Fresh off a long shift as a cocktail waitress at Riverwind Casino, Rebecca Hogue quietly checked in on her 2-year-old son when she arrived home New Year’s Day.
Hogue told police that when she looked in on Jeremiah “Ryder” Johnson at 4 a.m., he appeared to be sleeping peacefully in his crib after he spent New Year’s Eve in the care of her boyfriend, Christopher Trent, 38. Then Hogue, 28, of Kingston, said she went to bed.
When she awoke several hours later, Trent was gone. She found her son still in his crib, but he wasn't breathing. Court records show Hogue called 911, but the toddler was dead.
Police issued a warrant for Trent’s arrest, but authorities later discovered the late suspect hanging in the Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge.
In July, Hogue was arrested and indicted by a multi-county grand jury on charges of first-degree murder under the state’s “Failure to Protect” law, which allows a parent, guardian or caregiver to face the same punishment as the abuser. An analysis of court records shows Hogue is the first person in five years to be charged in Cleveland County using that statute.
If convicted of “Failure to Protect,” Hogue could face up to life in prison.
Andrew Casey, Hogue’s lawyer who is representing her pro bono, said he doesn’t believe the facts of the case justify the charge.
“In order for the state of Oklahoma to charge someone with murder through enabling child abuse, they have to prove that this person knew that the child was at risk of harm,” Casey said, “and there is frankly no evidence of that here.”
‘Her role is her role’
According to court documents, Hogue was aware of previously documented injuries of abuse before her son’s death. When she confronted Trent about these injuries, he denied responsibility.
Cleveland County District Attorney Greg Mashburn said Hogue was aware of harsher abuse that previously went unreported.
Mashburn said Trent's apparent suicide did not influence his decision to seek an indictment and charge Hogue with murder.
“The facts didn’t change because the guy killed himself,” Mashburn said. “The facts are the facts. That wouldn’t have played any role in it whatsoever. Her role is her role, regardless of his actions.”
Mashburn said the charge against Hogue is justified.
“The law in the State of Oklahoma is if you enable the abuse of a child, basically you failed to protect that child,” Mashburn said. “You are just as guilty as the actual person.”
Oklahoma County public defender Ryan Sullivan said mothers in most abuse cases don’t have the choice to go to the police due to fear of retaliation from the abuser. However, if they later decide to come forward, they risk the same punishment as the abuser.
“To a jury, you just look like a terrible mother,” Sullivan said. “... All [the state] has to prove is that you knew it, and you didn’t report it immediately. I think me and a lot of my colleagues think not only are [these laws] a bit draconian, they’re sexist at times, too.”
Sullivan said in Hogue’s case, it seems Trent’s death may have played a factor in her being charged.
“It [seems] sometimes, like in [Hogue’s] case, somebody’s got to go down for this, and if we can’t get him, then we’re going to get her,” Sullivan said.
‘You torpedo our chances’
A transcription of a recorded conversation between two Norman police detectives and a domestic violence victim advocate indicates the detectives expressed skepticism about charging Hogue with first-degree murder. Advocate Dena Craig-Romero met with Hogue after her son’s death.
In the recording, NPD Detective Sean Judy said they told the Cleveland County District Attorney’s office they could submit an enabling charge, but not a murder charge. The transcription states the DA’s office declined to accept the enabling charge.
“[The assistant district attorneys] said, ‘Well, we’re not gonna do that. If you send [an enabling charge], then you torpedo our chances of getting a murder charge,’” Judy said in the recording.
Mashburn said he has not read the transcription presented by the defense in Hogue’s case but said he believes those detectives did not have all the evidence.
“I am confident that those conversations that happened in that transcript were done early in the investigation, and those detectives did not have all the evidence that ended up being presented to the grand jury,” Mashburn said.
Mothers not charged
Within the last five years, court records show two other Cleveland County cases where a child died as a result of child abuse. In both cases, the mother was not charged with a crime.
One of those cases is the death of 20-month-old Maddox Abner.
In February 2017, Abner was left in the sole care of Jake Holman, now age 29, while Abner's mom left to go buy marijuana. His mother later testified that when she returned home, she smoked marjiauna and then went to bed. When she woke up, she went to take a shower and heard Holman yelling for her from the other room.
She entered the room and found Abner dead.
According to court transcriptions, a Department of Human Services officer met with Holman and the toddler’s mother in December 2016 after an incident of possible abuse where Maddox had broken his arm.
“I talked with the family about voluntarily having all the children not be around Mr. Holman or in Mr. Holman’s care that day,” the caseworker testified during Holman’s trial. Holman was convicted of first-degree murder in 2019. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
After criminal investigators completed a thorough investigation, they presented the case that both Holman and the mother were suspects, Norman Police Department spokesperson Sarah Jensen said in a statement. Prosecutors declined to charge the mother.
In Holman’s case, Mashburn said his office and the NPD were in agreement not to charge the mother, but it was considered.
In the other child abuse case, Tyler Young, now age 29, was arrested for the murder of his 2-year-old stepdaughter, Elizabeth Wess, in 2015.
After Young dropped the mother off at work, he and Wess went to Walmart, according to a probable cause affidavit. Security footage from Walmart showed Wess walking and following Young.
After leaving Walmart, Young then called 911 to report Wess was semi-conscious and that he had attempted CPR, according to the affidavit. Investigators said Wess’ fatal injuries must have occurred during that 33-minute time span. Young was the sole caregiver within that time.
The toddler’s mother was at work at the time of the murder and had no previous knowledge of abuse, according to a probable cause affidavit. She was not charged with a crime.
During testimony, the girl’s mother testified Young acted violently toward her days before the child’s death, saying he yelled, cussed and started to choke her. Young was sentenced to life without parole.
‘Failure to Protect’
American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma staff attorney Megan Lambert said “Failure to Protect” laws criminalize motherhood.
Lambert said the ACLU of Oklahoma examined “Failure to Protect” convictions in the 13 largest counties in the state from 2009-2018.
“What we found was that women were charged in 93% of those cases,” Lambert said. “… In zero of the cases when a man was charged with ‘Failure to Protect’ was the woman charged with abuse.”
Lambert also said their study found that 50% of the women who were convicted of “Failure to Protect” also were victims of abuse from the man who was convicted.
Through the study, the ACLU of Oklahoma concluded the sentencing of the women convicted of “Failure to Protect” was unjust, Lambert said.
“[The study showed] that 1 in 4 cases where the woman was convicted of ‘Failure to Protect,’ they received sentences for a longer period [of time] than the man who was convicted of the abuse,” Lambert said.
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