Young mother dies when boyfriend shoots her, turns gun on self (copy)

Ashley Stephens with her children, Mattingly, center, and Jeter. This photo was posted on a GoFundMe page seeking assistance with Stephens’ funeral expenses.

When Ashley Stephens was born, she had emergency surgery to repair a hole in her stomach lining. She survived and grew up to become a fighter who overcame life’s struggles, her older sister said Thursday.

When Vanessa Place heard that her 27-year-old sister had been killed by her partner, she was devastated.

“She’s been a survivor from the very beginning, and for someone else to take her out is so hard,” Place said. “We don’t know why, and we’ll never get that answer. This was nothing we could imagine.”

Jonathan S. Hartley, 61, fatally shot Stephens before shooting himself Tuesday afternoon in the home they shared at 4602 N. 134th Ave. in the Hillsborough subdivision, authorities have said.

A man, believed to be Hartley, called 911 shortly before 5 p.m. and reported a shooting. Douglas County sheriff’s deputies who went to the house found Stephens’ body.

Deputies then located Hartley, also with a gunshot wound. They found a handgun near him.

Hartley, who was critically injured, was taken to the Nebraska Medical Center. He died Wednesday evening.

A law enforcement official who spoke on condition of not being identified said Hartley had battled depression for years and recently had undergone inpatient treatment for depression.

Place, in a phone interview from her home in Washington, said Stephens had mentioned that Hartley sometimes was depressed. But Place said she never expected that might lead to her sister’s death.

“Being depressed doesn’t turn into this in (most) of the cases,” she said. “There were no warning signs for us.”

Stephens and Hartley had been dating for about two years, Place said. While Place never met Hartley, another sister and their parents had — and approved. Hartley even paid for the family’s plane tickets to Omaha.

“He wanted Ashley to be happy and the family to come visit around the holidays,” she said. “The age gap was there, but … he loved my sister. They cared for each other.”

Stephens shared custody of her two young children with Christopher Hove, who lives in the Omaha metro area. The kids often spent time at Hartley’s northwest Omaha home, but they weren’t there when the shooting occurred.

Place said her sister never mentioned whether Hartley had a gun.

Hove wrote on Facebook after Stephens’ death that he and Stephens were doing a better job at co-parenting, despite their earlier difficulties with it.

“I still can’t believe he took you away from your children,” Hove wrote. “They are going to miss you every day of their lives and I promise to keep your memory alive with them. I promise to always speak well of you, I promise to always answer any question they have about you. I promise that you will NOT be forgotten.”

Stephens and her family moved to Council Bluffs in 2006, and Stephens graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in 2009, Place said.

When her family moved back to California, Stephens put down roots in the Omaha area.

“She loved it there,” Place said. “She made that her home base and had a lot of wonderful friends there.”

Stephens worked as a waitress, a clerk at a jewelry store and, most recently, a receptionist for Hartley’s business, an emergency medical training and education company. Friends and family have started a GoFundMe account to raise money for her burial expenses and for her children. The account had more than $2,300 in it as of Friday morning, short of the $5,000 goal.

In addition to her two children and Place, Stephens is survived by her parents, Edward and Yvonne Stephens, and siblings Eddie, Brian and Elizabeth Stephens.

Alia Conley covers breaking news, crime, crime trends, the Omaha Police Department and initial court hearings. Follow her on Twitter @aliavalentine. Phone: 402-444-1068.

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