A grieving mother seeks justice.

The moment she was told that her daughter was missing, Stephanie Johnson was sure she was dead.

More than a year had passed since Anne-Christine Johnson, 30, a petite, green-eyed waitress who lived in League City, Texas, had divorced her second husband, Shaun Hardy.

But Anne-Christine and Shaun never really split up, even though he regularly assaulted her, according to Anne-Christine’s written records and about a dozen people in whom she confided, including Stephanie.

A quest for justice in Texas.

For example, on the night of June 15, 2015, about six weeks after the divorce went through, Shaun, the son of a wealthy Houston businessman, had shoved Anne-Christine to the ground, pointed a loaded gun at her, struck her in the head with the gun, strangled her, and slammed her into a wall so hard her skull made a dent in it, according to an account she wrote shortly afterwards and an application she filed on June 30 for a protective order.

“I am fearful that Shaun Philip Hardy will continue to hurt me or even kill me in the future,” Anne-Christine wrote in the protective order application.

Anne-Christine Johnson in late 2011 or 2012 with her sons, Roland (center), whose father is Shaun Hardy, and Julian (right), whom she had with her first husband. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Johnson.
Anne-Christine took this selfie a few days after being released from Clear Lake Medical Center in June 2015. Shaun had beaten and strangled her, she claimed. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Johnson.

Though the police investigated the incident, they didn’t end up arresting Shaun, and soon, he and Anne-Christine were living together again. During the divorce, he had intimidated her into relinquishing custody of their son, Roland, her friends and family say. If she wanted to see and protect Roland, she had to keep up her relationship with Shaun, she believed.

Again and again, Stephanie, a public relations consultant in Houston, urged her daughter to flee. “This is crazy!” she’d say. “Do you not realize how crazy this is?”

But Anne-Christine was “firmly in the grips of the domestic violence mentality,” Stephanie thinks.

“He had complete emotional and mental control over her.”

On December 9, 2016, Anne-Christine didn’t show up for a meal she’d scheduled with her father, Lee Johnson. When Lee drove to Shaun’s house in search of her, Shaun said she wasn’t there, according to police records. Later, Shaun claimed that she’d ridden off in a white car with a guy he didn’t know.

No one ever heard from her again.

“A sweet, sweet soul”

Stephanie, who has a journalism degree from the University of Missouri, and Lee, who studied business at the University of Texas, were both working in the New Orleans office of Amoco, the oil company, when they met in the early 1980s. They married in 1983, and in 1986, Anne-Christine was born.

Two years later, Lee was transferred to Houston, and the Johnsons moved to a roomy house in Weston Lakes, a gated community on the outskirts of the city. Soon after the move, Stephanie and Lee had a son, Brett, and not long after that they had another, James. A fourth child, Molly, was born in 1995.

Anne-Christine and Stephanie outside the Johnson home in Destrehan, Louisiana around 1987. Photo by Lee Johnson.
Anne-Christine at her fifth birthday party. By this time, the family had moved to Weston Lakes, Texas, on the outskirts of Houston. Photo by Stephanie Johnson.

Though Stephanie set up her own public relations business, she mainly focused on the kids. Unimpressed with the local public school, she enrolled them at a well-regarded private one, Holy Spirit Episcopal, on the west side of Houston. When the weather was nice, she took them to the Weston Lakes Country Club, where, along with some other moms, she founded a children’s swim team. She took them to mass every Sunday at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Pattison and volunteered there as a parish guitarist.

Day and night, the Johnson home buzzed with activity, Stephanie recalls.

“I was kind of like the mom who didn’t care, so all the kids came over to my house. I’m not really well known for my discipline, so pretty much they did whatever they wanted to.”

A live-in babysitter helped her with childcare, cooking, and cleaning while Lee built his career in the land department at Amoco, which eventually merged with BP.

According to Stephanie, these were happy years for Anne-Christine, who was an outgoing, playful, and creative little girl.

She especially enjoyed her time at the country club.

“When The Little Mermaid came out, she would endlessly get in the pool and come out of the water swirling her head back like she was Ariel.”

She loved to draw and was good at it, so Stephanie enrolled her in after-school art lessons. She took piano lessons and liked those, too.

She also loved spending time with friends, and she was skilled at both making and keeping them, according to Aarica Chambers, whom she met in kindergarten and was close to from then on.

“She always wanted to see the best in people, even people who weren’t necessarily nice to her,” Aarica recalls.

She was less than enthusiastic about her schoolwork, however.

“She was always really smart, but it wasn’t the kind of smart that did well in school,” Stephanie says.

When Anne-Christine was about nine, Stephanie transferred her to Holy Rosary Catholic School in Rosenberg, which was less difficult and more structured than Holy Spirit, she says.

“They had a lot of discipline, which really helped her focus, and she really, really loved that school.”

In 1997, Lee was transferred again, this time to Calgary, Canada. In the months before the move, Stephanie suffered from terrible headaches, which her doctor wasn’t initially worried about. But a few days before she left Houston, he ordered an MRI just in case.

The Johnsons had just arrived in Calgary when Stephanie’s doctor told her to turn right around: there was a tumor just beneath her brain, in her pituitary gland. Even though it wasn’t cancerous, it had to be operated on immediately.

For the next year and a half, Stephanie commuted back and forth between Houston and Calgary as she was treated for the tumor and for two other conditions with which she was eventually diagnosed: Hashimoto’s disease, a disorder of the thyroid gland that causes fatigue and weakness, and fibromyalgia, which causes chronic and widespread pain.

“I was in pretty dire shape,” she says. At times, she was practically comatose.

The kids suffered tremendously throughout her illness, she says.

“From the day we were in Canada, a completely new country, I was gone.”

Anne-Christine, who was 11 when Stephanie got sick, “was a girl who needed her mother and didn’t have her.”

The family moved to Amarillo in 1998, by which time Lee and Stephanie’s marriage had collapsed under the strain of her illness. Around 1999, Stephanie moved with Anne-Christine to a condo in Houston; Lee stayed in Amarillo with the rest of the kids.

Unbeknownst to Stephanie, whose health was still poor and who was scrambling to rebuild her business, Anne-Christine began to struggle with depression. One day in early 2000, not long before her fourteenth birthday, she swallowed a load of over-the-counter pain relievers and had to have her stomach pumped in the hospital.

Stephanie was horrified.

Fearing that she’d been failing her daughter, she sent her to live with her dad in Amarillo, where she also found her a therapist.

“I had no way to watch her around the clock in Houston and had it in my head that she needed to be where there was closer supervision,” she says.

In retrospect, though, Stephanie thinks sending Anne-Christine away was “the biggest mistake of my entire life.” Though Lee was a conscientious and caring dad, Anne-Christine felt her mom had abandoned her, and their connection never fully recovered, she believes.

Later that year, Lee returned to Houston with Anne-Christine and the other kids. By this time, Lee and Stephanie were divorced, and though they shared legal custody of the children, Stephanie agreed to let them live with Lee.

She found Anne-Christine a local therapist and saw all the kids as much as she could.

Over the next few years, Anne-Christine was healthy enough to enjoy her friends, her family, and her creativity, Stephanie and others say.

In her spare time, she filled journals with sketches, poems, and detailed accounts of her life. She drew cartoon characters and invented games for Molly, whom she both adored and protected.

“She used to sleep with me every night because I was scared of the dark,” Molly says. Sometimes, Brett and James would try to scare their baby sister, and Anne-Christine would “run them off.”

She also spent a lot of time with her friend and classmate Rachel Miller-Cyrlin, who describes her as “a sweet, sweet soul.”

When Anne-Christine and Rachel were about 15, Anne-Christine found an old mattress in Rachel’s apartment that her mom had been planning to toss. Inspired, Anne-Christine spent the next seven months transforming it into a black ink mural of her parents, her siblings, and herself. They were surrounded by a scattering of flowers.

“It was beautiful,” Rachel says.

She enjoyed photography, too. In the summer of 2003, Stephanie was working at Shell, and Anne-Christine, armed with her mom’s old Canon F-1, often hitched a ride downtown with her.

To Stephanie’s dismay, Anne-Christine, who’d just finished her junior year in high school, was most interested in shooting the homeless.

“It made me nuts. She had no fear for her personal safety.”

In the lobby of Stephanie’s office building one day, Anne-Christine got disoriented and nearly stepped into the freight elevator. A handsome young courier stopped her and offered to show her to the passenger elevators. When he spotted her again later in the summer, he asked her out, and before long, they were in a serious relationship.

A native of the tiny town of Liberty, Donnie Deakle was a “standup,” “salt-of-the-earth kind of guy” who showered Anne-Christine with love, according to Stephanie’s sister Jean Lieber, who was close to her niece. Anne-Christine was also embraced by Donnie’s warm, close-knit family, who soon thought of her as one of their own.

By this time, Anne-Christine had developed a sophisticated sensibility that made Stephanie start to think of her as a New Yorker at heart. She liked indie bands and foreign films; she frequented coffee houses and art museums; she shopped in thrift stores and had a penchant for black. Armed with a “razor wit,” she could summon “just the pithy thing to say at the right moment,” though she hardly ever spoke ill of anyone, Stephanie says.

Academically, however, she was an underachiever, expending just enough effort to get by. When Stephanie urged her to look at colleges, she balked, saying she planned to be an artist and didn’t see the point.

“She had her own way of looking at the world,” Stephanie says. “She was so cool compared to me.”

As a compromise, Anne-Christine agreed to apply to a graphic design program at the Art Institute of Houston, and she ended up enrolling there after her high school graduation. Stephanie was traveling a lot for work, so she let both Anne-Christine and Donnie move into her condo.

For a while, Anne-Christine had been watching her weight. But as she settled into art school, her quest to be thin morphed into a grave case of anorexia.

“She would say, ‘God, I look fat today,’ and I’m looking at her, and she’s just this tiny thing,’” remembers Rachel.

As the disorder progressed, Rachel says, Anne-Christine’s demeanor changed. She grew increasingly self-conscious, and she often put herself down.

“No matter how thin she got, she couldn’t see the beauty in herself the way other people saw it,” Rachel says.

Donnie was endlessly patient with her and was sometimes able to get her to eat, Stephanie says, but ultimately, she required intensive therapy. For a year, she saw a psychologist who specialized in eating disorders three to five times a week.

“It saved her life,” Stephanie says. “I remember her telling me early on that after each session, she could eat.”

Meanwhile, she was finding the graphic design program too technical. In 2006, when she was 20, she dropped out.

“She was in over her head,” Stephanie says.

But her relationship with Donnie continued to flourish. Around the time she left school, he booked a romantic getaway in a unique hotel room in Brenham: near the bed stood the remnants of an antique freight elevator.

Standing next to the machine, he proposed.

The couple scheduled their wedding for April 5, 2008 at the Pecan Grove Country Club in Richmond, not far from Lee’s house. In the run-up to the wedding, Anne-Christine worked at a digital marketing company and a high-end bakery, saving as much money as she could. In the fall of 2007, when she was 21, she was delighted to learn she was pregnant.

Early in 2008, the couple bought a house together on the east side of Houston, an easy commute to Liberty.

“She managed all of the paperwork and financing,” Stephanie says. “She was very proud.”

But things didn’t go as the couple had planned. On April 4, at the rehearsal dinner for the wedding, Anne-Christine went into premature labor and had to be rushed to the Woman’s Hospital of Texas, where she was given medication and put on bed rest.

The next day, her labor temporarily halted, she and Donnie took their vows in her hospital room. Their families crowded beside them and spilled out into the hallway.

“The love of her life”

The baby, Julian, was born on April 8, after only 27 weeks of gestation. At first, “his survival was not a given,” Stephanie says.

For several months, he was in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit, where his parents and grandparents helped tend to him. When he was healthy enough to be released, Anne-Christine stayed home with him full-time.

Throughout his infancy, Julian was often sick, and once, he even stopped breathing, Stephanie says. But Anne-Christine calmly resuscitated him, and in general, she was a skilled and tireless mother.

Rachel, who had moved with her husband to Florida but still talked with her friend almost daily, says that while the stress of caring for a sick baby “took a toll” on Anne-Christine, “she was just precious toward him always.”

“She always had a soft voice anyway, but she would use this extremely high-pitched baby voice to him, and he would giggle.”

However, she was still plagued by self-doubt, Rachel believes. She didn’t think she was good enough for Donnie, Rachel says, which caused her to pull away from him. Another friend, Meghan Honigman, says Anne-Christine began to question whether she’d married too young.

Around 2009, when she was about 23, she got a job as a cocktail waitress at the midtown branch of Christian’s Tailgate, a popular sports bar. She struck one of the veteran servers there, Roni Keller, as “very polite” and “very, very young.”

She also struck Roni as unprepared for the avalanche of customers who would surely hit on her.

“When I saw her and Donnie walk in when she came in to apply, and when I found out she got the job, I thought, ‘Oh, poor girl, she’s gonna get a divorce and she doesn’t even know it yet.’”

By this point, Anne-Christine was turning a lot of heads on the streets of Houston. A fan of the British blues singer Amy Winehouse, she favored bright red lipstick, winged eyeliner, and retro updos, friends say. She dressed in form-fitting tops, pencil skirts, and stiletto heels.

But Stephanie thinks her daughter didn’t understand just how attractive she was until she started working at Tailgate, where, as Roni had predicted, guys threw themselves at her.

“I don’t think she had the maturity to handle that,” Stephanie says.

By early 2010, Anne-Christine and Donnie were no longer getting along, and she had moved out of their house and into an apartment. Julian, who was two and attended daycare, spent some nights with her and some nights with his dad.

Anne-Christine didn’t get seriously involved with anyone new until, one night, she met Shaun, a confident and flirtatious Tailgate regular who often socialized with the bar’s waitresses. A longtime resident of League City, a suburb, he worked in the maintenance department of the municipal government there. (In late 2008, he’d been nominated for “Employee of the Quarter,” according to the city’s website. “No matter if it’s something as small as a flickering light or picking up trash in the parking lot, or as large as a remodeling project, Shaun is on it. He is constantly helping employees and takes time to help citizens as well.”)

Most of Shaun’s family also lived in and around League City, including his mother, Debbie Flaniken, and his father, Barry Hardy, who had long ago divorced. Barry had served on the city council of a neighboring community, Santa Fe, in the early 1990s, and in 1993 he had founded a management consultancy in Houston, Training & Development Systems, or TDS, that advises petroleum companies on cultivating their workforces.

Anne-Christine found Shaun charming and sexy, and she was impressed that he could talk with her about art, Rachel recalls.

Rachel was skeptical.

“I remember when she told me about him, I had this horrible feeling in my stomach. It was almost like he was trying to match his personality to win her.”

When Rachel actually met Shaun, on a visit to Houston soon after he and Anne-Christine got together, she found him insincere.

“Something about the way that he would speak, it was almost like he practiced in the mirror,” Rachel says. “He put on a show, a façade. It was a mask.”

Aarica had a bad feeling about Shaun, too, especially after Anne-Christine told her that he didn’t like children.

“I was like, ‘You have a child, what are you going to do?’”

“She thought that if he got to know Julian he would change his mind.”

By late 2010, Anne-Christine had moved in with Shaun and was expecting a baby with him. She and Donnie were getting a divorce.

Stephanie, who had barely met Shaun, was distressed.

“I wasn’t happy about it, and I told her so,” she says. “We all loved Donnie.”

“But I had to respect her choices as an adult.”

“She told me Shaun was the love of her life.”

A new family

Roland was born prematurely on March 13, 2011, when Anne-Christine was 25 and Shaun was 26. Like his half-brother, he spent his earliest months in the hospital, where, during a visit with her new grandson, Stephanie first got a sense of Shaun.

“I had been through preemies with Julian,” she says. “They say, if nothing else, [to] sit next to them or gently put your hand on the incubator, and I was just in there doing that, [and] he just gave me the look.”

“And it wasn’t a normal look. It was a very disapproving, ‘Don’t touch my child’ look.”

“At the time, I didn’t think anything of it. I just thought he was a little bit controlling.”

While Roland was in the hospital, Debbie threw the couple a baby shower at her home in League City. Anne-Christine’s brother Brett attended the party with his wife, Nigia Moganlue, and Nigia, who had extracted herself from an abusive marriage a while back, didn’t like what she observed.

Throughout the party, Anne-Christine was uncharacteristically glum, Nigia recalls, which she initially attributed to Roland’s absence. But then, when Nigia struck up a conversation with Anne-Christine and Shaun, he recounted what he seemed to think was an amusing story: the previous week, outside another baby shower some friends had thrown for them, he had shoved Anne-Christine so hard that she had fallen down in the parking lot.

“He was laughing about it,” says Nigia, who was pregnant at the time.

Later, outside the party, she asked Anne-Christine if she was okay.

“She said, ‘Oh yeah, I’m fine, don’t worry. You know how it is. People get drunk and they do stupid things.’”

Anne-Christine and Donnie, who were on friendly terms, signed their divorce papers around the time Roland was released from the hospital. Though Julian would live primarily with Donnie, he was to spend every other weekend with Anne-Christine and Shaun in League City, and he’d often visit them during holidays and vacations.

Anne-Christine didn’t have a car, so Stephanie took on the responsibility of shuttling Julian back and forth. Otherwise, though, Anne-Christine saw her family and friends less and less as she settled into her new life, and they found their sporadic visits with her disturbing, they say.

In early 2012, for example, Nigia and Brett threw a party for their newborn that Anne-Christine and Shaun attended with Roland. At one point, Nigia recalls, Anne-Christine was changing Roland’s diaper on the nursery floor when Shaun, complaining that she was taking too long, kicked her in the rear.

Anne-Christine didn’t respond, Nigia says.

“I said to him, ‘What was that?’”

“And he said, ‘That’s how love works.’”

By the summer of 2012, Anne-Christine and Shaun had run out of money, and in October they moved into Debbie’s. About a month later, on November 14, 2012, the couple married in a simple ceremony officiated by a friend of Shaun’s that Anne-Christine’s family and friends only learned about afterwards.

Shortly after the wedding, Rachel’s fears about Shaun were confirmed, she says.

In a phone call, Anne-Christine told her that she and Shaun had had a big fight over “something petty,” and she had refused to give in.

Shaun had gotten upset and, for a few moments, had held her against a wall by the neck, Anne-Christine told Rachel.

Horrified, Rachel told Anne-Christine that her new husband’s behavior constituted abuse. When Anne-Christine demurred, Rachel put her on the phone with her own husband, a former boxer, who offered to buy her a plane ticket so she and Roland could come stay with them in Florida.

At first, Rachel and her husband thought Anne-Christine was going to take them up on this proposal, but ultimately, out of fear, she stayed put, Rachel says. According to Rachel, Anne-Christine thought Shaun would be so enraged if she fled with Roland that he might even report her to his colleagues in the League City police department.

“You have a right to defend your safety, your child’s safety,” Rachel recalls saying, but Anne-Christine wasn’t convinced.

In the winter of 2013, Anne-Christine and Shaun moved again, this time to a beach house his father owned on the Bolivar Peninsula, a sandy, narrow, and remote stretch of land ringed by Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Unlike League City, which is a short drive from Houston, the Bolivar is accessible only by ferry from Galveston. On Fridays, it took Stephanie about an hour to drive with Julian to the ferry landing; the boat ride was another 45 minutes.

Often, she’d linger for a visit.

By this time, Roland idolized Julian, and Stephanie delighted in watching the two boys play, she says.

“He would follow him around going ‘Jewian! Jewian!’”

But otherwise, the visits were unsettling for Stephanie. Whenever Shaun was home, Anne-Christine, who had never liked housework, “would kind of skittishly move around the kitchen, cleaning things and glancing askance at me,” she says.

Meanwhile, Shaun was “very surly and sort of non-communicative.” Some days, he’d be friendly to her for a short time, but only so he could talk about himself, she says. Then, he’d have Anne-Christine usher her out.

“I tried to start going down there when he wasn’t there so I could talk to her and get some sense of what was going on,” Stephanie says. Though Anne-Christine “kind of intimated that they had some difficulties,” she wasn’t specific about what they were.

“I never saw physical abuse, nor did I suspect it at that time,” Stephanie says. “I suspected that there was mental abuse.”

She also noticed that the family’s latest move had left her daughter acutely isolated.

Shaun was commuting to and from his job in League City, but Anne-Christine was on the peninsula all day, where she had nowhere to go and knew no one. Since Shaun used the couple’s only car for his commute, Anne-Christine was often homebound.

And while Stephanie could tell that Anne-Christine was passionately devoted to Roland, whom she described in a journal entry as “the light of my life,” he wasn’t easy to care for, Stephanie perceived. He didn’t speak much, she noticed, and he was prone to severe and persistent meltdowns.

Not long after Anne-Christine moved to the Bolivar, a friend of hers, Janell Lemm, got the sense that she was lonely there, so she visited a couple of times with her husband and daughter. But when Shaun was around, the visits were tense, Janell recalls.

During one visit, Janell, her husband, and Anne-Christine went shopping, leaving Shaun in charge of Roland, Julian, and Janell’s daughter, who was five. When they returned, Janell says, her daughter was performing the Hitler salute for Shaun, who was “cracking up.”

“I said, ‘That’s not funny. That’s not okay.’ He tried to play it off like, ‘She’s just a kid, she doesn’t know what it means.’ And I’m like, ‘But we know what it means. Why would you teach her that?’”

One afternoon, Nigia and Brett met Anne-Christine and Roland for a short visit at a midpoint between their homes, and Nigia instantly grasped that her sister-in-law was miserable.

“She had lost a lot of weight. She didn’t look happy; she wasn’t her cheerful self.”

She was wearing shorts, Nigia recalls, and there were bruises up and down her legs.

Later, over the phone, Anne-Christine acknowledged that the marriage wasn’t going as she’d hoped it would.

“I told her, ‘Why don’t you get a divorce?’” Nigia recalls.

But Anne-Christine was worried that if she left another husband, people would think she was “a loser.”

“I tried to explain to her, I said, ‘Nobody’s going to think you’re a loser. It’s nobody’s business. I did it. I walked away. So you could do it, too.’”

By the fall of 2014, Anne-Christine and Shaun had moved back to League City, and Anne-Christine was telling Rachel that she wanted to leave him.

“She wanted a divorce, but she was afraid, so she didn’t ask for it,” Rachel says.

On October 31, however, Shaun initiated the split himself, with the help of prominent League City lawyer Kathleen McCumber, who had recently been named presiding judge of the city’s municipal court and was a justice of the peace for Galveston County.

According to the petition for divorce that McCumber filed on Shaun’s behalf in a Galveston County civil court, the marriage had become “insupportable” due to “discord,” and there was “no reasonable expectation of reconciliation.”

Anne-Christine moved out of the apartment she and Shaun shared and was taken in by friends. A couple of weeks later, her troubles intensified.

On November 11, she and a guy she was dating were using cocaine in his car when the police knocked on the window, arrested them, and locked them up in the local jail. It was her first offense—friends say she rarely used drugs and never bought them herself—and she was referred to a two-year probation program through which her record would ultimately be cleared. Still, she was humiliated by the incident and convinced that Shaun would use it against her in the divorce, Stephanie says.

To make matters worse, Anne-Christine couldn’t afford a divorce lawyer. For years, she’d been staying home with Roland, who was three and had recently been diagnosed with autism, instead of making money. Stephanie would have liked to help her, but her finances weren’t in good shape either, she says.

All the same, Nigia and Brett urged Anne-Christine to fight for custody of Roland and build a new life with them. At this point, they lived in a large apartment in Hedwig Village, a quiet community with good parks and schools. Anne-Christine and Roland could share their extra bedroom, Nigia told her, and she could likely get her a job with her longtime employer, a multinational oil and gas consultancy.

“She was very excited,” Nigia says.

But in the end, Anne-Christine’s confidantes claim, Shaun intimidated her into signing a divorce agreement that was essentially his side’s unilateral creation. Anne-Christine wouldn’t even let Stephanie look it over first, “probably because she knew exactly what I would say,” she says.

Not only did the document, which is dated April 30, 2015, decree that Roland would live with Shaun, but it guaranteed Anne-Christine only two hours with her son each week—the visits were to take place at McDonald’s—and obliged her to pay her ex-husband $224 each month in child support.

Worse, it gutted her parental rights.

In most divorce cases in Texas, including Anne-Christine’s first, feuding parents become “joint managing conservators” of their children: no matter whose house the kids end up living in, both parents are equally responsible for them, and they’re both empowered to make significant decisions on their behalf.

In this case, though, Shaun became Roland’s “sole managing conservator,” while Anne-Christine became only a “possessory conservator.” During her visits with Roland, she’d still be in charge of him, but at all other times, Shaun would call the shots.

Moreover, the agreement stated that if Shaun died or became incapacitated, his role as managing conservator would devolve not to Anne-Christine, but to his father, Barry, who “has provided a significant amount of support for the minor child.”

It’s not clear to Stephanie how well Anne-Christine understood what she was signing. At one point, she told her mom that she wasn’t too concerned about the particulars of the document, because no matter what, she planned to see Roland all the time. If Shaun made that difficult, she thought she could count on help from either McCumber or Barry, both of whom she liked and trusted.

“Barry is, at least in her mind, a very well-established rich businessman who in the long run was going to protect her and understand that she is Roland’s mother and she needed respect,” Stephanie says.

“What about my baby?”

Once the divorce was final, Shaun’s dominance over Anne-Christine was secured, her friends and family say. She perpetually feared displeasing him, since if she did, he could keep her from Roland.

“If he had control over their son, he had control over her,” Rachel says.

Early on, she fell behind on her child support payments, which further increased his leverage.

“All I want is to see Roland,” Anne-Christine texted Shaun one night, not long after coming up short on a payment. She told him she would get him the money as soon as she had it, but he accused her of neglecting their child.

“You can get your things tomorrow from the dumpster, my phone will be back here by the end of the week and the state welfare department will be notified Tuesday that you have refused to pay his child support,” he told her.

She countered, “I have not refused to pay child support and you know that.”

When he continued to accuse her of neglecting Roland, she tried to end the conversation, but he wrote, “Run away like always, at Roland’s expense. Just abandon him again. Well done.”

“I’m not running away at Roland’s expense,” she wrote.

“I asked to see Roland a few times a week,” she continued. “You said no. I asked to see him next Saturday and you said you don’t have to let me. If I show up to see him, you’ll have me arrested. There’s no winning here … I’ve done my best to not get mad and try to understand where you are coming from. I want to see our son, let me know when I can at least visit him.”

“You have the upper hand here, we both know that,” she concluded.

Perhaps as a result of his newfound power, Shaun’s violence against Anne-Christine escalated dramatically in the aftermath of the divorce, according to her own written accounts.

“[H]e grabbed me by the neck and covered my mouth and nose and pushed me on the bed and said he would break my jaw,” Anne-Christine told her sister, Molly, in an email on May 9. “Then he called the cops on me claiming I assaulted him and was trespassing and then he called my probation officer and told her I violated my probation[,] so I may go back to jail.”

“I guess he felt bad [because] he called the cops back and told them not to come. We made up, he didn’t really hurt me, just frightened me.”

The next time, she wasn’t so lucky.

On the night of June 15, not long after Roland went to sleep, Anne-Christine was hanging out at Shaun’s with a female co-worker when Shaun, who was drinking, “started making mean comments” about the woman, according to the application for a protective order that Anne-Christine filed later that month.

“My co-worker and I went into my son’s bedroom in order to get away from Shaun Philip Hardy,” the application states. “He followed us, and continued to make comments. [He] even pushed me. I told my friend that it would be best if she left, so she left.”

At that point, “[he] became even more aggressive.”

“[He] shoved me to the ground, got a shotgun, loaded it, and began pointing his gun at me. [He] told me that the safety was on, so don’t worry. I pushed the gun away.”

“[He] then put down the shotgun, grabbed me by the throat, and began choking me.”

“[He] then hit me with the gun barrel. I got away from [him], and tried to collect my things to leave.”

When she passed through the kitchen, she found him cutting himself with his hunting knife.

“I asked [him] what he was doing, and he told me that we needed to go into our son’s bedroom so I could say my goodbyes. [He] took me into our son’s bedroom. We sat down on the bed and [he] stabbed the mattress. I wanted to keep things calm, so I walked away from [him] into the bathroom. [He] followed me into the bathroom and slammed my head into the wall. [He] rammed his own head into the wall.”

“I ran out of the bathroom, but [he] followed me. He threw me onto the floor and started to choke me. I tried to get [him] off of me. I could not breathe.”

“When [he] finally let go, he went into the kitchen and I tried to catch my breath. [He] came back with a syringe. [He] told me it was a concoction of Ambien, [Klonopin], and muscle relaxers. [He] held me down, and forced the concoction into my mouth. [He] told me he was going to put me to sleep, put me in the bathroom, and slit my wrists so that it looked like suicide.”

“I tried to spit it out. [He] began choking me again. It forced me to swallow the mixture. [He] let me go. I began to beg for [him] to let me [leave]. He told me if I left [and] never bothered him or our son again, then he would let me go. I got up and ran out of the apartment.”

She didn’t have her phone. She asked a stranger for a ride to Clear Lake Medical Center, where, around 3:30 a.m., she was treated for “moderate” injuries to her head and neck, according to a report signed by Dr. John T. Benson. She told Benson that she was having difficulty swallowing and was suffering from a headache, he wrote.

Still, she didn’t want the police notified because her ex-husband “knows everyone in the police force,” and “if he found out [she] told anyone he would kill [her],” according to Benson’s report.

Nevertheless, some officers soon arrived to interview her, according to an account, titled “Victim Statement,” that she wrote either at the hospital or shortly after being released. The officers told her they’d already heard from Shaun, and that he claimed she’d been the aggressor in the fight and had attacked Roland, too. If Anne-Christine looked “roughed up,” it was because he’d had to defend himself, he’d told police.

Around dawn on June 16, a nurse gave Anne-Christine a voucher for a taxi and urged her to “get the hell out of Galveston County,” as she later told Stephanie, who was away that night.

For the next month or so, Anne-Christine lived with Stephanie, and for the first time, she opened up to her about what Shaun was really like.

“Her brain was clear at that point. She knew that if she went back there … that he was eventually going to hurt her and probably kill her.”

“I was completely relieved that she was staying with me,” she says. “[But] I was in fear for her life.”

Stephanie called the League City police to find out whether Shaun was going to be arrested, and she called Texas Child Protective Services to urge officials to check on Roland, who remained in his care.

But Shaun, who weighed about 80 pounds more than Anne-Christine and stood about eight inches taller, continued to insist that she, not he, was the assailant.

On June 19, with the help of McCumber, Shaun filed an application for a protective order against Anne-Christine in the same Galveston County civil court that had overseen their divorce. The application alleged that she had pushed, shoved, and slapped him on the night of June 15. He also contended that she had cut him with his hunting knife and smacked him with the barrel of his shotgun.

Fearing that both the civil court judge and the police would believe this version of events and that she might even be arrested herself, Anne-Christine took some selfies with Stephanie’s computer. In the shots, her neck is covered with massive red and purple bruises, and there are about six smaller, isolated bruises up and down the right side of her face.

With the help of Resource & Crisis Center of Galveston County, a non-profit that assists battered women, Anne-Christine prepared her own protective order application.

“Shaun Philip Hardy has physically hurt me, [he] has verbally abused me, and [he] has made threats against me,” Anne-Christine wrote.

“[His] violent behavior against me has gotten so bad that he has assaulted me with a shotgun, threatened me with a knife, and choked me. I had to receive medical treatment for the injuries I received from Shaun Philip Hardy. I am afraid that without this protective order, Shaun Philip Hardy will continue to hurt me or even kill me in the future.”

The dueling applications were both granted on a temporary basis, pending a hearing on them that was scheduled for July 14, court records show.

In the meantime, Anne-Christine worried constantly about Roland, Rachel says.

“What about my boy, what about my baby, what do I do?” she kept asking when they talked on the phone.

Sometime in early July, Anne-Christine moved in with Janell and her family, who lived near League City, in hopes of resuming her regular visits with Roland. But Shaun insisted that she drop her protective order application first, so she did, Janell says. Shaun dropped his, too, and the July 14 hearing was scrapped.

Anne-Christine got hired at a Panera near Janell’s apartment and reconnected with an old boyfriend, Logan Smith, who lived across the street. He was a sweet guy who treated her well, Janell says.

For a month or two, Anne-Christine was happy, according to Janell. But the more time she spent with Logan, the more she worried that Shaun would find out about him.

“She would often tell me that she’s scared for Logan, because if Shaun ever finds out about Logan, he’s gonna kill him,” Janell says.

In October, Anne-Christine broke up with Logan, and by November she was living with Shaun again.

He assured her that this time around, things would be different, according to Stephanie.

In Texas, assault is defined as “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly” causing bodily harm or threatening to cause bodily harm to another person, including a spouse or an ex-spouse. Often, it’s charged as a misdemeanor, but if an assailant strangles his spouse or ex-spouse, he can be charged with a third-degree felony and sent to prison for up to ten years.

Ultimately, however, the police department closed its investigation into what happened at Shaun’s apartment on June 15 without bringing any charges at all.

Department spokesman Kelly Williamson didn’t reply to a recent email asking why.

“I can’t help you if you’re dead”

Not long after she returned to League City, Anne-Christine landed a job as a waitress at a new restaurant, The Italian Connection, that was just a short walk from her and Shaun’s apartment.

Right away, she impressed the owner, Alessandra Mann, as skilled, hardworking, and sweet. But sometime in the fall, a month or so after hiring her, Alessandra noticed that whenever business was slow, Anne-Christine would pull out her phone and text frantically.

“I didn’t say much,” Alessandra says. “She was doing a good job. I did say to please try and be careful with your phone when you’re on the floor or behind the counter, [because] I don’t like it.”

Anne-Christine apologized and explained that she’d been responding to texts from her ex-husband, with whom she was living.

As time passed, Anne-Christine, who was nearing 30, opened up to Alessandra, who was in her mid-50s. Shaun was physically and emotionally abusive, she admitted, but she couldn’t leave him because Roland needed her.

She was especially keen to be there for Roland, she told Alessandra, because she’d already missed out on so much of Julian’s childhood.

Shaun and Roland often came to the restaurant for dinner, whereupon Alessandra made some firsthand assessments.

“Anne was so angelic with Roland, it was unbelievable,” she says. “It’s the way she would speak to him, the way she would approach him.”

“She was so gentle.”

Shaun also seemed to treat Roland well, Alessandra says, and to her, he was polite and charming.

In stark contrast, Anne-Christine “was his punching bag.”

One evening when Alessandra, Anne-Christine, and some other staff members were in the kitchen, Shaun came back, took a seat, and started enumerating Anne-Christine’s faults, Alessandra says.

“When I ask her to clean something, she’s got a pea brain, she doesn’t even know how to clean, she doesn’t know how to use a vacuum, she doesn’t know how to sweep,” Shaun said, according to Alessandra.

As he spoke, Anne-Christine went about her work silently, recalls Alessandra.

“Because I didn’t want to compound the situation, I left it as it was. I said, ‘Oh.’ I said, ‘Anne, hey, let’s go sit in the front office.’”

One morning, Alessandra’s phone rang around six, when she was at the restaurant baking. Anne-Christine wanted to know if she could come over right away.

“She came and I said, ‘Why are you up and out so early?’”

Anne-Christine replied that Shaun was “on one of his rampages,” and that she just needed a calm place to sit.

From then on, Anne-Christine often took refuge at the restaurant first thing in the morning, sometimes because Shaun had literally pushed her out the door. She’d have a cup of coffee and a cigarette, biding her time until Shaun left for work. After the restaurant closed at night, she’d confide in Alessandra over a glass of red wine.

She was desperately trying to stay on Shaun’s good side, she told Alessandra, but he was never happy with her for long.

“If I drink too much wine, he complains,” Anne-Christine said. “If I don’t drink wine, he complains.”

“When he wants sex I have to give it to him, any which way he wants it.”

Eventually, Alessandra sought to intervene.

She offered to talk to the police on Anne-Christine’s behalf, but Anne-Christine said, “No, the police are all on his side and his father’s side. They don’t believe anything I tell them.”

Alessandra also offered to let Anne-Christine stay at her place, which was in League City, but Anne-Christine said Shaun would just show up there and wreak havoc.

One night in early 2016, Shaun, convinced that Anne-Christine had stolen his Ambien, went into a rage, threw her clothes into the driveway, locked her out of the apartment, and told her to sleep in the streets, Alessandra says.

Anne-Christine rushed to the restaurant, told Alessandra what had happened, and called Stephanie, who picked her up and took her to Houston for the night.

The next day, when Anne-Christine arrived at work, she told Alessandra that Shaun had found his pills—it turned out they had simply fallen behind the toilet—and that it would be okay for her to return to him.

“Anne, don’t go back,” Alessandra pleaded.

As Alessandra recalls, Anne-Christine simply replied, “But Roland.”

“Every time she went back, the only thing that came out of her mouth was ‘Roland.’”

After another big blowup, Anne-Christine came close to escaping with Roni, her old friend from Christian’s Tailgate.

“Shit hit the fan, so I’m leaving,” Anne-Christine texted Roni on February 28, 2016.

Roni immediately offered to drive to League City to fetch her, and Anne-Christine sent Roni her address.

“Please get me NOW,” she wrote. “He’s playing mind games with me … I’m so tired of this crap[.]”

Apparently, the fight then escalated, because Anne-Christine left the apartment and told Roni to meet her at Pomodoro’s, a restaurant in League City, instead.

But then, a few minutes later, she wrote, “Shaun said if I go with you I can’t see Roland for two weeks … I think I need to go home.”

“Stay at the restaurant,” Roni responded. “Do not go with him. Please. I can’t help you if you’re dead.”

But Anne-Christine ignored Roni and returned home. Once Shaun had left for work, Roni joined her and exhorted her to leave immediately.

She remembers proposing several options.

Anne-Christine could stay with Roni and her husband. She could go to her mom’s. She could enter a women’s shelter.

“She just looked really drained, like she had probably been through it all night,” Roni recalls. “Her shoulders were just so, like, down.”

“That’s what I remember that day, is her looking so defeated and frail.”

And in the end, she refused to budge, saying she had to put Roland first.

“I’m sorry about today,” she texted Roni later. “Please don’t be too mad with me.”

“I felt so horrible driving back without her,” Roni says. “I really felt like, ‘I’m leaving her there to die.’”

A fresh start?

By the spring of 2016, Shaun had stopped patronizing The Italian Connection, and he was pressuring her to quit her “useless” job there, Anne-Christine told Alessandra. Instead, he wanted her to work at a bar, which he thought would be more lucrative.

Often, he’d text her in the middle of the dinner shift and demand that she come home immediately, Alessandra says. Petrified, she’d grab her bag and go.

“Every time he spoke, she followed,” says Alessandra, who had her teenaged daughter fill in when Anne-Christine left early. “It was like a law.”

Concerned for Julian’s safety, Stephanie had long ago stopped taking him to Anne-Christine and Shaun’s apartment, but she often brought him to see his mom in restaurants and parks around League City. Whenever possible, Anne-Christine made sure Roland got to see them, too.

Invariably, Stephanie would urge Anne-Christine to leave Shaun once and for all, and she would answer that couldn’t abandon Roland.

Late in the spring, however, Stephanie got some promising news.

Shaun and Roland were planning to move out of the apartment and into a house that Barry had just bought for them in a new subdivision in League City, Anne-Christine told her mom. She would take over Shaun’s lease on the apartment and remain there alone.

In early summer, Alessandra had to shut down The Italian Connection, but Anne-Christine got a job at a local bar, Boondoggles, that she hoped would cover Roland’s child support and her $785 monthly rent.

Shaun ended up disapproving of this gig, too.

“I hate him, Roni,” Anne-Christine texted her friend on July 19, at which point she and Shaun were still living together.

“He’s on a rampage. Same old crap except I gave him a big piece of my mind last night … [H]e was mad at the job I have. I don’t get it. He wants money from me but is angry when I work.”

“I’m not leaving that job,” she told Roni. “No way.”

Around August, Shaun and Roland moved out of the apartment, and Anne-Christine, in a burst of optimism, painted and decorated it. She also started dating a nice guy she’d met at Boondoggles, Garrett Henry.

But Shaun wouldn’t leave her alone.

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, he’d stand outside the apartment shouting, according to Jen Elkins, a waitress at Boondoggles who had grown close with Anne-Christine.

“Shaun would bang on the door and yell at her to come out,” Jen says. “She never would. She would stay quiet until he left.”

Meanwhile, the job wasn’t keeping her afloat after all. Because she lacked seniority at Boondoggles, she wasn’t assigned to the busier shifts, and some nights, she left with only about $40, according to Jen, who was in the same boat.

Stephanie did her best to help her daughter however she could.

“I would go down there and drive her places, even ten minutes away, [and] do whatever her errands were that needed to be done.”

“The apartment would be just a mess, like a real mess—like someone who’s emotionally checked out.”

“She was in free fall.”

At the end of the summer, Anne-Christine’s brother Brett, a sales engineer, got a job with a valve manufacturer in Manchester, England, and he and Nigia moved there, intending to remain for several years. A few weeks later, Anne-Christine told them over the phone that Shaun was beating her more frequently and more severely than ever before, and that he was routinely forcing her to have anal sex with him.

He regularly insulted her as well, according to Nigia and many others. She was “nasty” and “disgusting”; she was a “whore” and a “bitch.”

But she couldn’t cut him off, she told Nigia, without losing access to Roland.

“She felt like it was a prison, and it was prison rules,” Nigia says.

“She seemed completely broken down.”

Nigia and Brett offered to fly her to England at once, perhaps for a stay of several months.

“I told her, ‘Don’t worry about Roland—just come here, get better,’” Nigia says.

Rachel and her husband offered Anne-Christine a way out, too.

They had recently decided to move back to Houston with their children, and they told her they were looking for a house that had enough room for her as well.

“We just basically said, ‘You just come live with us; we’re gonna take care of you,’” Rachel recalls.

Anne-Christine told both Rachel and Nigia that she was seriously considering their offers. Simultaneously, however, she was weighing whether to move back in with Shaun, whose new house was spacious and comfortable.

“For two hours he talked to me yesterday, trying to convince me to move in with him and how he still loves me,” she texted Molly on September 14. “He told me this is all his fault and that he is in therapy now.”

“[H]e was all, ‘I’m lonely and I don’t want to live without you.’ I told him HE left and now I have my lease.”

“It’s a nice house. I went there. He was all, ‘It could be your house too if you want it.’”

“He has been in therapy twice a week for a month so I guess his actions towards me keep him up at night.”

Behind on her rent, Anne-Christine lost the apartment in early October.

Much to her regret, Jen couldn’t take her in; she was fresh from a breakup, too, and was crashing at her sister-in-law’s. But she was determined to keep Anne-Christine from returning to Shaun, she says.

So, one night, she sat her friend down and “looked her in the face as serious as I could.”

“It is not your fault you cannot afford an apartment by yourself,” Jen remembers telling Anne-Christine. “You are a wonderful person and a wonderful mom. Shaun put you in this situation on purpose so he could have control over your life. Abusers seclude their victims and make them stay at home so they cannot save up money and escape.”

“You are amazing just to have gotten away … [D]o not feel ashamed about anything.”

Then, Jen told her about Bay Area Turning Point, a non-profit near League City that operates a shelter for domestic violence victims.

The shelter exists, Jen explained, because battered women tend to be strapped financially, and they often need help leaving their tormentors.

“They want you to call,” she insisted.

“I can still see her face today when I finally saw her realize [that] what I was saying was true,” Jen says. “Her demeanor changed and a wave of relief came over her body. I saw her shoulders relax. I saw her eyes soften because she was finally realizing she did nothing wrong and it’s okay to ask for help with no shame.”

The next day, Anne-Christine called Bay Area Turning Point and made an appointment with a staff member there, Jen says. Garrett intended to accompany her.

It’s not clear whether she made it to that meeting, though Stephanie suspects she didn’t. By the middle of October, she had broken up with Garrett and moved to Shaun’s house.

She explained to Jen that Shaun had told her he had cancer and was too “sick and weak” to care for Roland alone.

“She thought Shaun was close to dying from the cancer and [that] when he passed she could get custody back,” Jen says.

“She was apprehensive telling me because she knew I would be upset, but I wanted to support her so I told her ‘Do what you think is right.’”

On November 6, Shaun again strangled Anne-Christine, she told Molly and Garrett by text the next day. Kicking and biting him, she managed to escape.

“I am sorry,” she wrote to Garrett. “This is how it is now. I almost ran and went to your house last night but I was afraid.”

Garrett immediately tracked Stephanie down on Facebook to tell her Anne-Christine was in mortal danger.

Desperate, Stephanie emailed Barry, whom she’d never met, and copied Anne-Christine.

“Barry, I have been informed by several of her friends that Anne-Christine has moved back in with Shaun and is living, at least part-time, in the new house you purchased for him and that the violence against my daughter has resumed and may be escalating.”

“I am writing you in the desperate and sincere hope you will remove her from the premises asap. I am told he is choking her and throwing her to the floor.”

“For the sake of little Roland, who needs neither a dead mother nor [an] incarcerated father, please—and here I beg—remove her from the house immediately and do not let her back in. I’m also exceptionally concerned about Roland’s welfare and the long-term impact of what he might be witnessing on his already problematic development.”

“I understand Shaun is seriously ill with cancer, and had hoped those unfortunate circumstances might preclude further violence and even perhaps facilitate responsible co-parenting.”

“I deeply appreciate any assistance you could provide. You are probably the only person either of them will listen to.”

To bolster her case, Stephanie attached some of the selfies Anne-Christine had taken after her release from the hospital the previous year.

But soon after she sent the email, an acquaintance she trusted told her that it would likely set Shaun off and endanger Anne-Christine. Terrified, Stephanie texted her to apologize and said she would back off.

In the weeks that followed, Stephanie found Anne-Christine increasingly hard to reach by text and phone. She messaged a group of her daughter’s closest friends “begging them to stay in touch with her and to drop anything and go get her if she called and texted.”

“I was very explicit,” Stephanie says. “I told them Shaun would kill her.”

At the end of November, Roni went to visit Anne-Christine at Legends, a bar where she occasionally worked.

“She wasn’t that busy; we were having fun,” Roni recalls. “I said, ‘Are you okay? Is Shaun being nice to you?’”

“She told me, ‘Yeah, everything’s fine, but Shaun’s dad found out I live there; I have to find a place to stay.’”

On the afternoon of Thursday, December 8, Nigia spoke to Anne-Christine on the phone. She and Brett had flown in from England for a short visit with their families, and they were supposed to see both her and Lee the next day.

Anne-Christine sounded better than she had in months, Nigia remembers. She was excited to hang out with her and Brett, and she was determined to leave Shaun and join them in England as soon as possible.

Nigia told her about Manchester and the nice suburb where they’d settled.

“You’re gonna love it, it’s a beautiful town,” Nigia remembers saying.

“She wanted to start over,” Nigia says. “She was like, ‘I’m looking forward to everything.’”

A desperate search

The following day, Friday, December 9, Anne-Christine didn’t show up to meet Nigia, Brett, and Lee, nor did she answer their texts. When Lee drove to Shaun’s house looking for her, he said she wasn’t there and didn’t live with him, according to two police affidavits.

At first, Lee, Brett, Nigia, and Molly all hoped that Anne-Christine was simply hiding out with friends and had forgotten her phone, says Molly, who had moved to another part of the state but was in touch with her dad, brother, and sister-in-law that weekend.

By Sunday, though, they were alarmed.

“There was no way she would go that long without contacting someone,” Molly says.

On Monday, December 12, Lee returned to Shaun’s house, according to the two police affidavits, which were written by League City Detective Austin Frakes. This time, Shaun told Lee that Anne-Christine had last been there on the afternoon of Thursday the 8th, and that she’d departed “in a white sedan driven by an unknown white male.”

Later that day, Lee reported her disappearance to the League City police.

Stephanie had no idea that anything was amiss until her father, Richard Lieber, called her late Monday afternoon, while she was playing with her black lab in a dog park. He’d heard from someone else in the family that Anne-Christine was missing.

Instantly, Stephanie knew that all was lost, she says. Though Anne-Christine sometimes avoided her, she never left Roland for long.

But when Stephanie spoke with a police officer a few minutes later, she got the impression that he and his colleagues didn’t appreciate the situation’s gravity.

“I said, ‘Do you know who we’re talking about? Do you not have any records?’”

“You have a murder investigation on your hands,” she told the officer.

She raced home to forward him Anne-Christine’s selfies from 2015. The next morning, she drove to League City with Roni and demanded to speak with whoever was in charge of the case.

It turned out to be Detective Marty Grant, who told her he had also investigated the 2015 incident.

“I wasn’t exactly very polite,” Stephanie says.

She accused Grant and his colleagues of bungling the previous investigation and demanded that Shaun be questioned at once about Anne-Christine’s whereabouts.

“My instincts are not wrong,” she said, according to an audio recording she made of the meeting. “I know Shaun’s at the bottom of this.”

She also said she was “very concerned” about Roland.

Grant said he planned to interview Shaun later that day, and “if it makes you feel any better, we’ll go into the [house] and search it.” Furthermore, Shaun would be asked to take a lie detector test.

However, Grant said he was also investigating whether Anne-Christine might be “holed up somewhere on a drug binge.”

“The last time we had something like this it was about a month ago, and the guy turned up in San Francisco,” he said, according to the audio recording.

“We work it from both angles.”

And he said the investigation in 2015 had yielded evidence that Anne-Christine’s accusations against Shaun hadn’t been truthful. After reviewing “both sides of the story,” the Galveston County district attorney had decided not to prosecute him, he said.

As for Roland, he said, “there’s no evidence to suggest that [he’s] being abused.”

A few hours later, while Stephanie was canvassing some bars and restaurants where Anne-Christine had worked, Grant called her with an update.

He’d just returned from Shaun’s house, where Shaun had denied knowing anything about Anne-Christine’s disappearance and had allowed him to conduct a search. It’s a nice house, Stephanie remembers being told, and nothing suspicious had been found.

There wasn’t going to be a lie detector test after all, Grant added, as Shaun had hired a lawyer, former League City police officer Dan Krieger, and was opting out.

Stephanie got the impression that Shaun was essentially off the hook, and she was livid.

“Being a public relations person, I was like, ‘Fine, I’m taking my notes from my conversation with you, and I’m going to the Galveston Daily News, and I’m going to start calling everyone I know in the media.’”

“I’m gonna create a shitstorm of publicity, because I know my daughter’s dead,” she recalls saying.

In truth, Stephanie didn’t know a lot of reporters in Galveston County. But she did start calling around, and one journalist she reached suggested that she contact Texas EquuSearch, a widely respected non-profit in Dickinson that conducts free searches for missing people around the country using an army of trained volunteers. The organization was founded in 2000 by a grieving father, Tim Miller, whose 16-year-old daughter had vanished in League City in 1984. It took police a year and a half to find her body, and though they acknowledged that she had been murdered, they never charged anyone in her death.

Tim, who has publicly accused the League City police of botching his daughter’s case, agreed to launch a search for Anne-Christine, a decision Stephanie didn’t grasp the full import of until Thursday morning, when she showed up at EquuSearch headquarters and “all the TV cameras in the world were pointed at me.”

Since speaking with Stephanie two days earlier, Tim and his staff had rallied journalists from the Houston Chronicle, the Galveston Daily News, and the local ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox affiliates to cover Anne-Christine’s disappearance and the first day of the search.

“I’m slowly dying inside, to be quite honest,” Stephanie told camera crews that morning. “I’m crying and not sleeping or eating, and I’m relying on the strength of friends to keep me going.”

By this time, Tim had also arranged for a photo of Anne-Christine to be displayed on a digital billboard in League City.

“Tim Miller is a saint and a master, and he knows what he’s doing,” Stephanie says. “I went from thinking ‘[Shaun] is going to get away with this’ to having the whole world focused on it.”

For the next seven days, from early morning until late afternoon, about 40 EquuSearch volunteers scoured miles of fields, brush, and woods near Shaun’s house under the watchful eye of the media.

“We always start out at the last place a person was seen,” Tim told the Chronicle on December 16.

Many of the searchers prodded the ground with long poles. A few drove ATVs. They wore boots, gloves, and reflective vests.

EquuSearch doesn’t allow relatives to participate in searches, so Stephanie spent her days at the organization’s headquarters, where she gave interview after interview to the press.

“To say that I’m heartbroken is an understatement,” she told the Chronicle on December 18, the fourth day of the search. “My life has basically ended.”

Stephanie’s brother Matt Lieber, an Army pilot based in Killeen, kept her company day and night, while farther-flung family members found inventive ways to help.

A cousin of Anne-Christine’s in California created a Facebook page, Find Anne-Christine, to chronicle and advance the search.

“Let us rally together,” reads one post. “There is strength in numbers. Anne-Christine is missing. We must be her voice until she is brought home.”

Anne-Christine’s aunt Jean rang Shaun up from Chicago, pretending to think he was innocent.

Jean remembers saying, “This could be nothing, or it could be serious.”

Shaun replied that Anne-Christine might have “gone crazy” and “had a fit,” according to Jean.

“Who knows, with her,” Shaun said.

“And I’m like, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ He just didn’t have anything nice to say about her.”

Shaun also told Jean that the day Anne-Christine vanished, he gave her a ride to Target and watched her get into an Uber in the parking lot. At the time, Jean didn’t realize that this story conflicted with Shaun’s previous account, but she called the police to share it with them anyway.

As Christmas neared, Tim paused the search, but he assured Stephanie that the police, with whom he was in regular contact, were devoting significant resources to the case.

Still, on December 27, Matt, impatient for answers, decided to talk with the police himself. He drove to the station with Stephanie and their father, who had flown in from Illinois. Because she’d already clashed with Grant, Stephanie stayed in the car.

“It was a little bit weird,” Matt says. “They made us wait in the lobby, and then they came out and talked to us. It wasn’t like, ‘Come back to my office and let’s talk about what’s going on.’”

Matt asked the officer who met with them why Shaun hadn’t been questioned further and his house inspected more thoroughly. According to Matt, the officer answered that before another search could be conducted, investigators needed to gather enough evidence to convince a judge that it was justified.

“I started reciting some of the stuff I knew,” Matt recalls. “‘You know he lied to you about the white sedan. I know you know he lied to you about a few other things. Who else is there to even look at at this point?’”

Matt asked if he and his dad could drop by Shaun’s place themselves to ascertain whether Roland was okay. The officer said he couldn’t stop them, but he urged them to keep the encounter friendly.

Matt, Richard, and Stephanie headed to Wal-Mart, where Stephanie chose a couple of Hot Wheels cars, some American flags, and a few other gifts for Roland. Then Matt and Richard dropped Stephanie off at Legends and drove to Shaun’s.

He was home, and he let them in. They said they’d brought Roland his Christmas presents, and the boy started playing with them joyfully.

Matt did his best to engage Shaun in casual banter, but Shaun, who was sweating profusely, said little, Matt recalls, and he kept them at the very front of the house.

No one brought up Anne-Christine.

“I wasn’t there for any sort of confrontation. I just wanted to see what I could see and … to maybe let him know, ‘Hey, this isn’t going away. There’s no happily ever after for you, pal. We’re gonna keep coming back looking for Anne-Christine until we have an answer.’”

Three days later, on Friday, December 30, the police obtained a warrant to seize Shaun’s cell phones, according to the affidavits written by Detective Frakes. At 2:20 p.m., a group of officers showed up at his house, and he immediately burst into sobs.

Soon, an officer detected “a strong odor of decaying flesh” outside the garage. The stench grew stronger when the officer opened the garage door, at which point he spotted “an object wrapped in dark plastic and duct tape.”

“The object was the size of a human body and the object had scented candles arrayed near it,” according to Frakes.

Police halted the search while they obtained a warrant to examine and seize the object and other evidence on the premises. A relative of Shaun’s was summoned to fetch Roland, who was led away from the house screaming at about 4 p.m., a neighbor told a local reporter.

At around 4:30, police cut open the plastic in the garage and saw “a decomposed white female with blonde hair,” Frakes wrote. The woman was wearing Christmas pajamas. Her head was covered with a brown plastic bag.

Shaun was taken to the station a few minutes later. In an interview with a detective, he issued a gruesome confession, according to Frakes’s affidavits.

Shaun told the detective that during a fight with Anne-Christine, he had thrown her to the ground so hard that she began bleeding profusely from her head and face. As she lay on the ground, she held a knife near her body, as if she was about to stab herself, Shaun said. With his foot, he drove the blade of the knife into her chest. When this made her cough and gargle, he smothered her with a grocery bag “with the intent of putting Anne ‘out of her misery,’” Frakes wrote.

Shaun told police that he wanted to see Anne-Christine die, according to Frakes.

The next day, an autopsy was performed, and Shaun was charged with both murder and tampering with a human corpse.

He was locked up in the county jail. Bail was set at $1 million.

“Yesterday, we learned that God received a beautiful angel, and it was our Anne-Christine,” the Find Anne-Christine page announced on December 31. “We are shaken with anger and caught in a never-ending nightmare. Now, we must put one leg in front of the other and seek justice for Anne-Christine.”

A daughter is buried

A couple of days after Shaun’s arrest, Barry, through McCumber, filed a motion in civil court to modify Shaun and Anne-Christine’s divorce agreement.

Barry sought to replace Shaun as Roland’s managing conservator and to demote his son to possessory conservator, the status Anne-Christine had been conferred in the original document. Barry also proposed that he or someone he designates supervise all visits between Shaun and Roland should Shaun be released.

No one from Anne-Christine’s family was notified of the motion, which was heard by Judge Barbara Roberts on January 9, 2017 and granted the same day, court records show.

But through the haze of her grief, Stephanie emailed Barry in early January and told him she’d like to see her grandson.

Barry suggested they meet in his office.

Stephanie brought both Richard and Julian. Some friends of Barry’s were there, too, among them Chris Reed, who was a League City police officer in the 1990s and 2000s, eventually rising to the rank of assistant chief. Later, he was city administrator.

“Barry was nice, but it was very awkward,” Stephanie says. “He had us in a conference room with a long conference table and a white board that Roland could draw on.”

Barry passed out some recent pictures of Roland, who was delighted to be reunited with Julian, Stephanie remembers. No one mentioned Shaun or Anne-Christine.

Afterwards, Stephanie says, she sent Barry an email thanking him and asking to see Roland again. Barry told her to get in touch with Shaun’s mother, Debbie, who had taken Roland into her home and was caring for him along with Shaun’s sister, Nicole.

Meanwhile, Stephanie says, she was “in the middle of all that goes with a death.”

She knew Anne-Christine would have wanted to be cremated, and she asked Donnie’s sister, Dawn Holland, who worked at a funeral home near Liberty, to arrange that. Dawn helped her choose a wooden box with butterflies and flowers in which to bury most of the ashes and a tiny matching cylinder in which to keep a few of them at home.

At first, Stephanie considered a cemetery close to the sea, but ultimately, for Julian’s sake, she settled on the one in Liberty where his paternal great-grandmother had been buried a few years earlier.

Incessantly, she was haunted by regrets.

Having spoken with many of Anne-Christine’s friends, Stephanie had realized that the abuse her daughter had suffered had been even worse than she’d known, and she berated herself for her ignorance and inaction.

“I knew he would kill her if she didn’t get away, but I didn’t think it would happen as fast as it did because even I didn’t realize how horrific things had become,” she says.

“If I had had the complete picture, I would have gone down there and grabbed her by her hair and personally pulled her out of there.”

If that had failed, “I would have been parked out in front of City Hall; I would have been calling Child Protective Services every night and calling the cops demanding welfare checks and sitting outside of Shaun’s house. I mean, I would have done everything.”

“If it’s your child in that situation, you’ll fight to the death.”

Sometimes, as Stephanie considered Anne-Christine’s final moments, her throat would tighten, her skin would erupt in a rash, and she would find herself alternately retching and gasping for air.

Klonopin, a tranquilizer, sometimes helped, she says. So did checking the website of the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office to make sure Barry hadn’t bailed Shaun out.

The funeral was held on January 27 at Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Bellville, the parish to which the Johnsons’ old priest had transferred. More than a hundred mourners from every stage of Anne-Christine’s life attended, including her entire extended family; Aarica; Rachel; Donnie, his parents, and his sister; Roni; Logan and his father; Alessandra and her daughter; Garrett; and many waitresses from both Houston and League City, a couple of whom confided in Stephanie that they, too, had endured violence at a partner’s hands.

In his sermon, the priest emphasized that Anne-Christine’s suffering, though dreadful, had ended.

Later, the crowd proceeded to Liberty.

“It was raining and miserable,” Stephanie says.

As she sat by the grave waiting for the burial to begin, a woman from EquuSearch wearing a cowboy hat and boots knelt beside her.

“She spoke softly and promised me that Anne-Christine never was and never would be alone.”

The priest said a prayer, and the wooden box that Stephanie had chosen, which had been sealed and placed in a vault, was lowered into the ground.

Someone dropped a tube of Anne-Christine’s favorite bright red lipstick into the vault. Julian added a few roses. Stephanie, who doesn’t smoke, took a few puffs on a Marlboro in her daughter’s honor and tossed it in, too.

Then, she says, a cemetery worker slowly and meticulously filled the hole, raking the top layer of dirt into elaborate swirls “in a last earthly measure of respect.”

“It was one of the most touching things I’ve ever witnessed.”

“I’m scared to death”

The very day that Anne-Christine was buried, one of the most prominent criminal defense attorneys in Houston notified Galveston County District Court that he would be representing Shaun.

Over the years, Dick DeGuerin’s client roster has included Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Congressman Tom DeLay, cult leader David Koresh, New York Mets players Ron Darling and Tim Teufel, and singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver.

But DeGuerin is best known for his improbably successful defense of New York real estate heir Robert Durst, who was charged with killing his neighbor in Galveston, Morris Black, in 2001 and who admitted that he chopped up Black’s body and threw it in Galveston Bay.

At Durst’s trial in 2003, DeGuerin managed to convince the jury that his client didn’t actually murder Black. Rather, DeGuerin contended, Black died in a mishap after breaking into Durst’s apartment and pointing a gun at him. As Durst tried to grab the gun, it fired accidentally, killing Black, according to DeGuerin’s narrative. Durst dismembered and disposed of Black’s body in a drunken panic, DeGuerin said.

In a recent documentary about Durst, who is suspected of two other murders, DeGuerin acknowledged that justice isn’t always served at criminal trials.

“There are some people that, no matter how much money they threw at the case, were convicted and shouldn’t have been,” DeGuerin said in an interview for The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. “And there are people that escape responsibility because they’re able to mount a really effective defense.”

“Do I think it’s unfair? Yeah, I do think it’s unfair. But we are in a capitalistic system … the people that make the money can drive the Cadillacs, and people that don’t make as much money have to [buy] a used car.”

On February 21, during his first court appearance on Shaun’s behalf, DeGuerin asked Judge Patricia Grady to reduce his client’s bail from $1 million, which he said the Hardys couldn’t post, to $300,000, which was within the family’s reach.

DeGuerin called several witnesses, including Barry, who testified that Shaun didn’t pose a flight risk because he was “joined at the hip” to Roland.

And Barry said that while Roland was doing fine in his, Debbie’s, and Nicole’s care, he needed his father.

“I mean, you know, parents are a necessary part of it,” Barry testified, according to a transcript of the hearing. “Because [Roland] has unique characteristics and he does certain things, we don’t necessarily understand all his behaviors. [Shaun] understands those behaviors, and he can help us with those behaviors.”

Furthermore, Barry said that Shaun suffered from depression and from a chronic skin disorder, neither of which was being properly treated in jail.

DeGuerin also called Chris Reed, Barry’s friend and the former assistant police chief of League City, who testified that Shaun would never flee because he was “absolutely dedicated” to Roland. Chris said he knew most of the police officers involved in the case and would have to answer to them if he was wrong.

But Chief Assistant District Attorney Bill Reed blasted DeGuerin for inserting Roland into the debate.

“Barry Hardy testified, Chris Reed testified that Roland is doing pretty well … and being cared for by Nicole and Debbie,” Reed said. “And I think it’s offensive to try to use a six-year-old son, who has autism or [is] slightly autistic[,] as a tactic. I think that’s offensive.”

In light of the charges against Shaun, Reed said, the $1 million bail figure was justified to ensure the community’s safety. Besides, he argued, Barry had sufficient assets to post that amount with the help of a bonding agent.

Judge Grady sided with the prosecution, refusing to reduce Shaun’s bail.

Stephanie, who wore bright red lipstick to the hearing and sat amid a cluster of family and friends, was relieved.

But by this time, she was mired in another problem.

Though she had reached out repeatedly to both of Shaun’s parents to schedule another visit with Roland, they had responded either vaguely or not at all, and she feared that they intended to keep her from him, she says.

And since she was the conduit between Roland, 5, and Julian, 8, she feared that the brothers would lose touch, too.

Julian was spending the weekends he would have spent with Anne-Christine with Stephanie, and she wanted to bring him to League City to see Roland then.

And if she was permitted to see Roland more often than that, she would, she determined, not just because of her love for him, but because of her love for Anne-Christine.

“It would be my honor and a privilege to spend every waking moment of the rest of my life trying to give him what she can’t give him,” Stephanie says. “This is what you do for a daughter who got caught up in circumstances no child should have ever been caught up with, and then killed for her love of her own child.”

In late winter, with Richard’s help, Stephanie hired a lawyer, Stefanie Gonzales, to assess her options.

At first, Gonzales was hopeful that the conflict could be resolved informally, she says. She got in touch with McCumber, who told her that she would speak with Barry.

“I never in a million years thought they would tell her no, she couldn’t see him,” says Gonzales, a childhood friend of Roni’s.

But as spring approached and no progress had been made, Stephanie decided to sue Barry and Shaun under a Texas statute that allows grandparents to gain access to their grandchildren over the objections of the children’s parents if the grandparents can prove that without this access, the kids will suffer serious physical or emotional harm.

In the suit, which was filed on March 15 in Judge Roberts’ court, Stephanie asked that she be appointed alongside Barry as a managing conservator for Roland, although Barry would retain the exclusive right to decide where he lived. Alternatively, Stephanie asked to be granted regular visits with her grandson.

She also requested a temporary ruling in her favor while the suit was being resolved.

“I love and miss my grandson,” she wrote in an affidavit. “Julian cannot understand why he is not allowed to see his brother. Considering everything my family has suffered since my daughter’s murder last December, I beg the court to allow us regularly scheduled visitation with Roland. Although Julian is only currently free to see his brother two weekends a month, I wish to see Roland as often as I can.”

“The next two years will be extremely difficult for both the Johnsons and the Hardys, as Shaun’s case moves forward to trial. Nevertheless, I am willing to do whatever it takes to ensure the emotional wellbeing of both boys.”

At a hearing on May 2, McCumber and Krieger, representing Barry and Shaun, respectively, asked Judge Stephen Baker, a colleague of Judge Roberts’, to dismiss Stephanie’s suit on the grounds that she hadn’t shown that Roland would suffer from her continued absence.

And Barry testified that “at this point,” he felt it was in Roland’s best interest to avoid contact with his mother’s family.

“I am just so afraid of not doing the best I can to protect him,” Barry said, “and … with the things that are said and done and the news reports and all the other stuff going on, I just feel like I need to keep him close and somewhat controlled at this point until we can understand him and see what his true needs are.”

Roland had recently begun seeing a therapist, Barry said, and he hadn’t spoken with her about whether visits with Stephanie were a good idea.

Judge Baker declined to dismiss Stephanie’s suit, but he also declined to grant her the right to visit with Roland while it was pending.

He suggested that Roland’s therapist issue a recommendation about whether the child should be seeing his maternal grandmother, and he thought it would be a good idea if “all the grandparents” sought counseling, too.

In June, Barry filed a motion for summary judgment, urging Judge Roberts to find in his favor rather than put the case before a jury. Again, he claimed that Stephanie hadn’t proven that Roland would suffer from her absence.

Through Gonzales and her colleague Jana Landry, Stephanie opposed the motion, arguing that she was still in the process of gathering this evidence.

Besides, Stephanie responded, in families where no fit parent exists, Texas courts have allowed grandparents to bypass the statutory requirement of proving that their grandchildren would be harmed by not seeing them. In these cases, grandparents have been asked to meet an easier burden, proving only that the children’s “best interest” would be served by seeing them.

“Shaun Hardy is not a fit parent,” Stephanie’s response states. “A fit parent is not in jail for murder.” Moreover, “[t]he relationship between between a grandparent and the child is important and generally in the child’s best interest. Grandparents play an important role in supporting and [stabilizing] children whose families are in deep conflict. The murder of a parent by the other parent is as deep a conflict as you can get.”

Stephanie proposed that Roland be evaluated by a psychologist and autism expert in Houston who could provide additional input as to what was in his best interest.

At a hearing on July 25, Judge Roberts said she didn’t understand why Barry and Shaun objected to letting Stephanie see Roland, according to a transcript of the proceeding.

Shaun’s lawyer, Krieger, replied, “The concern is that—there’s a lengthy history between the grandmother and the parties.”

“But not between the grandmother and the child?” Roberts asked.

“Right,” Krieger answered. “But the child is so special needs that he has—he has to be dealt with in a completely different manner than most normal children.”

“Are you saying the grandmother doesn’t know how to deal with him?” queried Roberts.

“I’m not—I don’t know,” Krieger said.

Roland’s therapist still hadn’t recommended whether he should visit with Stephanie, McCumber said, “because she’s just trying to counsel with him and and get through any—you know, deal with his disabilities, deal with establishing a relationship with him.”

But Judge Roberts said, as Judge Baker had at the previous hearing, that a recommendation from the therapist was called for.

“[S]omebody needs to, you know, just say, ‘There’s another grandmother; is there any harm letting her have access to the child, even [if] it’s, you know, with Mr. Hardy there.’”

Roberts said that “for now,” she would deny Stephanie’s proposal to have Roland evaluated in Houston, but that the request could be renewed down the line.

Stephanie says she and her team left the hearing in good spirits, confident that Judge Roberts would let the case proceed to a jury trial. Later that day, in fact, Roberts signed an order tentatively scheduling the trial for early December, court records show.

The next day, July 26, Stephanie and Julian flew to Illinois to visit Richard. Shortly after their arrival, she was shocked to hear from her lawyers that Roberts had just signed a one-paragraph order granting Barry’s motion for summary judgment. Stephanie lacked the legal “standing” to pursue her suit, Roberts wrote, without elaboration.

The case was over, and Stephanie had lost.

“I just burst into tears,” she says. “Julian came over, and he wrapped his arms around my neck, and he started sobbing.”

“We were holding each other crying.”

Gonzales was caught off guard, too. At first, she thought the order was a mistake, she says.

Stephanie resolved to take the suit to a higher court. But a few weeks later, she suffered another monumental shock.

On August 11, Barry secured a $1 million bail bond for Shaun, and on August 14, he was fitted with an ankle monitor and released from jail.

“I went ballistic,” Stephanie says.

She worried that Shaun would come after her, and that Julian was in danger, too.

“I’m scared to death,” she told the Chronicle on the day of Shaun’s release. “For the first time ever in my entire life, I’m even remotely considering owning a gun.”

She was also terrified for Roland, she says. In her view, Shaun considers Roland “his possession.”

“One of the reasons I’m really concerned about Roland being with him, aside from the fact that he murdered my daughter with Roland in the house, is I’m not sure he’s not capable of killing Roland if things start to go south in a trial where he really fully thinks he’s losing control and going to jail,” she says.

But in an interview with the Chronicle, DeGuerin said that Shaun was “not a danger to anybody” and that he was looking forward to being reunited with Roland.

“He’s cared for [him] for all the kid’s life, and it’s been very rough with him being locked up,” DeGuerin said. “This is a really tough case.”

“I want justice”

Contending that Judge Roberts erred in granting summary judgment to Barry and Shaun, Stephanie has asked Texas’s First Court of Appeals to remand her suit against them to Roberts’ court for a jury trial.

Her appeal is pending. If it fails, she’ll fight on.

“Even if we have to go to the Texas Supreme Court, I have no problem with that,” says Stephanie, 59.

In the near term, she wants to secure a court order for at least two visits with Roland per month, she says. But ultimately, she also wants to host him overnight in Houston, include him in family vacations, and help Barry plan his future.

“I’m reading books about autism,” she says. “I’d like to see what we can do to help him.”

“I’d like to see him hold a job eventually; a lot of autistic kids do.”

Brett and Nigia, who moved back to Houston after Anne-Christine’s death, also want to play as large a role in Roland’s upbringing as possible, they say.

“Roland needs to know that he has a big network of family that loves him dearly,” Brett says. “I would do anything for my sister’s kids.”

In early fall, at the end of a brief hearing on Shaun’s criminal case, Brett approached Barry politely and asked if he could see Roland sometime. Barry was receptive, Brett says, and the two men and Nigia soon met to discuss the matter.

Barry told them he was irked at Stephanie for suing him and for bashing his family in the media. He said he didn’t want to see her and that he wouldn’t permit her to see Roland, as Brett recalls.

But Barry said he was open to letting Brett and Nigia visit with their nephew, provided he was present as well.

Since then, Brett and Nigia have been meeting with Roland and Barry for short visits in Barry’s office every few weeks. A couple of times, they’ve brought along their six-year-old son, and the two boys have played together.

More than once, they’ve asked Barry for permission to bring Julian, too, but Barry has always said no, according to Brett. Barry told Brett that after Roland’s visit with Julian in January 2017, Roland threw an intense tantrum because he hadn’t wanted to part with his brother. The same thing could happen if Roland saw Julian again, Barry fears, he told Brett.

Stephanie doesn’t know where Shaun is living nowadays and whether Barry is allowing him to see Roland. Barry didn’t reply to an email requesting an interview for this story, nor did his lawyer, McCumber. Shaun’s lawyers, Krieger and DeGuerin, didn’t reply to requests for interviews either.

But Stephanie remains convinced that Shaun’s release has imperiled the boy, and she continues to worry about her and Julian’s safety, too, particularly since she thinks Shaun knows where she lives. Recently, she’s been having Julian, whom she calls “the entire light of my existence,” sleep over at Brett and Nigia’s place rather than hers.

Working in her home office, Stephanie often finds it difficult to focus, she says.

“The other night I was sitting at my office computer … and all of a sudden I had the strangest feeling that Shaun was sitting outside staring at me.”

“It was like, ‘Oh my God, he’s gonna come in this house—the doors aren’t that good—and he’s gonna kill me, and I didn’t bother to get that gun.”

At the same time, she says, she hasn’t fully accepted that Anne-Christine is gone forever.

“It still sometimes just hits me: ‘Wait a minute, she’s dead. I mean, she’s dead. Like, where is she? She’s dead.’”

“I go to the grave and talk to her like she’s still alive, and every time I have a legal proceeding, I go read it to her even though I know she’s not there.”

At night, she dreams of being unable to save her.

“In a lot of my nightmares, she’s sitting right next to me, and I’m looking at her, and she won’t look at me.”

“And the other night I had a nightmare that I was sitting with Anne-Christine next to me … and she got out of the chair and went around the corner and you could see her fighting with Shaun again.”

Stephanie obsesses about how things could have turned out differently. If she hadn’t gotten that pituitary tumor, for example, would Anne-Christine be alive today?

“I sit there and I replay that tape in my mind: how did all of this affect her? Is this what put her down the path of going from the semi-upper-middle-class child of a mother who liked to go to the country club and gossip with friends, you know, into this downward spiral, or was it going to happen anyway in the hands of someone like Shaun?”

“This tape is going to be playing in my brain for the rest of my life.”

Increasingly, she fixates on Shaun’s criminal trial, which is scheduled to begin in mid-August.

If he’s found guilty of murder, a first-degree felony, he’ll be sentenced to 5 to 99 years in prison. The other charge he faces, tampering with a corpse, is a second-degree felony that carries a penalty of 2 to 20 years in prison.

But with DeGuerin leading Shaun’s defense, Stephanie is taking nothing for granted.

In October, DeGuerin asked Judge Grady to bar prosecutors from introducing Shaun’s confession at the trial on the grounds that it was illegally obtained.

After Anne-Christine’s body was found, Shaun “clearly and unequivocally” asked to call his local lawyer, Krieger, but the police proceeded to question him anyway, thus violating his constitutional and statutory rights, according to DeGuerin’s motion to suppress the confession. While he was being questioned, Shaun again indicated that he wished to speak with Krieger, but police continued the interrogation without contacting him, wrote DeGuerin.

And in January, DeGuerin filed two more motions to block prosecutors from introducing evidence to jurors.

One is a “supplemental” motion to suppress Shaun’s confession, while the other asks that “all items seized pursuant to the second search warrant issued on December 30, 2016” be suppressed, according to court records. The initial search warrant was only for Shaun’s cell phones; the second, expanded warrant was the one police obtained after smelling “decaying flesh” outside his garage.

DeGuerin took the unusual step of filing both of these motions under seal, claiming that they contain information that shouldn’t be released to the public. For now, only the district attorney’s office and Judge Grady can access the documents, though depending on exactly what’s in them, Grady can order them unsealed.

Gina Gilmore, the chief assistant district attorney handling the case, hasn’t yet filed her responses to the defense’s three motions to suppress, and she says she can’t comment on a case while it’s pending.

A hearing on the motions is scheduled for July 26. Stephanie says she’ll be there, wearing bright red lipstick and carrying her small cylinder of Anne-Christine’s ashes.

And of course, she plans to attend every moment of the trial.

When Anne-Christine was alive, “the system so failed her in every way, shape, and form,” Stephanie says. Now, “she’s dead, and there’s nothing that will bring her back.”

“But I would like to see at least a public recognition of what she went through and how she suffered needlessly,” she says.

“Because of the disrespect with which my daughter was treated in life, not to mention the abuse, both physical and mental, I know this is a trite word to use, but I want justice. I want the world to know what he’s done. I want the world to know that despite the fact his father has enough deep pockets to hire the best legal representation in Houston, Shaun’s going down for this.”

“He’s going to prison.”

Click here for an update to this story from August 2018.

If you or a loved one is being abused by an intimate partner, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for help. Online resources are available here.