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Home / Articles / Survivor Stories / One Mothers Fight for Justice After Toddler Son is Murdered

One Mothers Fight for Justice After Toddler Son is Murdered

Hera McLeod talks with DS about her new book, Defying Silence, a chilling story about surviving domestic violence and the deep fractures in the American justice system

child is murdered by abusive father

In her new book, Defying Silence: A Memoir of a Mother’s Loss and Courage in the Face of Injustice, survivor and former CIA intelligence officer Hera McLeod tells the terrifying story of the custody battle with her ex-partner over their young son, Prince. It’s a story that ends in tragedy after the family court system refuses to believe that McLeod’s son was in imminent danger. 

“Our society and our justice system are not built to protect victims or survivors, especially when it’s a woman or a child,” McLeod tells “We have all these archaic laws around men being allowed to abuse their wives and their children. And there have been cases where women have fought back and they’ve been convicted and put in prison. What are you supposed to do?”

McLeod met Joaquin Rams on the dating site in 2010 when she was 29. She was ready for a serious relationship and longed to be a mother. Rams was unlike anyone she’d ever dated before. Her initial impression was that he was intriguing, charismatic and different. He claimed to be a popular recording artist who opened for big names like Rihanna and that a reality show was in the works about his life. Yet she never saw proof of any of this. 

It wasn’t long into the relationship that she realized he was a perpetual liar. 

“By the time the bright red flags started flying, I’d fallen in love with him,” McLeod writes in her memoir. “He’d tell me about his troubled childhood, his hopes and dreams …. According to his recollection of his life, he’d been hurt by close family and friends and longed to be loved and accepted. I didn’t want to be someone else who hurt him.”

Those red flags included “rage and terror,” that McLeod says he directed not only at her but at his son from a previous relationship, whom he had sole custody of. The boy was only 8 and all Rams would tell her is that the child’s mother was “out of the picture.” Rams’ explosive temper extended not only to his son but also to McLeod, who quickly found herself in a mothering role with the young boy, wanting to protect him from his father. 

With near-constant gaslighting, McLeod began to question her own reality. Could this man really be as dangerous as her gut was leading her to believe? When she found out she was pregnant, she desperately wanted to finally have the family she’d dreamed of. 

And that’s when everything took a turn for the worse. You wrote in your book, “I confused his intensity as chemistry, though it was more likely that he had found an attractive target.” Often, red flags are so much more apparent after a person leaves an abusive partner. How did it feel later on to look back and know you were targeted?

McLeod: I was raised to believe that there is good in everyone and truly didn’t realize that evil of that magnitude was possible. Sure, I’d seen horror movies, but I hadn’t before experienced someone so diabolical up close and personal. The signs aren’t as obvious as you’d think. In my situation, there were a lot of things that didn’t make sense, but he always seemed to either have a plausible reason or he’d produce someone who corroborated his story. Now, I realize that there are a lot of people who will lie to protect evil people. I have no idea what any of these people got out of it, but he had a lot of people in that town willing to put on an act for him. 

DS: After you fell in love for Rams and the relationship started to become serious, he raped you. You wrote that this assault “opened the floodgates of hell.” What did you mean by that? 

McLeod: I think I was constantly in a state of disassociation. I also didn’t want to admit things about myself being in it. Even now, I’m not a victim, I’m a survivor. Which is true, but at one point, I was a victim. I knew I was in danger. In that moment Joaquin knew he could do whatever he wanted to and that I was afraid enough to stay. He pushed a boundary that day that sent a horribly dangerous message –he had me. And even though I’d become a pro at disassociation, I knew that I was in danger on some level. I felt like I’d lost myself and didn’t even know how to get help. Even though I knew what was happening was awful, I’d internalized social messages that deciding to be there in the first place made me complacent. You don’t need to be in a cell to feel like you are in jail. 

DS: Pregnancy has been shown to increase violence by an abusive partner. After you got pregnant, Joaquin started keeping a handgun on his bedside table. What did you make of this?

McLeod: There was no reason [for the gun]. It just showed up. It was one of those things that I wasn’t supposed to ask about…If I’d asked about it – he would’ve taken it as a hostile confrontation. Like, why would you question me? So I didn’t ask about it. It just became a presence in our relationship. And he used it as a form of intimidation and coercive control. 

At the time I already felt trapped. Being naïve, I was trapped not only out of fear but based on my own idea from our society on what my son needed and what my family should look like. I was trapped because you don’t leave the father of your child. He knew that and he used that to his advantage. I think that’s part of the reason after I got pregnant that the mask came down. Because he’s like, I have her now. 

And he also knew the legal system. He’d done this before. 

I also didn’t know how to leave safely. I wasn’t able to be honest with my friends and family about what was happening because I was deeply ashamed that I’d ended up there. And I couldn’t just walk out because I wasn’t certain he’d let me.

DS: You said that prior to this relationship you didn’t know abuse could take forms other than physical. I think a lot of survivors get trapped with abusers because they don’t see the nonphysical forms of abuse as power and control until they’re too far in it. 

McLeod: I think that in many ways psychological abuse is so insidious. You don’t see the scars. One of the things that I think is a real big red flag is when a person is trying to separate [the survivor] from their family and friends. I still have friends that I’m not as close with today because of Joaquin. One of my best friends and I had a fight over my relationship with Joaquin. She was having an event and didn’t want him to come. I felt like it was a move that was hostile toward me since he was my partner. We stopped speaking after that and while she reached out when Prince died, we aren’t close anymore and haven’t seen each other in over a decade. 

Before Joaquin, I knew relationships could be emotionally toxic but I didn’t fully understand how emotionally broken a relationship can make a person. You get to a point where you wonder what version of reality is real because the abuser constantly makes you question what is normal. It’s disorientating and scary. So add in threats, a weapon, and a couple of kids you’re trying to protect – and that is a lethal cocktail. 

Rams also tried to force a pregnant McLeod to have sex with their gardener, hoping it would mean they wouldn’t have to pay for their services. McLeod refused. At one point, she says she woke up unable to breathe before she realized there was a pillow pressing down on her face. At the time, she wasn’t sure if this was a dream or if Rams was trying to suffocate her. She says that, now that she knows what he’s capable of, she’s sure that it wasn’t a dream. 

A few weeks after their son, Prince, was born, Rams sexually assaulted McLeod’s 19-year old sister. 

DS: Your parents immediately came to your house and told you to get Prince and leave with them. What happened after that? How was your sister charged with filing a false police report? 

McLeod: This is an insanely long story but the spark notes version is that when my parents told police Joaquin assaulted their other daughter, police compelled her to report. Then, police allowed Joaquin and his attorney to tamper with evidence and, instead of charging Joaquin for rape…they concluded that she and I must have made it all up so that I could leave. I’ve since learned that this is a somewhat common thing police think victims of domestic violence do—like that we have to make stuff up to extricate ourselves. I wish that were true because that would mean it never happened—and sadly, I wasn’t strong enough at the time to have come up with some elaborate ruse to leave. If I had been, I would have just left. 

After separating from Rams, McLeod decided to hire a private investigator to look into his background. And that’s when she learned something shocking: Rams’ ex-partner and the mother of his son, Shawn Mason, had been murdered in 2003 by a single gunshot to the head. Despite Rams trying to unsuccessfully collect on a $143,000 insurance policy from her employer after her death, and being named as the sole suspect in her murder, he hadn’t yet been charged.

The private investigator also uncovered that Rams’ mother died under suspicious circumstances after Rams told McLeod she passed away from a stroke. He collected a $162,000 insurance policy after her death. 

McLeod was sure a judge would look at all of her evidence of abuse, threats, Rams’ past and what he did to her sister and deny unsupervised custody with Prince. McLeod fought for twelve months to keep her son safe. Eventually, it was determined that Rams could have unsupervised visitation with his son. On Oct. 21, 2012, McLeod dropped off her 15-month old son with Rams. Later that day, she got a call that the toddler was at the hospital on life support. Prince was officially declared brain dead the next day after being on life support. A medical examiner determined Prince had been drowned. In January of 2013, Rams was arrested and charged with capital murder, an offense deemed eligible for the death penalty. It was then discovered that Rams had taken out a $524,000 insurance policy on his son, claiming that McLeod had died in a car accident. Rams’ charge was compounded by an indictment against him for the death of Mason, his ex-partner. In exchange for waiving his right to a jury trial, Rams received a life sentence without parole for the death of his son.

DS: You wrote in your book, “Every time I had to drop off Prince, I felt as though I was saying goodbye to him forever.” It was like some part of you knew all along that this was the unstoppable outcome. 

McLeod: There was a part of me that knew I was never going to get to keep him. But I still had to move through the world. I had to be removed from it just to exist and survive and keep putting one foot in front of the other. 

I remember when the judge told me my son would have to come back to me with cigarette burns on his back in order for it to be a child-in-need-of-action case, which is a separate category in Maryland. He was saying that’s what it would take for me to consider this an abuse case. After my son died, I wrote the judge a letter that said, “My son came home to me in a body bag–what do I do now? I wish he’d have had the cigarette burns…because you can survive being burned by a cigarette.”

DS: When you worked for the CIA, you once jumped out of the broken window of a moving car to escape a would-be kidnapper. I feel like this emphasizes the point that individuals targeted by abusers definitely aren’t weak or timid, and it’s not a lack of courage that keeps them trapped.

McLeod: Exactly. People make this assumption that I became strong because of this scenario. No, I was a resilient person before I met Joaquin. He chose somebody he felt like he could control and break down. It [abuse] gets to the point where you start questioning yourself. It gets so chaotic. People on the outside are just like, oh, you can leave. I would do this. You actually don’t know what you would do unless you’ve been in that situation. It’s not easy—it’s scary. When someone is telling you that they’re going to kill you if you leave, and you’ve seen evidence that this person is absolutely capable of it, you’re not going to be like, peace, I’m going to walk out the door and take my chances. That’s not how it works. When I left, he killed my son. 

DS: You said that you believed, at one point, if you died, then perhaps Joaquin wouldn’t have anyone else to harass and would leave Prince alone. “If given the choice between my death and my son’s, I’d choose for me to be the one who died,” you wrote. 

McLeod: At that moment, I felt like there was nothing I could do. I felt like I was constantly trying to remain and stay one step ahead of a crazy person. I remember talking to my therapist at the time and he’s like, you have to look at him [Rams] like a rock incapable of normal human emotion. I felt like I was investigating [Prince’s] murder before he was dead. Because I was trying so hard to get the police to do something about this man who was clearly terrorizing and had been for at least a decade before my son died. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get them to care. 

DS: You also write in your book, “I’m not telling my story to attract people addicted to trauma porn, but instead to highlight the deep fractures in our justice system.” You add, “My story was a perfect storm of horrible wherein if just one variable of the equation hadn’t been an epic disaster, we all could’ve survived to tell the tale.” Since your son’s murder, you’ve become an advocate for others trying to navigate the justice system. Can you talk a little about that?

McLeod: Advocacy is how I continue to parent him. The day I buried him, I made him a promise that I wouldn’t stop fighting to make the world a safer place for the children who would come after him. I’ve worked with several organizations and child safety, such as the Center for Judicial Excellence and Child Justice to name a few, to draft, testify, and lobby for child protective legislation. In the state of Maryland, we were successful in passing legislation requiring judges in family court to take additional training related to domestic violence and child abuse. I am also on the board of a nonprofit called The Supervised Visitation Network, an organization that provides training for supervised visitation professionals. I also do speaking events for corporations and non-profit organizations on topics such as surviving domestic violence, understanding trauma responses, family court reform and supervised visitation observation vs. inference.

DS: You decided to become a mother, or single mother by choice, as you say, after Prince’s death. How has that decision changed your life?

McLeod: My little girls gave me a second chance at the life I’d always dreamed of. They truly saved my life and continue to be my two little shining stars. When Prince died, it wasn’t possible to just stop being a mom. And I didn’t want Joaquin to get away with stealing my joy forever. This is why I don’t identify as a victim. I’m not a victim anymore–because I survived. I am a survivor. And I am so thankful that I was brave enough to step outside of what society told me I needed to do–like wait for Mr. Right, get married and then have children. Instead, I created my family my way and it’s the best decision I have ever made. 

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