
“We had to do all the stuff people usually do prior to taking a child in,” Danyel Blair said, adding that the adoption was made official on Nov. 25, 2019.
“We had a lot of appointments to catch up on, some medical treatments that he was overdue on, and in-home counseling twice a week,” she said. “It was a whirlwind.”
Plus, from a legal standpoint, “it was totally uncharted territory,” Mike Blair said. “Even though I had limited involvement in the criminal case, he’s still the key witness.”
“It was certainly a cause for concern,” said Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister. “But it didn’t trump the cause to make sure that this young man got into a loving family. Mike wasn’t going to let this go. He has such a huge, compassionate heart.”
The transition of Ronnie moving into the Blairs’ home was an adjustment for the whole family, but it was especially hard for him. Not only did he need to adapt to a new environment with new people, but he was also reeling from the extreme trauma he had endured.
“I was sad and confused because I didn’t know what was really going on,” said Ronnie, now 12.
He repeatedly asked the Blairs the same questions: “Am I going to have to move again? How long am I going to stay? How long am I going to be here?”
“We assured him that he would never move again, that he would be permanently part of the family,” Mike Blair said. “Danyel and I told him that we don’t ever expect to replace his mom and dad. Ronnie does have fond memories and remembers times before that night that were very positive.”
Ronnie still reminisces about his mother pushing him on a swing, he said, and eating Oreos with his big sister. He was forced to process the pain of suddenly losing them in a frightening way, while also facing his father’s inexplicable actions.
“He has a daunting question he thinks about every single day, which is, ‘Why?’” Mike Blair said. “It’s the unanswerable question.”
Through regular therapy sessions, though, Ronnie steadily started feeling more stable, and within only a few weeks of living with the Blairs, he started calling them “Mom and Dad.”
“He did it on his own. We told him he could call us whatever he wanted to,” Mike Blair said. “It was a pretty similar feeling to hearing your infants learning their first words.”
During difficult moments, the Blairs sit with Ronnie and recite a mantra they learned in counseling: “I am safe, I am loved, and I am part of this family.”
“It has become our go-to on everything. It’s just something that we repeat,” Mike Blair said.
While it took some time to get there, the message has resonated with Ronnie. “They take care of me,” he said. “They’re really nice. I feel happy.”
But even as Ronnie grew more comfortable in the Blairs’ home, his father’s criminal trial, which he was set to be a key witness in, loomed.
“Until trial, it was like he was stuck there, knowing that he would have to go and talk about it and testify,” Mike Blair said.
In front of a jury of strangers in June, Ronnie recounted the horrific event. With disturbing clarity, he described hearing a gunshot blast, which struck his mother, seeing his sister stabbed in the head with an ax, and personally enduring his father’s wrath as he drenched him in gasoline.
Oneal represented himself at the trial and was allowed to question his son on the stand.
“Did I hurt you the night of this incident?” Oneal asked Ronnie.
“Yes,” Ronnie replied. “You stabbed me.”
On June 25, Ronnie Oneal III was sentenced to life in prison.
Now that the trial is over, “the chapter is closed,” Mike Blair said. “He is much lighter. He is not carrying the weight of this trial and having to be stuck in this singular moment of his life.”
“They got me through the trial, and they were always there by my side if I cried or needed help,” Ronnie said. “I could share my feelings with them, and I felt like I could explain everything to them and it would get better.”
Ronnie is working through the trauma, and although “he still has hard days,” Mike Blair said, they have become increasingly rare in recent weeks.
“I can’t believe where he is and what he has managed to work through and process and really how much healing has happened in such a short period of time,” Danyel Blair said. “He’s just an incredible, loving little boy, and that night happened to him, but it really doesn’t define him.”
“We can’t imagine life without him,” Mike Blair said.
His children echoed the sentiment.
“He’s just my little brother. He gets on my nerves. He is loud and obnoxious just like any other 12-year-old,” said Hunter Blair, 21. “I know that Ronnie hasn’t been in my life forever, but it’s hard to look back and not picture him there.”
On a recent evening before bedtime, Mike Blair stood by his son’s door and said: “Hey, remember, what are you?”
Following a classic preteen eyeroll, Ronnie looked at his father, smiled and said: “I am safe, I am loved, and I am part of this family.”