“It’s been like dying and going to heaven”

Earlier this year, I published a long story about a grandmother in Houston, Stephanie Johnson, who had lost access to her grandson after her daughter was murdered and who was fighting in court to be reunited with him.

Here’s an update on Stephanie’s plight.

“The first time I saw him I just almost wanted to cry because he looks so hauntingly like his mother.”

First, some background, in case you missed the original story: Stephanie’s daughter, Anne-Christine, went missing on December 8, 2016. Three weeks later, on December 30, police found her decomposing body in the League City, Texas home of her ex-husband, Shaun Hardy, and their five-year-old son, Roland.

Anne-Christine Johnson around fall 2011 with her sons. She had Roland (center) with Shaun Hardy and Julian (right) with her first husband. She was killed in 2016, at age 30. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Johnson.

Police say that in an interview later that day, Shaun admitted to killing Anne-Christine, who had lost custody of Roland in their divorce in 2015. Shaun was charged with murder and tampering with a corpse and jailed. Bail was set at $1 million.

On January 9, 2017, after a hearing in a Galveston County civil court before Judge Barbara Roberts, Shaun’s dad, Barry, an entrepreneur in the oil and gas world, was awarded primary custody of Roland. Shaun was granted the right to visit with him in Barry’s presence should he be released. No one from Anne-Christine’s family was granted visitation rights or even informed of the hearing.

Over the next couple of months, Stephanie, a public relations and marketing consultant, repeatedly asked Barry to let her visit with Roland, to no avail. In March 2017, she filed a lawsuit against both Barry and Shaun seeking either joint custody of Roland or visitation with him. To Stephanie’s dismay, Judge Roberts granted summary judgement to Barry and Shaun, saying that Stephanie lacked the legal standing to pursue her case.

Stephanie filed an appeal with a higher court. Meanwhile, last August, Barry bailed Shaun out of jail.

In early 2018, when I first posted about Stephanie, she hadn’t seen Roland in more than a year, and, in light of Shaun’s release, she was terrified for his safety.

Since then, she has won a partial victory.

After a hearing in April on her appeal, a three-judge panel ordered her, Barry, and Shaun into mediation. On July 9, after two sessions with their lawyers and a court-appointed mediator, the three parties signed an agreement that grants Stephanie two three-hour visits with Roland every month.

“It’s been like dying and going to heaven,” says Stephanie, 60, who has now seen Roland four times. “The first time I saw him I just almost wanted to cry because he looks so hauntingly like his mother.”

Stephanie and other people in whom Anne-Christine confided say Shaun emotionally and physically abused her for years and that he bullied her into relinquishing custody of Roland when they divorced. In late 2016, Anne-Christine moved back in with Shaun because she couldn’t stand being apart from Roland, her confidantes say.

“When I saw him the first time,” Stephanie says, “all I could think was, ‘You are so loved. Your mother really laid down her life for you.’ I was thinking, ‘We couldn’t get her to leave but she would not leave you behind. There is a huge and enormous legacy that we need to protect and surround you with love and give you everything you could possibly need going forward.’”

It’s not clear to Stephanie what Roland, who has autism and a significant speech delay, has been told about his mother’s death. The mediated agreement bars her from bringing Anne-Christine up with him or showing him photos of her.

But during one visit, Roland looked at Stephanie, whom he calls “Grandma,” and said, “Mommy, Mommy.”

“I almost teared up,” Stephanie says. “What am I supposed to say? ‘I love you, Roland,’ was all I could say.”

Depending on the weather, her visits with him take place at either a Chick-fil-A or a park near League City, where Barry and Roland live. Under the terms of the agreement, Barry can attend the visits, too, but he usually stands or sits at a slight distance, Stephanie says.

Roland loves the splash pad and the playground equipment at the park. “I try to follow him around,” Stephanie says. “I wear shorts and flip-flops.”

Stephanie is allowed to bring Anne-Christine’s brother and his son to the visits, but—much to her regret—she is not allowed to bring Anne-Christine’s older son, Julian, whom she had before she met Shaun and to whom Roland used to be close.

That could soon change.

In addition to granting Stephanie visits with Roland, the mediated agreement stipulates that, contrary to Judge Roberts’ ruling in 2017, Stephanie has the legal standing to pursue her custody and visitation case. The appeals court has remanded the case to Judge Roberts’ court, where it could end up being decided by a jury later this year or in 2019.

If she is unable to win joint custody of Roland, Stephanie is hoping to win more extensive—and less restricted—visitation with him. She wants him to stay overnight at her home every other weekend, during some school vacations, and for a month in the summer, and she wants him to be able to see Julian during these visits.

She’s optimistic but wary.

“It’s not just a slam dunk,” she says. “We’ll have to prove that Roland needs me, and his brother.”

Stephanie doesn’t know where Shaun is living these days or whether he’s seen Roland since Barry bailed him out. His criminal trial is scheduled for October before Galveston County Judge Patricia Grady. In the meantime, he has to wear an ankle monitor, submit to regular drug and alcohol testing, and remain in the county.

At a hearing in late July, Shaun’s lawyer, Dan Krieger, tried to persuade Judge Grady that much of the evidence that prosecutors plan to introduce at the trial—including Anne-Christine’s body and Shaun’s interviews with the police—was illegally obtained and should be suppressed. The two lead prosecutors vociferously disagreed.

Judge Grady will likely issue a ruling on the matter in September.