Brightly colored foam mats line the floor of what used to be the dining area of Hera McLeod’s condo in Northwest Washington. One wall is adorned with a canvas of whimsical owls. A Graco baby swing stands where once there were table and chairs. And lounging against the walls like so many dinner guests are a variety of stuffed animals.

McLeod, seven months pregnant, picks up a brown stuffed bear with big eyes and a diaper. It is one of those Build-a-Bears. Tucked inside is the heartbeat that a sonogram recorded of her soon-to-be-born daughter. McLeod has decided to name her Stela. It is short for Estela, which means “star” in several languages. McLeod thinks it perfectly fitting for a child who must be so fiery for the way she flips against her stomach.

“Maybe it’s over the top . . . a little,” McLeod says of this friendly, if pricey, bear. She smiles as she shows off the rest of her preparations: the mobile of yellow flowers for the crib; the colorful safari animals stenciled on a bedroom wall; the shelves filled with children’s books. She comes to a yellow-and-blue throw rug emblazoned with a silly frog and pauses. Then the slightest of smiles.

The rug is a hand-me-down from her first child, a beautiful little boy called Prince, who had tousled brown curls and eyes you could get lost in. He died a year ago Oct. 21 at 15 1 / 2 months. Police say his father, McLeod’s ex-boyfriend, drowned him. Prince was on an unsupervised visit ordered by the court against his mother’s warning.

“Though I have lived through one of the worst tragedies I can imagine, part of honoring my son is knowing that I must also continue to choose love and happiness,” McLeod wrote on her blog this summer shortly after revealing her pregnancy to Facebook friends. “My decision to have my daughter was one of the first steps I took on my personal journey.”

What McLeod didn’t disclose was that when Stela is born, no father will be in the delivery room or anywhere in the picture. McLeod became pregnant using an anonymous donor whom — despite the fact she has not met him and doesn’t even know his name — she feels she knows better than the man she met on and with whom she fell in love . A man who turned out to be mainly a mirage; a man who now is awaiting trial on murder charges in the deaths of two people.

He has pleaded not guilty in the death of Prince, who authorities say was drowned in a scheme to collect $560,000 in insurance, and in the 2003 shooting of an ex-girlfriend with whom he had a son. The 2008 death of his mother, ruled a suicide, has been reopened for investigation. His attorney declined interviews for this article, but the father said in a written statement released in May: “I did not harm my son. It breaks my heart to think that anyone would believe that I did. I’m still shocked to learn how sick he was.”

A court will determine guilt or innocence. But this is the lesson McLeod has taken from her son’s death: Never again does she want to be in a position where a judge could tell her she must — against all instinct and reason — give her child over to the care of someone she thinks will do the child harm.

“I was never allowed to be a real mom to Prince,” she says. So this time she is making sure it will be different.

McLeod, 33, knows there will be some who will disapprove of her decision. But she wants her story told to help others who have to deal with unspeakable tragedy and to prod changes to the system that she thinks failed to protect her son.

Prince McLeod at about 9 months old. Prince died Oct. 21, 2012, during a visit with his father in Virginia, prompting police to also investigate the suicide of the man’s mother and the shooting death of a girlfriend. (AP/Courtesy of the Family)

Hera McLeod speaks at a Congressional briefing in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill on "Protecting Abused Children of Divorce and Separation" October 2, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (Mary F. Calvert/FTWP)

Prince was not planned. McLeod met his father, Joaquin Shadow Rams, in February 2010 after exchanging messages with him on McLeod described herself as being on the rebound from a failed relationship. “I was approaching 30 and wondering if I would ever meet my soulmate, or even if I had a soulmate at all,” she said.

They met at Tysons Galleria for lunch, then went bowling. McLeod confessed to being initially put off by his scruffy look, long hair and unconventional dress. But she soon became charmed. He treated her to lunch, was easy to talk to, and they spent the day together. She was touched when he sang to her in front of a crowd at the bowling alley and moved when he told her about having to raise his preteen son by himself because the boy’s mother had died. She had been killed in an accident, McLeod said Rams told her. “He explained how he had been on many bad dates and how he was looking for a lasting relationship,” McLeod said.

Rams told her that he owned a successful software consulting firm, she said. She did an Internet search on his name and a software patent was listed, so the business seemed to check out. He also told her he was an aspiring rhythm-and-blues singer and was going to open for Jay-Z at Verizon Center — but sadly, it wasn’t when she was in town. When she couldn’t find anything about his music career online, she said he told her the label had put his album on hold. He lived in a large house in Bristow, where rooms were given over to recording and music equipment. He drove a luxury car and always seemed to have money.

Things moved quickly. McLeod, a Teach for America graduate who is an intelligence analyst for a defense contractor, started spending more time with Rams and his son. She introduced them to her family, and they became part of McLeod gatherings. It was on the deck of her parents’ expansive Montgomery County home in July 2010 that Gustavus McLeod says Rams asked if he could marry his daughter.

Her mother, Mary McLeod, didn’t particularly care for Rams, but “one always has to be careful about what one says about the person their child has fallen in love with,” she said. When McLeod became pregnant that October, there was no question that she would have the baby and, of course, it would be raised by two parents.

Joaquin Shadow Rams in a photo provided by The Manassas City, Va., Police Department. (Uncredited/AP)

Rams proposed to her that December, but things had started to go downhill. She said he would go into rages, complain about his bills piling up, ask her for money or suggest her father invest with him in business opportunities. The same month Rams gave her an engagement ring (telling her how much he had spent), he was arrested: His son told a school counselor that Rams had hit him. When the charges were dismissed, McLeod was relieved, thinking it all fabrication by a young boy who had gotten mad at his dad.

McLeod wanted to see the good in Rams and blamed his rages on depression over his stalled music career and the tensions of being a single parent to a preteen. He and his son started therapy, and McLeod thought it a good sign.

But after she moved in with them, she started noticing other things: He never went to the studio, he made derisive comments about the weight she had gained during pregnancy and he made attempts to distance her from her family. Still, she stayed.

“I had grown up with a mother and father who had been married for longer than I was alive and who would stay married until the day one of them dies,” she said. Raised a Catholic, she was taught you keep your family together even when times are bad and especially when they get worse. “I hung on because I didn’t want to admit that this man was not the family man I had dreamed of. I guess I was afraid of losing that dream. I guess I was afraid of raising a baby myself.”

At 10:29 a.m, on July 1, 2011, Prince Elias McLeod Rams, weighing 9 pounds and 1 ounce, was born at Inova Fairfax Hospital. Rams, videotaping the birth, seemed excited. He asked nurses to come into McLeod’s room to watch as he reproposed to her. Nothing could dampen McLeod’s spirits, not even the tart observation from her father that he should have married his daughter before the baby was born.

Two weeks later, her parents arrived unexpectedly at McLeod’s doorstep. They alleged that Rams had raped her 19-year-old sister the night before. McLeod didn’t hesitate. She grabbed Prince and fled.

McLeod is the second of three children, and while a family court evaluator in the ensuing custody case over Prince would describe her family history as “unremarkable,” it was anything but. Her parents — a white, Irish-Catholic mother and a black father proud of his Scottish heritage — faced the tests of a time when biracial marriages were pioneering. Gus, whose résumé includes work at the CIA and a history-making open-cockpit flight to the North Pole, and Mary, who juggled raising a family and building two businesses, gave their children the advantages of a supportive family and a good education. Their son is a philosophy professor and author; their youngest daughter a writing major at Carnegie Mellon University with an affinity for music.

McLeod went to boarding school in Rhode Island, majored in political communications at George Washington University, and after getting a master’s degree in special education, taught inner-city kids in Los Angeles for two years. Among the footnotes of her life is a 2004 stint on CBS’s “Amazing Race” with her father. McLeod said she was brought up to respect authority. As a 6-year-old, she would tell guests the rules of the house when her parents entertained. “My family called me the ‘party police,’ ” she said. She said she never smoked, drank underage or even thought about doing drugs.

On the night of July 17, 2011 — still bleeding from childbirth and reeling from her parents’ allegation that her little sister had been sexually assaulted — McLeod was just blocks from Rams’s home when she realized she couldn’t leave behind the work computer that had proprietary company information.

She called Prince William County police to help her retrieve her belongings. She made no mention of the alleged rape, but when officers came, Rams volunteered how McLeod’s parents had accused him — he said falsely — of raping their daughter. He alleged that Mary McLeod had punched him in the face and that Gus McLeod had pulled a gun on him. What started as a domestic situation became a rape investigation.

A detective called McLeod’s sister at her parents’ home, where she was spending the summer after her freshman year at college. He persuaded her to come to Prince William to talk to police.

Eleven years separate the sisters, but they are close, with the sister describing to police how McLeod was her best friend. According to the sister, Rams had invited her, with McLeod’s concurrence, to a Lil Wayne concert, saying he had a backstage pass and there was an after party where he had contacts who could help in her career. Instead of going to the party, she described a night in which Rams demanded she have sex with him, at one point displaying a gun and threatening to take her to a place where she would have to have sex with several men. She said Rams took her to his home and coerced her to have sex.

Rams dropped her off at a Metro station, and her mother picked her up. She said nothing. “Hera had just given birth two weeks ago. . . . She was so happy. . . . I didn’t want to ruin her life,” the sister said. But a friend realized something was wrong and pressed her. “You have to tell your parents. . . . They need to get your sister out of that house,” the sister said of her friend’s insistence.

Rams told police the sex was consensual and he had secretly videotaped it, using the camera that two weeks earlier had recorded the birth of his son. McLeod had taken the camera when she collected her belongings. After first telling police she didn’t have it (she said she feared Rams would post childbirth shots online), she turned it over to them. Rams was shown the camera, and he said the video had been deleted. Rams’s lawyer offered the use of his office and a computer expert to restore the video. Police said the video showed that the sex was consensual. Based primarily on the tape, they concluded that no rape had occurred and charged the sister with making a false report and McLeod with obstruction of justice.

A judge dismissed the charge against McLeod; prosecutors did not prosecute the sister and the dropped charge has been expunged from her records. McLeod and her parents successfully pressed Prince William police to review its handling of the cases; a police spokeswoman would not comment, but an Oct. 7, 2013, e-mail to McLeod from the captain in charge of the probe noted “several questions about staff performance . . . particular concerns [that] are being addressed.” Rams was never charged.

What McLeod didn’t know at the time of the incident with her sister was that this was not the first time Rams had come to the attention of authorities in Prince William. And, as she learned from the private detective and attorneys she hired for Prince’s custody battle, there were a lot of unsettling things she didn’t know about the man she had once hoped to marry.

First, Joaquin Shadow Rams was not his given name; he was born John Ramirez. The change — which he has attributed to not wanting to carry the name of a man who was never involved in his life — was made in 2002, several years after the birth of a son who had been similarly named. He wasn’t 34, as he had claimed, but 39. Most startling was the revelation that the mother of Rams’s older son, Shawn Katrina Mason, had not died in an accident but had been slain — shot in the head — in March 2003 at the age of 22. Rams was the prime suspect, according to Manassas City police. Questions also emerged about the 2008 suicide of his mother, Alma Collins.

During custody and visitation hearings in the spring and summer of 2012, a Manassas detective identified Rams as a key suspect in Mason’s death because, she said, he had motive and opportunity. Further, an ex-girlfriend had alleged physical and verbal abuse, and Rams acknowledged that adult pornography had been produced in his home. His only means of support, according to testimony aired in court, seemed to be Social Security benefits to his older son and Rams’s mother’s life insurance.

A report by a Prince William social worker that was obtained by McLeod’s attorneys noted that Rams thought himself (incorrectly) to be the beneficiary of Mason’s life insurance. “This worker has never interviewed anyone like Mr. Rams,” read the May 10, 2004, report. “It is not known if Mr. Rams’ stories are real to him or if he is just attempting to impress, but he clearly does not exhibit normal behavior.”

McLeod’s attorney told the court that Rams is “much like a train going down the tracks . . . [people] never leave his life without being damaged . . . in some way or dying.”

But the Montgomery Circuit Court judge, Michael Algeo, said there was no evidence, only implication, of criminal wrongdoing by Rams. “What this case is about,” Algeo said in his March 14, 2012, custody ruling, “is about two people that met each other online. Isn’t that wonderful? A young lady who comes from a different walk of life and a young man who comes from a completely different walk of life, and the two have nothing in common whatsoever. The sad part is they now have something in common. It’s called a child. And that’s never going to change.”

Algeo awarded sole legal and primary physical custody of Prince to McLeod, and because a court evaluator had concluded that her safety concerns were justifiable, Rams could have only weekly, supervised visits.

Months later, the court revisited the issue. Rams assured the court that he had taken down a pornography site that he had maintained, that he had a job and a good place to live. The retired Montgomery County police officer who supervised the visits with Prince at a shopping mall reported no problems. A psychologist hired by Rams (whom McLeod is now suing) testified to his fitness.

There was no home visit or independent verification of Rams’s claims. McLeod pleaded: “If anything happens to Prince, he can’t say anything. He’s not old enough to be talking.” Algeo in July modified the custody order to allow unsupervised visits.

Terrified for Prince, McLeod appealed to Virginia police and prosecutors in visits, phone calls and e-mails: Couldn’t they prosecute him for secretly taping sex with the sister? What was the status of the investigation into Mason’s death? Couldn’t they at least cite him for infractions involving his name and age discrepancies?

Hera McLeod made this video to memorialize what would have been her son's second birthday. (Courtesy of Hera McLeod)

Right now, he has Prince and there is nothing I can do about it,” a clearly stressed McLeod said in a voice memo she recorded Sept. 8, 2012. The night before, McLeod had watched a television show about convicted wife killer Drew Peterson that underscored to her the need to make a record of her fears.

Hours after making that recording, McLeod received a call from the monitor who supervised Prince’s exchange between his parents. “Don’t freak out,” she remembers the monitor saying, but Prince had had a seizure — what would turn out to be the first of several over the next weeks — and Rams was taking him to the emergency room. Prince had never had any serious medical issues, so why, she wondered, would they start on his second unsupervised visit with his father?

Doctors diagnosed Prince as having had a febrile seizure, a generally benign occurrence brought on by fever. McLeod had suffered such seizures when she was a child, and her attorneys advised against going back into court. They said it could be held against her, evidence of her antipathy to a father being with his son.

“It’s going to be okay, baby. Mama loves you SO much. Have a good day, baby, and Mama will see you tonight,” McLeod told Prince that Saturday morning, Oct. 20, 2012, as she placed him in the car of the court monitor who would oversee his fourth unsupervised visit with his father at the Manassas home where he had moved to live with friends.

McLeod was at work when her mother called to say Prince had been taken to the hospital again. “He is going to be fine just like last time,” McLeod says she told herself as she sprinted to her car. Then she got a call from a police officer saying Prince was being flown to a different hospital.

Hours later, McLeod was allowed to see Prince in the pediatric intensive care unit of Inova Fairfax Hospital. He was unconscious, hooked up with tubes and so cold his hair was like ice. She was told he had suffered cardiac arrest and his heart had not been beating when he arrived at the hospital. “He will likely die soon. If he doesn’t die, he will have significant neurological deficits,” the doctor told her.

Hera McLeod, eight months pregnant, weeps as she looks at pictures of her son Prince. (Mary F. Calvert/For The Washington Post)

McLeod sat beside his bed as tests were done over the next 24 hours. When the results showed no brain activity, she held Prince as life support was removed and his body broke down. He was declared dead on Oct. 21, 2012.

Rams had also gone to the hospital and Diane Tillery, the retired police officer who was in charge of the exchange of Prince between parents, asked him what happened. According to a written statement she provided to Manassas police, Rams told her he had put Prince down for a nap and checked on him two or three times. He said he heard a rattling noise and realized the crib was shaking, Tillery said in the Oct. 22, 2012, statement. Tillery said Rams told her Prince was having a seizure, so he took him to the bathroom, put him in a cold bath and splashed water on him to cool him off. He yelled for his friend to call 911, according to the statement.

But officials at Prince William Hospital, where Prince had first been brought and his body temperature was measured at 91.2 degrees, notified Child Protective Services, citing “obvious unexplainable injuries.” An autopsy found “small bruises and abrasions on the face and upper chest and back” and “fluid in the sinuses, airways, lungs and intestines.”

Constance DiAngelo, a state medical examiner, issued a determination Jan. 16 that death was the result of drowning, and on Jan. 25, Rams was charged with first-degree murder, later upgraded to a capital charge. In their investigation, authorities discovered that Rams, between the time of his split with McLeod and seeking custody of Prince, had taken out three insurance policies on Prince. The largest, $443,000, listed McLeod as having died in an accident.

Rams, in blogs posted before his arrest, said his son’s seizures were indicative of a more complex and serious condition. He also wrote that Prince had suffered a fall with McLeod the day before the Sept. 8 seizure. One of Rams’s attorneys has challenged DiAngelo on her finding that the boy drowned and said there were other people in the house when Prince died who corroborate Rams’s account. The lawyer also characterized the insurance purchases as a savings investment.

In November, a grand jury indicted Rams for the 2003 murder of Mason, the mother of his older son. Prince William Commonwealth Attorney Paul Ebert said the charges resulted from an intensive police investigation, but he declined to discuss specifics. An investigation continues into the circumstances of the death of Rams’s mother. The medical examiner determined the cause of death was “asphyxia due to plastic bag use” after she was found lying on a plastic bag in her home. Rams has denied any involvement in his mother’s death.

Hera McLeod holds baby Estela Anabelle McLeod after her birth at Sibley Memorial Hospital, October 30, 2013. (Mary F. Calvert/For The Washington Post)

On Oct. 30, 2013, at 2:43 p.m, Estela Anabelle McLeod was born, weighing 8 pounds and 2 ounces. “A diva,” McLeod says of the little girl who — much to the amusement of relatives — seems always dressed in pink.

The regret McLeod feels for her relationship with Rams is almost palpable. And her parents feel they should have done more to protect their daughters. Gus McLeod likens what happened to his family to having a gleaming white carpet that has been horribly stained: “You scrub and scrub and scrub until you can’t see it, but it is still there. It never goes away.”

Whatever her regrets, McLeod has no doubts about her decision to have a second child. She was devastated as she stood beside Prince’s coffin. She had tucked inside it his favorite Dr. Seuss book. On his head was his grandfather’s hat because his curls had been shorn during the autopsy. McLeod says she knew she couldn’t stop being a mother, that she wanted another child. The thought of dating again disgusted her. And the idea of being a single mother no longer scared her. It empowered her.

Her savings and income had been drained by legal bills fighting the obstruction charge and getting custody of Prince, but McLeod felt she had the means to go it alone. But she had to convince a procession of people that she wasn’t acting out of grief or a misplaced idea of replacing Prince.

Hera McLeod decorates her home with pictures of her deceased son Prince, her family and sonogram pictures of baby Estela. (Mary F. Calvert/For The Washington Post)

Hera McLeod holds baby Estela Anabelle McLeod, on a blue “Boppy” pillow that her son Prince used to use. (Mary F. Calvert/For The Washington Post)

‘I always thought that you probably shouldn’t do anything life-changing in the year after a major trauma,” says Mary McLeod. “But my daughter is a strong woman, and she knew what she needed to do to survive. To rebuild her life . . . ”

The clinical psychologist who had to approve McLeod for the insemination had to be similarly convinced. In the end, the only thing the psychologist insisted on was that, for safety considerations, McLeod wait until Rams was arrested.

The night before she went into the hospital to be induced, McLeod wrote on her blog about how her pregnancy “has allowed me to have hope for the future, and it has proven that I have come out on top and stronger in the face of tragedy.”

And when Stela was born and placed in her arms, she noted how Prince was bigger, how Stela’s nose favors hers more. They are the inevitable comparisons a mother makes from one child to the next, but there is special poignancy in McLeod’s ability to do so.

Jo-Ann Armao is a Post editorial writer who has written about the handling of this case by police and the court system. Jennifer B. Jenkins contributed to this report.