In spring 2020, a hopeful prospective student patiently awaited a box in the mail to give her a chance to fulfill a childhood dream — attending the University of Oklahoma.
When Ally Stephens opened the small cardboard package lined with crimson and cream confetti, she caught a glimpse of the future she’d always wanted.
“Since I was little, it was always my dream to come to OU, so when I got my acceptance letter, I felt a sense of accomplishment and knew I was starting to achieve the goals I dreamed of as a little girl,” Stephens said. “My goal at OU is to get to law school and to just live the college life to the fullest.”
Stephens said when she came to campus, she knew what her major and future job would be — a strong match for the university’s rich athletic tradition.
“I am a sports management major so my dream is to become an agent for an NFL or NBA player,” Stephens said.
As she was beginning down the path to chase her dreams, however, she began to notice disturbing changes in her boyfriend of over a year.
“One of those was manipulative behavior,” Stephens said. “By which I mean, telling me I couldn't do something but then he could do it. Another one was anger issues and getting mad at the small things.”
These behaviors were early red flags of domestic abuse, according to Bliss Brown, OU’s Gender + Equality Center program coordinator for gender-based violence prevention .
“Warning signs can include jealousy, disrespecting boundaries, feeling smothered or pressured, and/or neglecting family and friend relationships,” Brown said. “If your partner tries to control your emotions and/or behaviors — what you wear, who you talk to, what you post on social media, etc. — that’s a sign your relationship is heading in the wrong direction.”
Brown also said the red flags can be masked through kindness from the partner.
“The abusive partner can also be very kind and loving at times, which can be confusing for victims,” Brown said. “If your partner is using kindness to apologize for abusive behavior or as an attempt to control you, that’s a red flag.”
Stephens said the red flags she saw began to form into a different kind of abuse — mental abuse. But she said even mental abuse can be disregarded because of trust within the relationship.
“Mental abuse is easier to brush off because you don't want to believe that they are mentally abusing you,” Stephens said. “I personally made up excuses for him because I didn't understand that is what was going on.”
Courtney Foster, the assistant executive director of the Norman Women’s Resource Center, said the mental abuse can pin the victims into a quickly escalating situation.
“A lot of people are told by abusers that this is normal, that there's nothing that they can do about it, that there's no way that they will be able to escape safely,” Foster said. “It really starts as a mental abuse and then can escalate into that physical violence.”
Foster said people should understand victims are put into a situation that is hard to escape from, even before it turns into physical abuse.
“I think that people really need to understand how difficult it is for victims to leave the violence when everything is stacked against them,” Foster said. “There are barriers of finances, a family, and — most importantly — the fear of the violence escalating, and the victim being hurt more or killed.”
Oct. 1, the red flags and mental abuse Stephens saw in her relationship culminated in physical abuse.
Stephens’ boyfriend at the time, Gage Ford, choked Stephens and kicked her in the stomach after learning she was pregnant.
Ford, a junior at OU, was then arrested, and the Cleveland County’s District Attorney office suggested the bond be set at $30,000 for Ford. Judge Scott Brockman lowered the bond to $1,500 — a move that sparked public outrage and angered the district attorney.
“We have a victim who is beaten unrecognizable, and this didn't have to happen. We get in front of these judges, we ask them to listen to our victims and listen to us and our judgment,” Greg Mashburn, Cleveland County district attorney, said to News 9. “I have to do something for the victims, and I have to be able to tell them that I tried. … I just can't say, ‘Oh well, the judge just decided not to do that,’ when I see a pattern that puts people at risk.”
Abby Nathan, the felony domestic violence prosecutor for the Cleveland County’s DA office, said the bond is crucial to protecting victims.
“When the (cycle of abuse) happens, we kind of start a difficult process, and it's hard to keep victims safe when they still love the person that committed the abuse on them or is alleged to have committed the abuse on them,” Nathan said. “So bond is really important when it comes to those things because it's got to take into consideration the fact that victims of domestic violence are in a very difficult position.”
Stephens was in this difficult position when Ford posted bail after staying a full day in the county jail.
Nathan said this position isn’t uncommon among Oklahomans.
“I think there are plenty of cases that I have that run the gamut of very serious violence, very difficult cases to prosecute,” Nathan said. “What makes this one different? I think what makes it sad is that it's not really that different. This one just happens to be getting the attention. Because I had a lot of cases that while the pictures may not look exactly like this, the balance was very similar.”
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 49 percent of women in Oklahoma will experience physical violence, rape or stalking by their partner in their lifetimes. Oklahoma has the second-highest rate in the U.S. behind Alaska, which has a rate of 50 percent.
Nathan said, as a prosecutor for the DA’s office, she sees the ugliest sides of domestic abuse and the sheer amount of these cases.
“This is what domestic violence looks like — maybe it's a lot more pushing and shoving, but that's not always the case,” Nathan said. “A lot of times it's placing your hands on someone's throat and choking them until they pass out, or getting those kinds of bruises, and these are the ugly sides of the things that if you don't do this kind of work you don't see.”
Nathan also said it can be hard for the victim to leave an abusive relationship because of the love they still have for the abuser, and that they try to ignore the abuse because of the relationship they’ve had.
After the incident on Oct. 1, Stephens attempted to file a protective order against Ford — one that was turned down Oct. 8 by judge Jequita Napoli.
Nine days after the protective order was denied, Stephens was checked into the hospital with multiple severe injuries after another attack by Ford where investigators say he was trying to kill the unborn baby.
Ford turned himself in Oct. 23 — after U.S. Marshals began searching for him — and is now being held with a $250,000 bond in the Cleveland County jail.
Ford has since posted bail and is no longer listed on the Cleveland County jail roster as of Oct. 26, according to OSCN and Cleveland County Sheriff's Office Public Information Officer Joy Hampton.
The OU community heard about the incident shortly after and began having fundraisers through a GoFundMe and restaurants hosting benefits.
Stephens said the public reaction filled her heart, but she doesn’t want attention for herself — she wants to raise awareness on the issue of domestic violence.
“Seeing the support filled a part of my heart I did not know I needed,” Stephens said. “I did not bring it to the public's attention for the attention on me. I did it to bring awareness and to show that domestic violence is real and to always check on your friends.”
Almost a month after the incident, Stephens and her baby are healthy, and Stephens said she wants to be there for other domestic abuse survivors.
“I want people to know there is help out there, and if they ever feel like they don't have anyone, they can always find a friend in me,” Stephens said. “Do not ignore the signs like I did because your life is more precious than your relationship.”
For those in an abusive relationship or worried about their relationship turning abusive, Brown and Foster want to show there are options for help.
“OU Advocates are available 24/7/365 to walk you through your options,” Brown said. “OU Advocates is a free and confidential support hotline for OU community members experiencing gender-based violence. You can call or text OU Advocates any time at 405-615-0013. More information about OU Advocates can be found at ou.edu/gec/advocates.”
Foster said the Women’s Resource Center also has a 24/7 hotline 405-701-5540.