PARADISE, Texas (AP) — The FedEx driver accused of abducting and killing a 7-year-old girl last week in Texas told authorities that he strangled her after accidentally hitting her with his van while making a delivery at her home, according to an arrest warrant obtained Thursday.
Tanner Lynn Horner, 31, told investigators that Athena Strand 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 the warrant.
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. The warrant said Horner took investigators to where he’d left Athena’s body.
Athena was found dead on Dec. 2, two days after she was reported missing from the home of her father and stepmother in Paradise, a town of fewer than 500 people about 60 miles (100 kilometers) northwest of Dallas.
Horner was arrested last week on charges of capital murder and aggravated kidnapping and remained jailed Thursday with his bond set at $1.5 million. Jail records did not list an attorney who could speak on his behalf.
Athena’s mother, Maitlyn Gandy, spoke at a news conference Thursday outside Wise County courthouse in Decatur, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) northeast of Paradise. She said said that the package that Horner dropped off that day was a Christmas present for the “amazing little girl” she wanted everyone to know about.
“I was robbed of watching her grow up,” Gandy said as she stood beside the present, a box of “You Can Be Anything” Barbies.
Wise County Sheriff Lane Akin has said that they knew early on that a delivery had been made at the girl’s home at about the same time that she disappeared. Akin has said she was killed about an “hour or so” after being kidnapped.
Working with employees from the contracting company that was delivering packages for FedEx, investigators determined which van and driver made the delivery, the warrant said. Investigators also learned that the van that delivered the package was equipped with video, the warrant said.
An FBI employee who then watched video from the van could see that the driver had taken a young girl who looked like Athena in the van and had talked to her. The warrant said that when investigators located Horner, he told them Athena was dead and confessed.
Gandy said that Athena had been set to return home to her in Oklahoma after Christmas break.
“Now, instead, Athena will be cremated and she will come home in an urn because I’m not even, I’m not anywhere close to being ready to let my baby go,” she said.
Gandy said her daughter, who loved school and her friends in the first grade, also “loved dancing, singing and all animals: dogs, cats, horses, lizards and chinchillas.”
She said Athena loved flowers, and also wasn’t afraid to get “down in the mud with the boys.” “She was her father’s daughter,” Gandy said.
“I will never see her bright blue eyes or her ornery smile again,” Gandy said. “I will never be able to hear her say, ‘I love you, Mommy.’ I will never be able to do her hair again or to hold her while she sleeps.”
She thanked the community, saying they “flew into action” from the moment Athena went missing and she’s been seeing people everywhere wearing pink in her daughter’s honor. At a vigil Tuesday night in Paradise, many of the mourners gathered to remember Athena wore pink.
“I ask everyone to hold your littles just a little tighter for me,” Gandy said.