Maitlyn Gandy (pictured right), mother of Athena Strand (pictured center), the seven-year-old girl who was kidnapped and strangled by a FedEx driver outside of her Dallas home last month, has said she hopes her daughter’s killer will be sentenced to death.
During her first television interview, Gandy (pictured) described in detail how the family have managed to get through the last couple of weeks since Athena was strangled to death by Tanner Horner, 31, in the back of his delivery van. She shared harrowing details of how Athena’s three-year-old sister, Rilyn, longs for her to come home and seems to not yet fully comprehend what has happened to her sibling. She also revealed the deeply personal moment of seeing Athena’s face one final time as she closed the casket at her little girl’s funeral.
Athena (pictured) vanished from her father’s home in Wise County on November 30, her body was recovered two days later. The suspect Tanner Horner, 31, told investigators that he accidentally hit Strand with his truck, ‘panicked,’ and then strangled her. Gandy says that if and when a trial happens, she hopes that prosecutors will push for Horner to be executed.
The death penalty still exists as a form of punishment in the state of Texas, however during 2022 juries sentenced just two people to death. ‘I support the death penalty. In any sentencing that may come,’ Gandy told WFAA. ‘Every breath he takes is one my daughter doesn’t. If I could sit down in front of him, I would tell him that he is nothing, but that Athena is absolutely everything, and I will make sure that everybody in this world knows that he is nothing and that she is everything.’
Horner (pictured) is facing charges of capital murder and aggravated kidnapping. He is being held on a $1.5 million bail. Horner told investigators that Athena wasn’t seriously hurt after he hit her while backing up, but he panicked and put her in his van. He said she was talking to him and told him her name, according to an affidavit. But Horner said he didn’t want her to tell her father what happened, so he first tried to break the girl’s neck and when that didn’t work he strangled her with his hands in the back of the van, the warrant said. Horner later took investigators to where he’d left Athena’s body.
Gandy says she wished he had simply driven away and let her daughter walk. ‘We are very forgiving people. If Athena was not injured or even if she had a few bumps and scrapes, he could have just driven away. We could have forgiven him,’ Gandy said. ‘Accidents do happen, but he chose to do more – and what he did was unforgivable. I have a hard time believing Athena couldn’t have walked away. Athena could have just walked away, and I wish he would have let her.’ During what is her first sit-down interview since the tragedy, Gandy says she is still grieving for her daughter while still trying to care for her younger sister, Rilyn. ‘I triple-check my doors every night, and I hold my three-year-old tighter. I’m scared to let her go. Everything is just very, very scary and very, very sad,’ Gandy said through tears.
‘It’s been rough for our family. For my other three-year-old. She doesn’t understand why she can’t call “sissy” or why she hasn’t come home yet. It’s a long time for her to go without seeing her sister,’ she explains. ‘We’re coping. We’re trying to function. It’s been long. Hard but very chaotic at the same time. I’m sad. I’m angry. I’m confused. I am doing my best. I’ve been very scared, and I don’t sleep very often or for an extended period of time. Noises at night scare me.’
Gandy says one of the hardest moments she has had to endure was when she saw he little girl’s face for the final time as she lay her to rest at her funeral. ‘I was the one who saw her face last,’ she says. ‘I closed her casket before her daddy, uncles and grandfathers carried her out. I just held her hand, kissed her and told her how sorry I was, and how much I love her. That was the last time I saw her.’ Pictured: The seven-year-old was laid to rest in a bright pink coffin at a private funeral service.
Although Athena’s body was placed in the casket for the funeral service (pictured), Gandy brought her cremated remains home in an urn because said she was ‘not anywhere close to letting my baby go.’ ‘Our family is grateful for the help from the community and law enforcement. I wouldn’t have made it through without those people. I just wish that they’d have gotten to meet Athena because everybody would have loved her. It was a privilege to know her, to raise her and be her mother. The love and the prayers are felt,’ Gandy says while thanking the community and those who have supported the family in recent weeks.
During the more than 20 minute long interview, Gandy’s voice cracks several times and she is unable to hold back tears, frequently looking to the ceiling as she attempts to regain composure. By far the most moving part of the discussion about Athena is Gandy paying tribute to the seven-year-old.
‘Raising her was the best seven years of my life, and I just expected a lot more years,’ Gandy stated. ‘Raising my girls has always been everything to be and I was robbed of that. I only wish that everybody who helped me find Athena would have actually gotten to meet Athena. Because everybody would have loved her so much more than they think they already do. It was a privilege to know Athena and be her mother. She’s not just a name or a face. She was a real little girl. She was very very loved and she was taken from me. I want people to know not to take the time with their children for granted because I would do anything to go back to May 23, 2015, and relive every moment from that time forward.’
Earlier in the week, Jacob Strand, Athena’s father launched a million dollar lawsuit against FedEx and Horner. In the new lawsuit, Jacob Strand also names the contractor hired by FedEx that employed Horner, Big Topspin. One section of the lawsuit alleges that FedEx put ‘dangerous persons in a position of trust’ even though Horner wasn’t employed directly by the packaging giant. Another section accuses FedEx of having ‘significant control’ of people who come to their customer’s homes. Jacob Strand argues that neither FedEx nor Big Topspin ran a proper background check on the suspect. He has no known criminal history. Big Topspin serves the area where Strand was last seen, the van driven by the suspect is owned by FedEx and the suspect was authorized to wear the company’s uniform, the lawsuit says.
A statement on Strand’s employment from FedEx read: ‘The employees of these service provider companies are subject to criminal history background checks as part of the driver eligibility process.’ The press release continued: ‘As is common across the industry and considered standard employment practice, the background check process is administered by a third party.’ The slain girl’s family is seeking over $1 million in damage. In a brief statement, FedEx said that they were of the suit adding: ‘Our thoughts remain with the family of Athena Strand in the wake of this tragedy.’ In addition to the money, Jacob Strand’s wants the lawsuit to be decided by a jury trial in Wise County District Court.
The lawsuit mentions other criminal cases involving FedEx drivers including the case of a New York-based driver who killed a woman and then burned her home to the ground. One section reads: ‘FedEx has continued their normal business operations although it is clear that their current efforts, if any, to ensure, that they are not putting dangerous persons in a position of trust wearing FedEx uniforms, driving FedEx branded vehicles and sending them to the doorsteps of the homes of nearly every person in America is woefully inadequate to avoid endangering the public.’ The affidavit revealed that Horner’s FedEx truck was equipped with a video camera. Feeds from the video showed Horner bringing a girl resembling Athena into the truck.
Horner (pictured) could be seen speaking with girl inside the truck in the video. It is unclear if he could be seen attacking her in the footage. The affidavit describes in horrifying detail how Horner murdered the seven-year-old in cold blood. Texas authorities said Horner’s case is scheduled to be turned over to the district attorney next week. In the meantime, the Wise County Sheriff’s Office will continue to follow-up on tips they receive from the public so they can build an air-tight case against him. ‘Because of the age of the child, and because it was an abduction, we are going to pursue the death penalty,’ Sheriff Lane Atkin told WFAA.
Gandy also vowed she will continue to seek justice for her daughter. ‘I will spend the rest of my life fighting for her so that no other family will endure such unbearable pain and grief,’ she said. ‘A monster attempted to take Athena’s voice — but we are her voice,’ Gandy told reporters Thursday, adding: ‘Screening and hiring policies must be put into place so that monsters wearing delivery uniforms don’t show up on our children’s footsteps.’
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