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An Alabama man who planted flowers on the gravesite of his fiancee and was arrested at the direction of the woman’s disapproving father was found guilty of littering this week.
About a month after Winston “Winchester” Hagans got engaged, his fiancee, Hannah Ford, was killed in a three-car crash in January 2021 that shattered what was supposed to be the happiest time of their lives. To honor the 27-year-old, Hagans placed a planter box full of fresh flowers and photos of the two of them on her grave in Auburn, Ala.
But earlier this year, Hagans was arrested on a charge of criminal littering. City officials had reassured him that he could put the planter at Ford’s gravesite unless there was a complaint. Then he discovered that a complaint had been filed — by the Rev. Tom Ford, his fiancee’s father.
“The police don’t enforce the law unless the owner of the plot tries to do something about it,” Hagans told The Washington Post earlier this year, adding that his late fiancee’s father did not approve of their relationship.
Hagans was convicted Thursday on one count of criminal littering and ordered to pay about $300 in fines and court costs, the Opelika-Auburn News reported. The 32-year-old man was also given a suspended jail sentence of 30 days that will remain suspended as long as Hagans does not place any more flowers or planter boxes on his fiancee’s grave.
After Hagans was found guilty, his attorney, Jeff Tickal, indicated that a written appeal would be filed within 14 days. If Hagans wins the appeal, a new trial would be granted, and the fines and court costs would be dropped.
Neither Hagans nor Tickal immediately responded to requests for comment early Saturday.
He put flowers on his fiancee’s grave. Her father had him arrested on a charge of littering.
Hagans and Hannah Ford met at a coffee shop in Montgomery, Ala., and bonded over their faith, he wrote on his website. Ford’s father was pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Montgomery, and Hagans’s father is an evangelist in Opelika, Ala. As the couple kept running into each other at the coffee shop, Hagans said he made sure to bring a deck of cards with him so they could play games of “nines” with each other.
Hannah Ford was a rising star in Republican politics in Alabama. She worked on several political campaigns, including Roy Moore’s U.S. Senate campaign in 2017. Moore lost the race to Democrat Doug Jones after a woman accused the Republican of initiating a sexual encounter when she was 14.
Ford, who went on to lobby for conservative issues in Alabama and work for evangelist Scott Dawson’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign, had “a kind heart, happy attitude, great wisdom and many talents,” her family wrote in her obituary.
“She may have been small in stature, but she was a giant when she walked in a room,” Dawson told AL.com last year. “She knew how to deal with senators, members of the House, judicial candidates.”
Ford got out of politics around the time that her relationship with Hagans was intensifying. The couple took long drives, shared an appreciation for Winston Churchill and talked about what the rest of their lives would look like, Hagans said. They loved cooking together, with Ford wanting to cook big meals when guests came over for game nights and holidays.
Her father, however, did not approve of the couple’s relationship, Hagans said. At one point, the pastor demanded that the couple not communicate with each other for 30 days, Hagans said. When they decided to keep dating, the decision fractured the relationship between Hannah Ford and her father.
“We jumped through all of his hoops to be together,” Hagans previously told The Post. “We had to figure out if going through the craziness was worth it. She told me, ‘I can’t believe you didn’t just stop. You had every reason to stop. Why didn’t you just move on?’ And I was like, ‘You’re worth it; you’re an amazing person.’ ”
When Hagans and Ford got engaged on Dec. 5, 2020, she shared on Facebook how she had cried her eyes out with “happy tears.”
“I still can’t believe I actually got to say YES to you!!!” she wrote. “I LOVE YOU and I simply can’t wait to be your WIFE!!!!!”
The couple’s wedding date was fast approaching, and they began to look at venues. As they were leaving a barn venue, they talked about how they still had much planning to do. She leaned over, kissed Hagans on the cheek and told him she was looking forward to seeing him in a couple days.
“I love you so much. I hate leaving you,” he recalled her saying. “I just can’t wait until we don’t have to be apart.”
It was about 7 p.m. on Jan. 16, 2021, and Ford was driving from the venue to her home in Montgomery. But as she was traveling on Narrow Lane Road, the driver of a sedan lost control and collided with another car, which rammed into Ford’s SUV, according to police.
When she didn’t respond to his texts or voice mails, Hagans contacted her roommate and learned she had not reached home. He knew something was wrong and raced about 60 miles from his home in Opelika to Montgomery.
When he approached the intersection of the crash, he asked whether anyone involved in the wreck matched Ford’s description. Paramedics took him to see the crushed car, which caused him to collapse in the middle of the street.
“I was thinking, ‘There’s no way she could be gone,’ ” Hagans said. “She was the most loving and kind and hopeful and generous person I ever met.”
She died Jan. 17, 2021, just days after her 27th birthday.
“She was one mile away from her home,” Dawson told AL.com.
The sadness of losing his fiancee deepened, Hagans said, when her family made it clear to him that he wasn’t welcome at her funeral.
Hagans was pulled over by police in Opelika in January. By the time he had gathered his license and registration, he said there were three police cars. Authorities told him there was an arrest warrant for him in Auburn — something Hagans said was “impossible.”
“The cop said, ‘I’ve never seen this before, but the warrant is for littering,’ ” Hagans said. “When I was sitting in the back seat of the police car, I saw that [Tom Ford’s] name was on there.”
Certain burial plots in the state are owned and controlled by the family of the deceased and are considered private property. David Dorton, a spokesman for the city of Auburn, confirmed to The Post that Hagans was arrested Jan. 24 “after a warrant was signed by another citizen.”
“Any citizen has the right to pursue a criminal charge against another upon showing that sufficient probable cause exists to believe that a crime has been committed,” Dorton said in a statement.
On Thursday, Tom Ford testified in the nonjury trial at Auburn Municipal Court that Hagans had placed a total of 10 planter boxes on the grave since May 2021, which the father either discarded or sent back to the man who would have been his son-in-law.
“The first box, when I saw where it was, I picked it up and it fell apart,” Ford said, according to the Opelika-Auburn News. “It was a rotten piece of wood with some pictures on it, so I discarded it.”
Ford testified that the cemetery has regulations on what can be placed at a gravesite. City Prosecutor Justin Clark noted that these regulations outline how “benches, urns, boxes, shells, toys and other similar articles are not permitted to be placed or maintained on any lot of grave in said cemetery.”
Neither Ford nor Clark immediately responded to requests for comment.
Ford acknowledged in court that he “certainly did not” approve of the relationship between his daughter and Hagans, adding that he only found out about their engagement from other people. He said he had asked a friend to tell Hagans to “please not put [planter boxes] there anymore, that they weren’t wanted, and that they weren’t allowed by the city.” When the seventh, eighth and ninth planter boxes were removed, Ford filed a criminal complaint with the Auburn Police Department. A 10th planter box was found after the complaint was filed, he said.
“I find no joy to be here, and I did everything I could not to be here,” Ford said this week, according to the News.
Before he was convicted, Hagans expressed his gratitude on Facebook to the friends and family who have supported him, “or just let me vent,” about not just losing his fiancee but also being tried for putting a planter box of flowers on her grave.
“It means more to me than you will ever know,” he wrote. “It has honestly saved my life.”