Troubled teen T.J. Ashford arrived in Port Charles on Shawn Butler's doorstep after his mother decided she could no longer handle raising him. T.J. had been given the choice to either take up residence with Shawn or attend military school. Shawn was reluctant to take T.J. in until T.J. reminded Shawn that he would not have to turn to him if Shawn had not killed his father. Shawn reminded T.J. that his father had been a good friend and fellow Marine and his death had truly been an accident.
Shawn did agree to allow T.J. to move in with him and he enrolled in the same high school as Molly Lansing. Molly offered to tutor T.J. while he adjusted to the new school. T.J. was more interested in the work Shawn did for the Corinthos organization than school but Shawn refused to allow T.J. anywhere near the business of organized crime. Regardless, T.J. tested Shawn almost immediately. He stole a car and took it for a joyride until the police caught up with him. Molly's mother, attorney Alexis Davis, arranged for the charges to be dropped.
Shawn believed that Molly would be a good influence on T.J. and he arranged for the teens to continue to spend time together. Molly realized that T.J. was unable to read and she offered to teach him. In return, T.J. agreed to help Molly increase her popularity and he created a "Myface" account for her under a false name. He also hosted an underage drinking party at Molly's home. The party was broken up by Alexis and she banned Molly and T.J. from having any further contact.
T.J. and Molly ignored her mother and they started to date in secret. Once Alexis realized that T.J. and Molly were together she ordered them to end their relationship. Shawn intervened on the young couple's behalf and convinced Alexis to allow them to spend supervised time together.
Shortly after T.J. and Molly received approval on their relationship they both faced death after Jerry Jacks poisoned the town's water supply with a deadly toxin. Molly and T.J. contemplated making love so they would be able to share that experience before they died but decided against it. They spent what they believed were their final hours together and celebrated together when they learned that an antidote existed and they would survive.
Several months later, T.J.'s trust in Molly waivered after she befriended a teenaged boy named Rafe Kovich. Molly insisted that she and Rafe were only friends but T.J. became jealous of the time the pair spent together. T.J. was shocked by Molly's actions after she helped Rafe escape from police custody and hid him at her home. T.J. warned Rafe to stay away from Molly and tried to rein in his jealousy but Molly was hurt by his lack of trust. Molly broke her plans to attend prom with T.J. and he believed that she wanted to be with Rafe instead. T.J. turned to Taylor Dubois for comfort and they slept together. T.J. immediately regretted his decision to sleep with Taylor and he reconciled with Molly. Taylor tried to break them apart but her attempts were unsuccessful.
T.J.'s relationship with Molly remained strong even after Shawn and Alexis dated and broke-up. Alexis feared that Shawn was too deeply ensconced in organized crime. T.J. was forced to see the truth about Shawn's true occupation after he made a visit to a warehouse owned by Sonny Corinthos. T.J. discovered a rival mob affiliate, Carlos Rivera, held hostage inside. T.J. freed Carlos but was then held at gunpoint and used as a human shield by Carlos when a gunfight ensued between mob rivals. T.J. escaped unharmed.
Although Shawn tried to keep T.J. safe, the rival crime syndicate threatened him. Shawn reached out to T.J.'s mother Jordan in case T.J. needed to leave town. The threat to T.J.'s safety lessened but his mother arrived in Port Charles and demanded to take her son back to Maryland. He refused to leave Molly and Shawn which prompted Jordan to change her plans. She chose to remain in town to be near her son.