Shelby Hodges spread photos of a blue-eyed boy with wisps of blond curls across her couch Tuesday afternoon at her Rock Hill home.
Her son was only an infant in a portrait that shows Hodges cradling him as his father, Christian Hans Liewald, smiles over her shoulder.
Many are wondering why the little boy in the photo, now 15, would be accused in the shooting deaths of father and stepmother.
But Hodges says her son is the victim of a violent and controlling father.
"I know how he was," she said of Liewald. "I lived with him. It was a nightmare."
Neighbors heard screams then gunshots early Monday at Liewald's home on Buxton Street in Pineville, N.C. Then Liewald's son called 911, saying he'd shot his 43-year-old father and his stepmother, 24-year-old Cassie Meghan Buckaloo. He told police he'd wait for them on a nearby street corner.
He's now charged with two counts of murder, armed robbery and attempted auto theft. State law prevents police from releasing his name because he is a minor.
Police haven't released a motive in the killings, but a trail of court documents and ex-wives tells a story of abusive relationships that preceded Monday's shooting.
Liewald was married at least three times before Buckaloo, according to court records.
Hodges and another ex-wife told the Observer that Liewald was a violent man, and that they feared for his son's safety.
Hodges and Liewald were married in 1996, and their son was born months later.
Hodges said that when her son was 10 months old, Liewald started spanking him as he cried in his crib.
After they separated, a bitter custody battle for the boy began in 1998. Liewald claimed Hodges yelled at their child and said she was sorry she ever gave birth to him, according to court papers. He also claimed that she refused to take medication prescribed to her for a "chemical imbalance."
Hodges filed a counterclaim for custody, saying that Liewald abused drugs and alcohol. He punched holes in walls and threw furniture "in a rage," she claimed.
The couple were divorced in 2000. Full custody was eventually granted to Liewald after the court determined Hodges had not complied with an order to undergo a psychiatric evaluation following three "suicide gestures or attempts," records show. Hodges received supervised visitation rights.
She said she was terrified of Liewald. He'd threatened to kill her and burn her mother's house down, she said.
The last time she saw her son, her only child, was in Rock Hill when he was 6. They spent about two hours together at Cherry Park.
"I just think he snapped. I think he had more than he could bear."
Her son is now being held in a juvenile detention facility, where she hopes to visit him for the first time in years.
"He doesn't deserve any more pain," she said. "I feel like he's been in prison, but now he's free."
Observer writer Fred Clasen-Kelly and Observer researcher
Maria David contributed.