It was after 4 a.m. on New Year’s Day by the time Rebecca Hogue crawled into bed next to her boyfriend and 2-year old son. She gave the boy a kiss before drifting off to sleep.
Hogue, 28, had just finished working a 12-hour shift as a cocktail waitress at Riverwind Casino off State Highway 9 on the outskirts of Norman.
She left her son, Jeremiah “Ryder” Johnson, at her duplex in Norman with her boyfriend, 38-year old Christopher James Trent, while she worked at the casino’s Great Gatsby-themed New Year’s Eve party.
When Hogue awoke the next morning, Trent had left for work and Ryder wasn’t breathing, she later told police.
“Oh my God. He’s cold,” she said in a panicked 911 call.
The state medical examiner’s office found that Ryder had been beaten to death. Bruises covered his head and face. There was a fresh hole in the drywall in Hogue’s bedroom where police found strands of the boy’s curly black hair.
Officials believe it was Trent who dealt Ryder a series of fatal blows. But he killed himself before police could place him under arrest. Hogue is now charged with first-degree murder in her son’s death.
Oklahoma’s Failure to Protect law treats those who enable child abuse the same as actual abusers.
State law also allows those who permit abuse resulting in the death of a child to be charged with first-degree murder.
The Cleveland County District Attorney’s office pressed forward with prosecuting Hogue even though a Norman Police Department detective who investigated the case didn’t believe she should be charged with murder, according to a secret audio recording made by her domestic violence advocate.
Hogue’s attorney filed the recording in court, arguing his client shouldn’t be held without bond and that prosecutors are unlikely to win a conviction in the case.
In the recording, a man identified as Norman Police Det. Sean Judy tells the domestic violence advocate that prosecutors moved to seek and indictment from a grand jury after police disagreed with charging Hogue with murder.
“It’s a shit case…..” Judy says in the recording. “And we wouldn’t be having this discussion if Christopher hadn’t hung himself and taken your ability to bring justice to the community.”
Judy went on to say that he believed there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Hogue, but he feared she would be forced to plead guilty anyway because she couldn’t afford a private attorney.
“She’s gonna take a deal and she’s gonna rot in prison,” Judy said. “….we don’t believe in this charge and there’s a good chance she ends up in prison anyway because of the way the system is.”
Oklahoma’s Multi-County Grand Jury indicted Hogue for first-degree murder earlier this month. She’s being held at the Cleveland County jail while a group of supporters tries to raise $100,000 to secure her release on a $1-million bond while she awaits trial.
Cleveland County District Attorney Greg Mashburn said Ryder sustained injuries over an extended period of time leading up to his death, but declined to go into further details about the case or the type of injuries.
“This baby was basically tortured to death and the mom did nothing to protect that child,” Mashburn said.
Mashburn said his office decided to move forward with prosecuting Hogue in order to seek “justice for a baby that was killed.”
The recording of Judy was made by Dena Craig-Romero, a domestic violence advocate who met with Hogue after her son’s death. Hogue couldn’t sleep at night and struggled with depression.
Craig-Romero said she was fired from her job as a domestic violence advocate from the Norman nonprofit Women’s Resource Center after she made the recording and told Hogue she should find an attorney.
Staff at Women’s Resource Center said they couldn’t discuss personnel issues and also declined to comment on Hogue’s case.
Judy and the Norman Police Department also declined to comment.
At a recent bond hearing for Hogue, Sherry Tucker, Ryder’s paternal grandmother said she believed Hogue must have known Ryder was being abused.
“He had bruises all over his body,” she told The Frontier outside the courtroom.
Tucker did not respond to subsequent interview requests.
A history of violence
Hogue’s supporters say she is a survivor of domestic violence who loved her son and struggled to support herself working as a waitress.
Records show Hogue sought an emergency protective order against Jeremiah’s father in July 2017. Hogue claimed in the filing that Jeremiah Rudolph Johnson choked, pushed and punched her while she held their two-month old son. She also claimed Johnson took her cell phone away to keep her from calling the police.
Police photographed cuts and bruises on Hogue’s body after the incident and Johnson was charged with misdemeanor domestic abuse.
The charge was later dismissed and he pleaded guilty to interfering with an emergency phone call. Johnson began serving a six-year prison sentence for distributing cocaine in 2019.
Hogue only dated Trent for about 12 weeks, but there were warning signs that the relationship had the potential to turn violent, Craig-Romero said.
Trent showered Hogue with the affection she craved after leaving her previous abusive relationship, a technique abusers practice known as “love bombing,” she said.
Partners who seem too attentive at the beginning of a whirlwind relationship sometimes later become abusive, Craig-Romero said.
“He showered her with gifts and compliments and promises to be a good role model for her son,” she said. “He was very manipulative.”
Trent had a previous criminal history that included four convictions for driving under the influence and two convictions for assault and battery on a police officer.
At the time of his death, Trent was facing an assault and battery charge in Oklahoma County for allegedly attacking an emergency medical worker after police tasered him during a traffic stop on Interstate 235 in August 2019. Trent challenged police to shoot him and “said his name was death” during the encounter, according to court records.
Andrew Casey, Hogue’s pro-bono attorney, said Hogue didn’t know about Trent’s criminal record and propensity to turn violent.
“She would give anything to have her child back,” Casey said. “It’s painfully apparent that she had no idea who Mr. Trent was.”
Two weeks before Ryder died, Hogue began noticing that her son had what police described in a court affidavit as “minor injuries” after she left him in Trent’s care.
Hogue took photographs of the injuries and questioned Trent, but he couldn’t provide an explanation, according to the report.
“He would tell her ‘you’re being overly concerned,’ or, ‘he’s a toddler, he’s a boy, they get bumps and bruises — get used to it,’” Craig-Romero said.
On Dec. 29, Ryder seemed lethargic and was unable to sit up while Hogue washed him in the bathtub, according to a police affidavit. She noticed a bruise under his chin and red markings under his hairline. She confronted Trent again, who told her he thought the boy just had the flu or a stomach virus.
Ryder seemed to feel better by the time Hogue left him with Trent on New Year’s Eve while she went to work, she later told police.
Hogue called Trent the next morning after an ambulance rushed Ryder to Norman Regional Medical Center, but he didn’t offer to meet her at the hospital. Then he turned his cell phone off.
Police launched a manhunt for Trent and found his body three days after Ryder’s death, deep in Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, about 90 miles southwest of Norman.
Trent had hanged himself from a tree.