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Eight months pregnant with Ernest Hoskins' son, a child she plans to name after his father, Nikki Hoskins came into the North Little Rock bookstore where we'd agreed to meet wearing her uniform from a local restaurant, her face clearly wrung out with grief.
She and Ernest — who almost everybody but Nikki and his mother called "Kiid," after his hip-hop music name, Kiid Fresh — met on Facebook when she was 20 and he was 17. Nikki knew he was too young for her, but even then he was clearly intriguing: handsome, an artist, a poet and musician, a smart, driven young man who carried a notebook crammed with lyrics and thoughts and sketched out schemes on how to make something of himself in business or on the stage. They became close friends, but Ernest often hinted that he wanted more.
"He was always like: 'You're going to be my girlfriend,' " Nikki said. " 'You're going to be mine. I'm going to make you my wife someday.' We did that for two years, and finally got to the point where we were ready for something serious in our lives."
Raised by a single mother after his father passed away from a heart attack in 1998, Ernest seemed more ready than most young men to settle down. He and Nikki started dating in July 2011, and things progressed quickly.
"We loved each other to death within a month," she said. "Everybody was like: 'I think you're moving too fast.' But people didn't know the whole story. They didn't know he'd been in the picture the whole time. We just weren't dating."
She'd already agreed to marry him by the time their first anniversary as a couple rolled around on July 27, 2012. They were planning a big December wedding, but the morning of their anniversary, Ernest came in and surprised her. "He said, 'Get up. Let's go get married,' " Nikki said. "I was like: Quit playing. But he said, 'Get up, let's go do this. Let's go downtown.' ... It was a whiff of the moment thing. We're going to get married right now." And so they did. Less than a month later, they found out Nikki was pregnant.
Ernest had always worked hard, taking classes at Pulaski Tech and Phoenix University after his graduation from Hall High, often juggling more than one job. He worked on his music at night, releasing hip-hop tracks on YouTube and Facebook. He was selling Direct TV systems when he met Chris Reynolds.
"Christopher came into the store where he was working," Nikki said. "[Ernest] tried to sell Chris some satellite service. I guess Chris liked his way of doing things ... he gave him a business card and said, 'You should come work for me.' "
Seeking a steady income that would allow Nikki to stay home and raise their son and the goddaughter they had adopted, Ernest went for it in September 2012, becoming a salesman for Reynolds' company, Reynell Industries in Ward.
With gas prices spiraling, Reynell Industries was trying to tap into consumers' frustration at the pump by distributing a system that supplements gasoline engines with compressed natural gas or hydrogen. In addition, Reynolds' home in Ward is listed as the headquarters for a non-profit called The Reynolds Foundation Group Inc., which claims through its website, reynoldfoundationgroup.org, to offer self-defense training, bullying-prevention programs, relationship counseling, stalking-prevention tips, and other services. Most of the links at the site are either dead ends, or prompt the user to set an appointment. Attempts to reach Christopher Reynolds were unsuccessful, and the Times was told by someone at the office of Reynolds' attorney, Hubert Alexander of Jacksonville, that Alexander generally doesn't talk to the press. A message the Times left for Alexander went unreturned.
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