Athena Strand: Mom gives the first interview since the 7-year-old’s death

In her first TV interview, Maitlyn Gandy reacts to the confession of her daughter’s accused killer and speaks openly about what she broke up when she laid Athena to rest.

DECTUR, Texas – In a downtown office DecaturMaitlyn Gandy enters the room surrounded by her legal team.

She’s the easiest to spot – her pink hair is what really catches the eye.

The color was the favorite color of Gandy’s eldest daughter, Athena Strand. The mother says that her hair was originally intended to be red. But well, it came as it came.

After enduring two of the most challenging weeks of her life after murdering her 7-year-old child, Gandy says she may never change her hair color again.

“I don’t know if I can now,” Gandy told the WFAA before sitting down for the first formal interview she has given since her daughter’s death.

Gandy found himself in an unforgiving and celebratory spotlight following Strand’s death.

Investigators say a FedEx delivery driver killed her after dropping off a package at Strand’s father’s home in rural paradise.

Athena had lived with her father, who shared custody with Gandy.

It was first thought that the little girl might have migrated away. Hundreds searched for her in the rural corner of Wise County – even an AMBER Alert was issued.

The WFAA first met Gandy hours after the alert. And she wasn’t convinced that her daughter had just taken off. Her instincts as a mother feared something much worse – but she didn’t yet know what it was.

Police eventually identified suspect Tanner Horner, who had turned in a collection of Barbie dolls that were part of Strand’s Christmas gifts on the day of the girl’s disappearance.

Horner, 31, confessed to police that he accidentally hit Athena with his van, panicked, put the little girl in his vehicle and then choked her to death for fear of the consequences.

After his confession, Horner led police to a rural part of Boyd, where he said he abandoned and hid Athena’s body.

Autopsy results are pending.

Ready to speak publicly after the loss of her daughter, Gandy tells the WFAA that Sheriff Lane Akin broke the news to her along with Athena’s father, Jacob.

“I knew from the moment Sheriff Akin walked in that he was going to tell me everything I felt that happened,” says Gandy. “It’s hard to look people in the eye when you tell them the worst news of their lives. So I knew when he entered the room and looked down. I remember feeling broken and empty and I couldn’t breathe. It took my dad and the FBI trauma agent to help me breathe again.”

The most haunting part of Horner’s confession: He told investigators that little Athena was alive and spoke to him before he took his own life.

“Athena could have just walked away… and I wish he would have let her.”

Gandy says there was a chance for him to do the right thing in that moment, to call for help or let family know what happened.

“Jacob and I are very forgiving people,” says Gandy. “If Athena hadn’t been injured or if there had only been bumps and scratches, he could have just driven away. Accidents happen, but he decided to do more – and what he did was unforgivable. I did Athena’s hair and dressed her before the funeral. I have a hard time believing Athena could not have gone away. Athena could have just walked away… and I wish he would have let her.”

Horner now faces counts of capital murder and aggravated kidnapping. He is represented by a lawyer appointed by the court.

Law enforcement agencies and prosecutors in Wise County have announced they will seek the death penalty in his case.

“Every breath he takes is one my daughter doesn’t.”

Gandy wholeheartedly agrees with this decision.

“I support the death penalty,” says Gandy. “Every breath he takes is one my daughter doesn’t.”

If Gandy Horner could ask or say anything, she would just remind him.

“If I could sit down in front of him, I would tell him that he is nothing, but Athena is absolutely everything,” says Gandy. “And I will make sure that everyone in this world knows that.”

Gandy has since hired a team of lawyers who are now investigating the case for a possible civil lawsuit against FedEx Ground and Dallas-based contractor Big Topspin Inc., who hired Horner. Her husband Jacob and his legal team have already filed one such lawsuit alleging negligence on the part of the two companies.

Big Topspin is operated out of a Dallas dorm and has yet to respond to WFAA requests for comment.

A FedEx spokesman told WFAA on Wednesday: “Our thoughts go out to Athena Strand’s family following this tragedy. We are aware of the complaint filed against FedEx Ground.”

Horner had no known criminal history, but questions concern his employment history, training, induction and supervision.

Meanwhile, from her home in Comanche, Oklahoma, Gandy watches and waits for Horner’s criminal trial to begin.

“I triple check my doors every night and hold my 3 year old tighter. I’m afraid to let her go. Everything is just very scary and sad.”

Athena’s murder has gripped many in North Texas and the United States because the circumstances of her death make it seem like any child could have met the same fate.

But the pain stays with Gandy alone, who is still taking care of her other 3-year-old girl.

“She doesn’t understand why she can’t call ‘sissy’ or why she hasn’t come home yet,” says Gandy. “I’m sad. I am angry. I’m confused. I give my best. I was scared and don’t sleep very often. I check my doors 3 times every night and I hold my 3 year old tighter. I’m afraid to let her go. Everything is just very scary and sad.”

But Gandy is also aware of the tremendous support and love she has received since Athena’s death.

Donations have poured in from across America and around the world. School children across Texas wore pink to support Gandy and her family on the Monday following Athena’s death.

Thousands attended vigils for the little girl, and several other memorial services were held. A group of motorcyclists have even dubbed themselves “Athena’s Angels,” and they’re riding this weekend to raise funds for Athena’s sisters and their future.

Gandy also wants to start a foundation in Athena’s name to protect and advocate for children.

“Athena was so many things,” says Gandy. “She ran up to everyone, screamed their name and hugged them because she didn’t know any strangers.”

“Raising her was the best seven years of my life and I just expected many more years to come,” Gandy continues. “I just wish that everyone who would have helped me find Athena actually met Athena. Because everyone would have loved her so much more than they think they already do. It was a privilege to know Athena and to be her mother. I am very grateful for everything that everyone has done.”

“She’s not just a name or a face. She was a real little girl and was taken from me.”

One of the most significant donations came from Trey Ganem and SoulShine Industries, who made Athena’s coffin for her funeral.

Gandy said the biggest challenge for her on the day of the service was seeing Athena’s face one last time before she was cremated.

“I was the last person to see her face,” she says. “I closed her coffin before her father, uncles and grandfathers carried her out. I 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.”

Gandy says she has one simple wish above all else: don’t forget Athena Strand.

“I want people to know her,” says Gandy. “She’s not just a name or a face. She was a real little girl and she was taken from me. I want people to know that they don’t take time with their children for granted because I would do anything to return on May 23, 2015, and relive every moment from that point forward.”

Gandy’s legal team is still asking for advice as they investigate what happened. If you have information about the suspect’s employment, past history, or any other information or intelligence that could assist investigators, they ask that you email answersforathena@versusinjury.com. You can also call (817) 203-2220.

https://www.kvue.com/article/news/local/interview-athena-strands-mother-maitlyn-gandy/287-4fbb5bd9-c09a-4aa2-9407-ca03030034b6 Athena Strand: Mom gives the first interview since the 7-year-old’s death

Laura Coffey

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