The Murderer’s Little Boy

In 2016, a League City man stabbed his ex-wife to death. Why does his family have custody of their child?


A version of this story ran in the March / April 2022 issue.

Photography by Ivan Armando Flores

Stephanie Johnson had never liked her daughter’s volatile second husband, Shaun Hardy. But she didn’t know how dangerous he was until six weeks after the couple’s 2015 divorce, when her daughter messaged to say he’d just beaten and strangled her.

“I thought he was going to kill me,” Anne-Christine Johnson, 29, wrote in a Facebook message just after dawn on June 16. “I begged for my life and as soon as he let me up, I ran out of the apartment as fast as I could, barefoot.” The attack had ended around 3 a.m., and she’d hitchhiked to a League City hospital.

Shaun, a municipal employee from a prominent local family, hadn’t been arrested, Anne-Christine wrote her mom.

In the emergency room, a League City police officer “immediately” observed “dark bruising and ligature marks wrapped almost completely around her neck,” according to his report. But by then, he’d already spoken with Shaun, who claimed she’d attacked him with a knife. Both would be investigated, the cop explained. Either could go to jail.

Anne-Christine was terrified and thought she needed a lawyer, she said in another message to her mom that morning. But Stephanie, a public relations consultant in Houston, was more optimistic. “He is the one who will need a lawyer because he is going to be prosecuted for attempted murder,” she replied. 

Stephanie was also confident that custody of the couple’s 4-year-old son, R., which Shaun had won in the recent divorce, would soon be transferred to Anne-Christine. She would raise R. in peace and safety alongside his older half-brother, J., whom he idolized.

A nightmare unfolded instead.

Once a woman has been strangled by her abuser, she’s seven-and-a-half times more likely to be killed, according to Jacquelyn Campbell, a nurse-scientist at Johns Hopkins University and an expert on the prediction of domestic femicides. That’s why strangulation has been a felony in Texas since 2009. But, in the end, Shaun was charged with nothing. Nor did he lose custody of R. If Anne-Christine wanted to see her son, she’d have to keep risking her life.

For the next 18 months, Anne-Christine endured Shaun’s emotional and physical abuse while pleading with him for access to her son. 

In December 2016, Shaun stabbed her in the heart while she was in her Christmas pajamas and R. was in bed. He stashed her body in his attached garage and told police she had simply vanished.

Citing the 2015 attack, Stephanie implored police to investigate Shaun. It took them three weeks to obtain a search warrant for the house and find Anne-Christine’s remains. Shaun was arrested, charged with murder and tampering with a corpse, and held on a $1 million bond.

Devastated, Stephanie shifted her focus to R., who has autism, wanting to comfort and care for him. She didn’t realize that she had no legal right to see her grandson, or even to be notified of court proceedings regarding his future. In January 2017, at a hearing the Johnsons weren’t told about, a judge granted primary custody to Shaun’s father, Barry. Shaun received secondary custody and permission to visit R. The Johnsons got no rights at all. 

In the two months that followed, Barry allowed Stephanie only one visit with R., she said. So in March 2017, she sued both Hardys. She wanted joint primary custody, and, for her grandson’s sake, she wanted it fast.

Her case has languished ever since. 

Stephanie was granted no custodial rights in August 2017, when Barry restored his son’s freedom by posting bond. She was granted no custodial rights in November 2019, when Shaun pleaded guilty to murder. She has no custodial rights to this day. For five long years, Texas has trusted a killer and his father with custody of a vulnerable, traumatized child—and shut out everyone on his slain mother’s side. 

Joan Meier, a law professor and the director of the National Family Violence Law Center at George Washington University, expressed alarm on R.’s behalf.

“The terror that must reside in that child is beyond imagining … How could he not know the alignment between his murderer father and the grandfather?” she said. “And therefore, how could he not be terrified?”

Nationwide, about 1,600 women are slain every year by a partner or ex, according to criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University. Most are mothers, and they leave behind thousands of children. In Texas, where domestic femicides have been increasing steadily for a decade, 183 victims left behind about 180 minor children in 2020 alone, according to the Texas Council on Family Violence. 

It’s “unheard of” for a family court to permit a convicted wife-killer and his family to sever children from their mother’s kin, said Peter Jaffe, a child psychologist at the University of Western Ontario and an authority on children bereaved by femicide. 

But abusers like Shaun routinely use the court system to try to separate mothers from their children, and they’re empowered by a judiciary that discredits women, Meier said. In an analysis of all the custody rulings published in the United States from 2005 to 2014, Meier found that judges believe women’s allegations of spousal and child abuse a mere 36 percent of the time. What’s more, women often lose custody after making them. 

“Fathers get much more out of custody courts than mothers do, at the expense of children,” Meier said.

Stephanie Johnson surrounded by photos of Anne-Christine, her daughter, and R. at a studio in San Antonio

Tens of thousands of American children are ordered to live with or visit a violent parent every year, according to Danielle Pollack, the policy manager at Meier’s center. Sometimes, kids are even ordered to live with their father when he’s suspected of killing their mother. 

For some kids, the consequences are deadly. Since 2008, more than 100 American children—including nine in Texas—have been murdered by an abusive parent after a family court failed to protect them, according to the nonprofit Center for Judicial Excellence.  

A growing movement of mothers is demanding change. Last August, more than 100 moms filed a complaint with the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women citing “systematic human rights violations” against women and children in family courts around the country. “Mothers are second-class citizens in family court,” wrote Rosa Alanis, of Houston, in a letter accompanying the complaint. She fought unsuccessfully to end her ex-husband’s contact with their son after the boy reported abuse, according to Harris County family court records. (Her ex was charged with felony child abuse but not convicted, criminal court records show.) The child “is afraid that his father will hurt or kill him,” Alanis wrote in her U.N. letter, but in family court, “his voice does not count.”

In February, more than 100,000 mothers and other activists from around the country launched the National Safe Parents Coalition, which aims to catalyze “a sea change.” For starters, the coalition successfully campaigned for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act to include “Kayden’s Law,” a provision that incentivizes states to protect children from abusers in family courts. The measure is named after a Pennsylvania girl who was beaten to death by her father in 2018. Despite her mother’s warnings that the man was violent, a judge had granted him unsupervised visitation.

Sasha Drobnick, the director of the nonprofit legal center DV LEAP, has been representing battered women in custody cases for 15 years. R.’s case, she said, is “everything you know is wrong with family court, played out to the extreme.” 

Shaun and Anne-Christine met in spring 2010 at Christian’s Tailgate, a Houston sports bar where she was a cocktail waitress. A bubbly free spirit, Anne-Christine, 24, was secretly miserable—unhappy in her marriage to her high school sweetheart and bone-tired from work and raising 2-year-old J.

She and Shaun, 25, weren’t an obvious match. She liked French films and dreamed of traveling to Iceland and Italy; his whole world was League City, where he fixed heating and cooling systems for the local government.

Like many abusers, however, Shaun was a charming suitor. “Shaun is unlike any boy or any person I’ve ever met,” Anne-Christine wrote in her diary in June 2010. “Everything I do is magical to him. It is amazing.” By July, she had left J.’s father.

The idyll ended in October, when Anne-Christine found out she was pregnant. Furious, Shaun threatened to dump her if she didn’t get an abortion, according to her friend Lara Garcia. After a while, he relented. It was Anne-Christine’s first encounter with his rage.

An abuser’s goal is to control his victim. To do so, he first needs to isolate her, experts say. In late October, Anne-Christine moved in with Shaun and lost touch with almost everyone she knew. In their divorce, she and her first husband shared custody of their son, but the boy mainly lived with his dad.

R. was born prematurely in March 2011. Anne-Christine quit work to care for “the sweetest baby I’ve ever met,” as she wrote in her diary. “I like to touch our faces together and listen to him coo.”

Shaun treated her alternately with kindness and disdain. Whenever he insulted or shoved her, she made excuses for him and blamed herself, her diary shows. In 2012, they married.

Stephanie regularly brought J. to see his mother, and she loved watching her two grandsons bond. Squealing with joy, R. chased his big brother everywhere, Stephanie said. But she grew increasingly worried about her daughter, who seemed uncharacteristically meek and deflated. 

Around his third birthday, R. got his autism diagnosis, which didn’t faze Anne-Christine, Stephanie said. But Shaun was upset and blamed his wife, according to his former boss, Anthony Meyer, who was League City’s facilities manager. “He said so many despicable things about her,” Meyer said.

In October 2014, Shaun filed for divorce in Galveston County family court, hiring a lawyer, Kathleen McCumber, who was also the League City municipal judge and a county justice of the peace. Shaun asked for sole primary custody of R. and, without saying why, asked that Anne-Christine be barred from seeing him or be granted only supervised visitation, court records show.

Anne-Christine couldn’t afford a lawyer and didn’t fight back, partly because she was afraid of Shaun, she told friends. Instead, missing R., she tried appeasing Shaun. In early 2015, she accepted his offer to move back in, even as he pressed on with the divorce.

He had help from his father, a real estate investor and entrepreneur with political connections in Galveston County. The final divorce agreement, which Anne-Christine and both Hardys signed, names Shaun as R.’s primary custodian and Barry as his backup—a role the court shouldn’t have allowed, according to Ellen Marrus, a professor and the director of the Center for Children, Law, and Policy at the University of Houston Law Center. “I’ve never heard of you being able to name a backup in a divorce decree,” she said. “In fact, it’s the opposite; they’ll tell you that you cannot do that.” 

Nevertheless, on April 30, Judge Barbara Roberts approved the deal, which granted Anne-Christine—R.’s caregiver since birth—only two hours a week with him. The visits were to be at McDonald’s.

After the divorce, Shaun got more dangerous, as serious abusers often do.  

On the night of June 15, 2015, he pointed his loaded shotgun at Anne-Christine and smacked her across the face with it, she later told League City Detective Marty Grant, according to a police video. Inexplicably, he grabbed his hunting knife and started nicking his face and arms with it, she said. He led her into R.’s room, where he stabbed the sleeping boy’s mattress and told her to say goodbye to him. Then Shaun followed her into the hallway, pinned her down, and strangled her, she said. Unable to breathe, she fought back. He threatened to slit her wrists and leave her in the bathtub, staging her suicide, she later alleged in a court document. Eventually, though, he let her flee. 

Quickly, Shaun called 911, records show. His ex-wife had just smacked him with a shotgun and attacked him with a knife, he said. She had stabbed their son’s mattress, too. 

Campbell, the Hopkins researcher, said Shaun’s effort to flip the script—a standard abuser tactic—shouldn’t have mattered. “If it’s a strangulation, the police should say, ‘Aha! This woman is in danger.’”

Yet many officers don’t, partly due to insufficient training on the power imbalance between men and women, according to former Travis County strangulation prosecutor Kelsey McKay. Moreover, some victims lack obvious bruises, said McKay, who now lobbies to change the way officials handle abuse through her nonprofit, Respond Against Violence.

But Anne-Christine’s neck bruises, which McKay observed in a photograph, “might be the worst marks I’ve ever seen,” she said.

R.’s favorite swing at Russ Pitman Park, where he and Stephanie like to visit

Shaun swiftly hired a well-connected defense attorney, former League City Police Lieutenant Daniel Krieger. Years earlier, Krieger had supervised Grant, the investigating officer. In a videotaped interview, Grant mainly asked Shaun how he got his injuries, which were superficial, inquiring little about Anne-Christine’s.

On July 8, Grant told a Galveston County prosecutor that it was “impossible” to establish which of them had been the aggressor, according to the police report. The district attorney’s office closed the case, filing no charges. 

In an email to the Observer, District Attorney Jack Roady said his office could not have successfully prosecuted Shaun when the investigator didn’t know if he was culpable. Roady also noted that, according to the police, “there were no eyewitnesses to the altercation” and “both Hardy and Johnson had been injured.” 

Child Protective Services conducted a simultaneous investigation, which is under seal. But CPS took no action, leaving R. with Shaun.

Anne-Christine spent two months with friends, but she was adamant that R. needed her. To the dismay of loved ones, she returned to Shaun’s place in fall 2015. “Am I still afraid? YES. Do I endure it? YES,” she wrote in her diary in October. 

In 2016, the trio moved to a vacant house Barry owned in Westover Park, a well-tended League City subdivision. On November 6, Shaun strangled Anne-Christine again, according to a text she sent to a friend. “I almost ran and went to your house last night but I was afraid,” she wrote. “I got a lot of threats.”

When Stephanie heard, she emailed Barry in distress, asking him to evict Anne-Christine from his property. “For the sake of little R., 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,” she wrote.

Barry never replied, she said. Neither he nor his lawyer responded to the Observer’s requests for an interview.

On December 9, Anne-Christine didn’t show up for a dinner with her father and stepmother. At their request, Shaun called the police on December 11 to report her missing. But he claimed she didn’t live with him and falsely described her as an erratic drug addict.

Initially, the cops appeared to accept this. Detective Grant told Stephanie her daughter could be in a halfway house or “holed up somewhere on a drug binge,” according to a recording Stephanie made of their conversation. When she asked why Shaun hadn’t been prosecuted for strangulation in 2015, Grant said there was “evidence” Anne-Christine had been lying, according to the recording.

Saying he wanted to make Stephanie feel better, Grant walked through the house with Shaun on December 13. In the garage, the detective stood inches from the body, which was in a plastic bag, but noticed nothing, Shaun later told police. 

Desperate, Stephanie contacted Texas EquuSearch, a non-profit that hunts for missing persons. For the next week, dozens of volunteers scoured the fields, woods, and creeks near Shaun’s house. The local media paid attention, and so did police, who narrowed their focus to Shaun. 

On December 30, three weeks after Anne-Christine’s disappearance, police got a search warrant for Shaun’s house. There was “a heavy and foul odor particular to a decaying human corpse that all present could smell,” the police report said. 

R. was immediately picked up by Shaun’s sister. At the end of a long interrogation, Shaun confessed to killing Anne-Christine on December 8. 

He also admitted that R. woke up and approached at least twice that night. Once as his mother gurgled her last breaths. And once as Shaun rolled her up in a carpet. 

Losing a mother to domestic femicide is “the most horrific trauma that children can experience,” said Jaffe, the child psychologist. Afterward, they are vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, dissociation, attachment difficulties, behavioral problems, and many other issues. To heal, Jaffe said, they need a caregiver who engages with them appropriately and truthfully about the murder, helps them mourn and honor their mother, and enrolls them in long-term trauma therapy. 

Far more children whose fathers kill their mothers are placed with maternal than with paternal kin, research suggests, though exact numbers aren’t known. No laws specify which side of the family is preferable, but in all custody cases, judges are supposed to address the child’s “best interest.” 

Paternal relatives must be carefully screened, Jaffe said. Since abuse is often intergenerational, the family’s entire history should be reviewed. Furthermore, anyone who enabled the killer’s abuse, remains aligned with him, intends to keep him in the child’s life, or “tries to wipe out the maternal family in the same way the perpetrator wiped out the mother” is presumptively unfit, Jaffe said.

Days after Shaun’s arrest, Barry, citing the divorce decree and represented by McCumber, filed a motion for primary custody of R. Shaun consented, and a hearing was held.

Judge Roberts could have used the hearing to begin probing R.’s complex needs. She could have appointed an attorney to represent R. or to serve as her impartial assistant, which are both common practices in custody cases. She could have heard from Child Protective Services and both sides of R.’s family. But no attorney was appointed. CPS didn’t appear. And neither did the Johnsons, who weren’t notified. 

There was no legal requirement for the judge to tell them about the hearing. But Meier, the child custody expert, said it’s “insane” that she didn’t. “So you’re asking the judge to go a little bit outside of clear rules, clear law, to use some common sense and say, ‘Something different has to be done here, procedurally, to keep this child’s welfare front and center,’” Meier said. 

Stephanie Johnson holds on to R.’s stuffed dinosaur and poses for a portrait at a studio in San Antonio.

On January 9, 2017, Roberts granted custody to the Hardys. The only limitation on Shaun’s contact with R. was that it be supervised by Barry.

Still in the dark, Stephanie told Barry that she and J. wanted to see R. Barry allowed a brief visit in his office, but there was nowhere for the boys to play, Stephanie said in an interview. Barry stayed in the room along with a friend he’d invited, the Kemah police chief. 

In the months that followed, Stephanie requested more visits but was rebuffed, she said. In her lawsuit, filed March 15, 2017, she argued that as R.’s grandmother, she had standing to seek custody because the child’s present circumstances could “significantly impair” his emotional development.

Barry fought back with a motion to dismiss. At a hearing in May, he testified that he was withholding R. from his grandmother for his own good. “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,” he said. 

When his motion to dismiss was denied, he filed another seeking a summary judgment. On July 26, in a one-paragraph ruling, Roberts granted it, finding that Stephanie lacked standing. 

Weeks later, Barry posted Shaun’s bond, freeing him. Though Galveston County District Court Judge Patricia Grady ordered him to wear an ankle monitor, she imposed no restrictions on his possession of weapons or contact with R.

Stephanie was both angry and terrified, she said. She had no way of protecting her grandson, and she feared Shaun would kill him, too.

Stephanie appealed her custody case, but the process moved slowly. In April 2018, 15 months after she last saw R., a panel from the First Court of Appeals convened a hearing. In their questions, the three judges seemed to convey concern for the boy’s welfare. Wasn’t it potentially harmful for R. to be raised by a man whose son had confessed to killing his mother? Wasn’t it worrisome that Shaun could see R. whenever Barry allowed? 

The judges ordered the parties into mediation, specifying that the mediator be from Houston, not Galveston County. The resulting agreement, signed in July 2018, affirmed Stephanie’s standing to pursue custody and gave her two mornings a month with R. as the case continued. But the deal stipulated that the visits be supervised by Barry or by someone he chose, and it barred Stephanie from discussing R.’s mother or half-brother with him or showing him their pictures. 

In August, the appeals court approved the agreement, reversed Roberts’ ruling, and remanded the case to Galveston for trial.

Meanwhile, the murder case proceeded. Shaun’s high-priced defense team initially included Dick DeGuerin, who famously secured millionnaire Robert Durst’s acquittal for murder in 2003 despite his admission that he’d killed and dismembered his Galveston neighbor. The team argued that police coerced Shaun into confessing, mainly by ignoring his requests for an attorney. In October 2018, Judge Grady agreed. The confession was suppressed.

That was a game-changer. Now, Shaun’s lawyers could claim he’d stabbed Anne-Christine in self-defense, or even that she’d stabbed herself. The medical examiner couldn’t prove otherwise. “Her body was so decomposed that the M.E. can’t tell us anything definitive about the stabbing,” Assistant District Attorney Paul Love told Stephanie in 2019, according to a recording she made. “And that’s the big problem that we have.”

Fearing an acquittal, prosecutors made a deal with Shaun. At trial, he would have faced up to 99 years in prison for murder. Under his plea agreement, signed on November 25, 2019, he received 30 years for murder and 20 for tampering, with the sentences running concurrently. He’ll be eligible for parole in 2033.

The custody trial was scheduled for April 2020. But in March, Barry obtained another delay: He intended, with Shaun’s blessing, to adopt R. Shaun would cede his parental rights. 

Stephanie asked the court to stop the adoption, fearing that as a parent, Barry could more effectively limit her access to R.

Newly elected Judge Kerri Foley appointed an attorney, Genevieve McGarvey, as a neutral assistant in the adoption case. Later, Foley added McGarvey to the custody case, too. For the first time in four years, an official was tasked with helping the court advance R.’s best interest. 

At a hearing in September 2020, McGarvey testified that R. wasn’t in trauma therapy and needed it “desperately.” She added, “[H]e’s got to talk about his mother more.” And he appeared to miss his half-brother profoundly. “The first thing he ever says when I see him is, ‘How’s J.?’ ‘Do you know J.?’”

Foley halted the adoption case until after the custody trial. But the trial has been repeatedly delayed and won’t happen until this summer at the earliest. Tired of waiting, Stephanie filed a motion on February 2 demanding temporary joint custody in the meantime. A hearing is scheduled for March 21.

Foley recently granted Stephanie longer visits with R., and she’s now allowed to bring his half-brother. But she wants the standard access granted to Texans who don’t reside with their kids: two to three weekends per month, alternating holidays and school breaks, and 30 days in summer.

She also wants to protect R., which she can’t do unless she has custody. She wants him in trauma therapy, and she wants to participate in decisions about his medical care and education. Recently, he has bounced from school to school and struggled. 

She wants to talk freely with him about his mother, whom he remembers and misses. And she wants to terminate Shaun’s rights and bar him from contacting R.—either from prison or upon his release. 

Even if Stephanie prevails at trial, her struggle won’t be over, since joint custody could be meaningless if Barry’s adoption goes through. Either way, she’ll continue to fight for her grandson and “hero.”  

“R. has never wavered in his desire to see us or just surrendered to the horror of circumstances,” she said. If he won’t give up, how could she? 

Top image: R.’s stuffed dinosaur. According to his grandmother, Stephanie, R. changes his clothes frequently, so she carries some everywhere she goes with him.