By Ebony C. Fleming
She was prepared to leave him. She had taken all she could bear, and was ready to take charge of her life again, not just for her sake, but for her three daughters as well. However, on the morning that she decided to pack up and move out of the apartment she shared with her daughters and with her abusive live-in boyfriend, Rena Hodges, 35, was shot and killed by that very same man.
Rena was a local singer in the Houston area. Her life’s ambition was to use her talent to find a way to stardom and wealth to support her family. When she met Jerald Watt through a mutual friend, the fact that he, too, was a local artist seemed to be an added bonus to their quickly budding relationship. But it was clear very early on that the relationship was not an ideal situation.
“The warning signs were there,” said Alix Nelson, Rena’s best friend of 27 years. “He was jealous, he was a drunk, he alienated her from her family and friends…we just knew from the beginning he was no good.”
However, Rena stayed.
While she never admitted to her best friend or family members that she was in a physically abusive relationship, Rena would talk about some of the ups and downs she experienced with Watt.
“They always argued. He would go off in public – yelling and screaming,” said Nelson. “But she would let a lot of stuff go. He manipulated her, used her, refused to work…but she never told me he put his hands on her.”
But it wasn’t entirely surprising that on Valentine’s Day 2017, Rena decided she was going to move out the following day.
“We had a plan,” said Nelson. “We were going to pack up whatever she and the girls needed and leave. They were going to come stay with me until she figured out her next move.”
On February 16, 2017, after dropping her three daughters off at school, and her niece off at an appointment, Rena called her best friend.
They were on the phone when she got back to her apartment and confronted Watt.
“She told him she was tired of it all and she was leaving,” Nelson recalls. “They were yelling back and forth. I could hear it in her voice that she’d had enough. But then she said he had a gun.”
Seconds later the call somehow dropped. That was the last time Nelson spoke to her best friend.
“So often, victims of domestic violence suffer in silence,” said Harris County District Attorney’s Office (HCDAO) Family Criminal Law Division Chief Carvana Cloud. “The reasons are countless as to why they don’t leave abusive relationships, but the outcomes are often the same.”
Harris County leads the state of Texas with domestic violence related crimes. In 2018, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office filed more than 12,000 charges. That’s more than 3,000 more than the 8,699 charges filed in 2017.
“This is an epidemic plaguing our communities,” added Cloud. “That is why we’ve made it our mission to expand our reach into the community by offering protective orders and education to underserved minority groups who in many cases underreport domestic violence.”
The HCDAO Cultural Outreach Program’s main goal is to meet victims where they are, specifically in communities of color where reporting is consistently lower.
“Evidence shows that many women, just like Rena, never come forward. This is why this program exists,” said Cloud. “By working with our community partners we are able to intervene and support a safety plan with the goal of preventing the next homicide.”
Watt pled guilty for the murder of Rena Hodges and was sentenced to 40 years in prison in January – just weeks shy of their two-year anniversary.
“There is no amount of time that would bring her back to her family, to her daughters,” said Darrell Hodges, Rena’s brother.
Hodges now has custody of two of Rena’s three daughters, ages 16, 12, and 10.
“These are three girls who will never have their mother there when they graduate, when they date, get married, and have their own children,” Hodges continued. “Yeah, he’s in prison for a long time, but the damage is done.”
Hodges did his best to encourage his sister to leave, but by the time she made up her mind to do so, it was too late.
“She didn’t make the best choices, but no one deserves this,” said Hodges. “Children don’t deserve this…it didn’t have to happen.”
Anyone in a domestic abuse situation can find help or more information about the Cultural Outreach Program by calling the HCDAO Family Criminal Law Division at 713-274-0212.
This article originally appeared in the Houston Forward Times.