On May 12, I was asked to speak at the annual breakfast meeting of Bay Area Turning Point, which provides recovery services for survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault, and facilitates violence-prevention strategies for societal change in partnership with the community.
Or, as I like to call it, the shelter-Anne-Christine-reached-out-to in the days and weeks before her murder.
I don’t wake up at 5 a.m. for anyone, except a women’s shelter seeking a speaker about the impact of “DV” on families. They wanted to hear what it’s like to be the family member of someone on the other side of an abuser’s fists. Over breakfast.
Here are my comments. I had to write them down. I can’t speak extemporaneously without crying.
“Hello from the other side.
Many of you might be unfamiliar with my daughter’s story. I only have 10 minutes, but if you want to learn more, please visit my website, annechristinejohnson.com. Pay particular attention to the Houston Chronicle article that contextualizes her circumstances against the broader issues associated with domestic violence.
I’m here today because she was exceptionally beautiful and the circumstances of her disappearance and murder were so heinous that she became an international media sensation. The focus of a desperate, highly publicized search by Texas Equusearch. The poster child for D.V.
Now we’re headed into a seriously made-for-TV trial. Shaun’s father Barry Hardy, a local League City businessman and former League City and Santa Fe councilman, has retained the infamous Dick DeGuerin, who managed to get the equally infamous Robert Durst acquitted. Actually, Shaun has three lawyers — four, if you count the family lawyer his father has retained to block my access to my own grandson, Anne-Christine’s son. The one she stayed to protect.
I look at it this way. The fight has only just begun, and it won’t end with her trial.
People who aren’t caught up in the miasma of domestic violence think they’re smart and that victims are somehow lacking in common sense and intellect. They think it couldn’t happen to them. They would never put up with it. Or they would drag their abused loved ones kicking and screaming from the lair of their domestic abuser if it did. As Diane Savage likes to say, it’s the only crime where the victim gets blamed for everything.
Why didn’t she just leave?
Please listen closely. I’m going to take you to a very dark place. I hope you squirm a little. When you leave here this morning, don’t waste time wondering how this-poor-mother does it. Sit down and figure out what you can do to help bring domestic violence out of the closet.
You just heard the statistics Diane cited. Where’s the public outrage?
I’ll be very frank today because I want my story to imbue you with righteous wrath. Tell everyone they’re not going to believe what you heard today. Make people listen. Give voice to women like my daughter. There is no shame in truth.
On Dec. 8, former League City employee and lifelong resident 32-year-old Shaun Philip Hardy killed my daughter. We know he did it, and how he did it, because he confessed to the police who found her body while executing a search warrant for her cellphone on Dec. 30.
At the time of her death, Anne-Christine was 30-years-old. She had been emotionally abused and physically brutalized for six years. She refused to leave because he wouldn’t let her take his son. When she made one last attempt to reach out to Bay Area Turning Point, he told her had cancer. She stayed to help him.
In early November, I learned Shaun had once again choked her to the ground and that she escaped by kicking him.
I sent a desperate email to Shaun’s father Barry Hardy that included images of strangulation marks from the June 2015 attack. I begged him to throw Anne-Christine out of his house, where they both lived. I told him Shaun was going to kill her.
Anne-Christine was peeved after I did this, or so I thought. I learned later Shaun controlled her cellphone. I know I was upset. We usually spoke daily. Or texted. That last month, after I told her I would back off and not follow through with threats to call CPS or sit outside the house, we hardly spoke at all.
Shaun had unfriended me from her Facebook page, so I didn’t see her last public post. Because I would have flown on a broomstick to League City the second I saw it. In that post, there are two images, side-by-side. In the first she’s smiling, although you can clearly see her black-eye. In the second, she looks terrified. The caption reads, “It’s so cold.”
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that he took those photos and said, ‘Smile, bitch. Your’e going to die.’
Those are the last known photos of her alive. My last memories of her. So how did he kill her?
She died at his father’s house on Chesterfield Lane. It wasn’t by strangulation, which he’d tried in June of 2015. Shaun shoved her to the ground so forcefully that she bled from her ears and eyes. Then he kicked a knife through her heart so hard it dented his work boot (he helpfully showed this mark to police on Dec. 30). But that wasn’t enough. Shaun wanted, in his own words, ‘to watch her die. To put her out of her misery.’
So he grabbed a plastic bag from XXX grocery store and held it over her head as she gurgled her last breaths. She was wearing her Christmas pajamas.
Anne-Christine’s (then) five-year-old autistic son was in the house throughout, with little choice but to stay with this insane maniac until the police arrived 22 days later.
She was found surrounded by scented candles, lying in the garage. I’m told Shaun used industrial solvent on her, too. Several people who visited the house — including my father and brother, a day or so before Shaun was arrested — reported they didn’t smell anything although the a/c was low and Shaun was sweating profusely.
When the police called me shortly after they’d found what remained of my daughter, they told me they couldn’t identify her by a photo. Her face was dissolved.
I don’t shop at XXX’s grocery store anymore. I always ask for paper, not plastic, when I can. No more scented candles for me. I gag when I see them at Ross. The irony is that one of her favorite books was ‘Til We Have Faces, by C.S.Lewis.
The other day I was shopping at Target when for no particular reason, and out of the blue, I imagined the stunned look on her face, what her eyes must have looked like, when she realized she couldn’t fight her way out of this one, as the life faded from her. Her eyes were hazel, slightly greenish. Were they still open on Dec. 30? How did the heart that beat so strongly when she was safe in my womb slowly cease its ragged beat as she bled out?
This is gruesome and morbid, but panic attacks are my new normal. I take medication from time to time, to avoid breaking out in boils or fainting and gasping for air, when my throat tightens.
What is the impact of domestic violence on family, friends and others?
Anne-Christine was murdered on Dec. 8 2016 but the mother her nine-year-old son Julian knew and loved died to him much earlier, when the stepfather he trusted became so erratic that Julian remained permanently with his father. I brought him to see her when it was ‘safe.’
Occasionally, Shaun would let her bring the five-year-old along, but we didn’t dare spend any time ever at the apartment or house.
I’m not sure how Julian will remember his mother. When you’re pushed and shoved to your knees daily, hit by your own autistic son who is imitating his father’s behavior, bombarded with constant, demanding texts, followed and stalked if you dare to have your own life, punched on a routine basis — it’s kind of difficult to be there in the moment for the little boy you love.
To help him over the terrible years to come, I planned Anne-Christine’s funeral and monument around what I thought might provide Julian the most consolation in the future, when I’m no longer around to help. We paid for a bench atop her tombstone so he wouldn’t have to shift from foot-to-foot in the hot Texas sun, trying to figure out who his mother was.
I buried her near his paternal great-grandmother, close to where his paternal grandparents and myself will some day be buried. I hope we provide some sense of comfort and safety the abuser denied him in life.
I can’t see Anne-Christine’s (now) six-year-old autistic son because his paternal grandfather, who has complete custody, won’t let us. I’m litigating this in family court so I can bring Julian to see his own brother. How is my life affected by domestic violence? I left family court after being cross-examined by three lawyers hired by the Hardy family. Shaun sat several feet away, staring at the floor.
He’s lost a lot of weight. He’s also lost his white supremacist look. He no longer looks like the evil beast whose mugshot glared through thousands of pixels on hundreds of websites in his world-famous mugshot. I’m sure his lawyers want him to look like a man who might be afraid of being beat up by a 100-pound recovered anorexic. That’s what he actually claimed in 2015, when he was close to if not over 200 pounds.
I love my grandsons. Which is why I now live in fear of Google. That’s one of the reasons I created annechristinejohnson.com. To offset online, to help Julian in one or two years ahead, when he overhears the complete truth from whispery, well-meaning friends and strangers then types her name into the search field.
I told a newspaper reporter that I always thought Anne-Christine would ‘make it’ because Shaun would kill me first, giving her enough time to get away. She asked me if I knew how crazy that sounded. I didn’t. I still don’t.
Living in utter paranoia is very weird. I was mindful of other cars after the June 2015 attack. I scanned the surrounding area every time I walked out the door. When in League City, visiting her in restaurants — the only place she could safely meet me — I sat with my back to the walls.
I tried to help her financially as much as I could, but I wasn’t making money because the abuser was sucking away at my life, too, messing with me as well. All of my energy was focused on her. I’m self-employed, and business seemed almost like an afterthought. I didn’t have to ask a boss for permission to leave Houston and drive to League City every time the phone rang or a suspicious Facebook post popped up. Shaun bankrupted me emotionally.
Experts I consulted at that time warned there is a fine line between enabling and helping. But I was worried about the not-so-fine-line between abuse and death. I even pawned my mother’s and aunt’s jewelry to help pay for a protective order.
By the way, always get a protective order. When your abuser finally kills you, it’s the one thing the media and everyone else focuses on. Because if you or your family member didn’t get one, your degradation must not have been serious.
It takes awhile for families afflicted with an abuser to fully comprehend the measure of deceit and evasion required on the abuser’s part.
Why? Everyone’s paradigm shifts very gradually. No two people hear the same story at once or through similar filters of age and relationship to the victim. Theft of your own sense of identity and emotional intelligence begins in small, insignificant ways you can’t quite put your finger on. Like being criticized for the way you spoon fed your own grandson. Or feeling uncomfortable about being forced to listen to lengthy, inappropriate diatribes or rants. Nodding uncomfortably when you hear him apologize for stepping on a kitten ‘by accident.’
Forced you say? Why, yes. If you refuse to listen or question any of this or scoff in a reasonable, adult manner, you’ll be evicted from the house and not invited back, thereby leaving our child at the mercy of this troubling human being. At least if you stay and put up, using logic that frighteningly parallels that of the victim, you can be there for your child. Or your sister or brother or friend. If you criticize, you’re out.
At the end, after-the-fact, you feel as complicit as Ivanka Trump, to borrow from Saturday Night Live. At the end, you feel like you are the coward.
Truth, at the hands of an abuser, is relative, a weighing of alternative realities.
I found, after her death, her drawing of a woman who looks a lot like she did. ‘Shaun! I love you!’ she wrote by the portrait. Tucked between other pages was one of the collages she was so fond of making. A woman in black, her face hidden, asks, ‘Did U hear what happened to Anne-Christine? ‘She is lost and gone forever, dreadful sorry, Anne-Christine,’ disembodied red lips answer.
A police officer warned me against trying to figure out how one human being can do something like this to another. ‘Don’t let the monster inside your head,’ he said. ‘Once you do,’ he warned, ‘he’s inside yours.’
And so Shaun Hardy now resides and will live forevermore in mine. Actually, he’s in solitary confinement in Galveston County jail right now. The inmates beat him up when he first arrived. The first thing I do every morning is check Galveston County Inmate Status page on the Internet so I won’t have to worry he’s been bailed out and a possible risk to my own family’s welfare. Ankle bracelet or not.
The police officer who warned me about letting Shaun inside my head gets to go home at the end of the day to play with his own children. I don’t.
While the police officer’s home, I blame myself for everything, starting with the day Anne-Christine kicked in my uterus and I had to gently prod her foot out of my ribs. But if I get going on this one, Diane will probably shut me down. The blame-game is futile.
Last week, I appeared in District Court 12, where Shaun will be tried, to attend a status-conference hearing about his case. The DA’s office cautioned there is nothing for a layperson to see or hear there, really, but I wanted to attend. I will be there every single time Shaun Hardy’s name is mentioned in open court. In my bag, as always, were a few of her possessions substituting for her physical presence.
Around my neck hangs a little heart with her fingerprint. It’s a little blurry but it’s all the coroner could get off her body. The heart was a gift from family members who presented it at the funeral. Do you know what it feels like to have a little piece of your child returned to you? To be pathetically happy for this?
Last weekend, we celebrated Mother’s Day early, taking her nine-year-old son to visit his mom’s newly installed monument, as they’re now called.
‘There’s my bench!’ he cried delightedly. The first thing he saw were the words ‘Julian and Roland’s Bench.’ On the other side it reads, ‘She left beauty all round her.’ The quote is from her favorite book, C.S. Lewis’ ‘Til We Have Faces.
I’m hear today to ask you to do something that honors my daughter. I’m not suggesting that you wear the red lipstick that she loved so much and that so many of her friends now do in her honor.
I want you to become the other public face of domestic violence, to give meaning to the lives of women who feel they’ve lost theirs.”