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FedEx driver strangled girl after hitting her with van, warrant says

Attendees offer their respects for Athena Strand after a memorial service in Paradise, Tex., on Tuesday. Strand went missing from her home in Wise County last week, and her body was found Friday evening. (Shafkat Anowar/The Dallas Morning News via AP)

Seven-year-old Athena Strand was last seen in her room at her father’s Paradise, Tex., home on the evening of Nov. 30, sorting her laundry while her stepmother, Elizabeth Strand, cooked dinner. Around a half-hour later, when Elizabeth went looking for Athena, she was gone. A team of first responders searched overnight and through the next day but did not find the missing girl.

Then, detectives got a lead: FedEx had delivered a package to the Strands’ home around the time Athena went missing.

Investigators tracked down the driver, Tanner Horner, who authorities say made the delivery. According to an arrest warrant released to the public Thursday, Horner told investigators he had accidentally hit Athena with his van, then brought her into the vehicle and strangled her.

Maitlyn Gandy, Athena’s mother, said Horner had been delivering a pink box of Barbie dolls: Athena’s Christmas present.

“The package contained ‘You Can Be Anything’ Barbies,” Gandy said through tears at a news conference Thursday at the Wise County Courthouse, glancing at the same pink box displayed next to her. “Athena was robbed of the opportunity to grow up to be anything she wanted to be.”

Horner, 31, was arrested Friday night and charged with aggravated kidnapping and capital murder of a person under 10 years old. He is being held in a Wise County jail, where he remained as of Thursday night with a bond set at $1.5 million. Court records do not list an attorney for him.

Officials say he was driving for Big Topspin, a Dallas-based contracting company that delivers packages for FedEx. Big Topspin and individuals identified online as its directors could not be reached for comment Thursday night at several associated phone numbers.

A spokesperson for FedEx said in a statement to The Washington Post that employees of “service provider businesses” are subject to background checks that screen for any criminal histories.

“We share in the collective grief surrounding this heartbreaking tragedy,” the statement added.

Athena loved dancing, singing and all kinds of animals — dogs, cats, horses, lizards and chinchillas, Gandy said. She loved flowers but also wasn’t afraid to “get down in the mud.”

“I will spend the rest of my life fighting for her,” Gandy said.

Vigil held in Texas to honor 7-year-old Athena Strand

Once they learned of the FedEx delivery, investigators said they retrieved video footage from inside the delivery van used that evening that showed the driver taking a girl who looked like Athena into the vehicle and speaking with her.

Investigators identified Horner as the driver. When they located him, Horner told them that he had hit Athena while backing up his vehicle and then “panicked and put her in the van,” according to the warrant. At the time, Athena was not seriously injured, Horner allegedly said. She was able to talk to him and tell him her name, the warrant states.

Horner told investigators he then attempted to break Athena’s neck and, when that was unsuccessful, strangled the girl to death in the back of the van, according to the arrest warrant. He did so to stop Athena from telling her father that he had hit her with his van, investigators wrote.

According to the warrant, Horner then led authorities to a country road in Boyd, a nearby town, where investigators recovered a body Horner identified as Athena’s.

Horner is from Fort Worth and does not appear to have a prior criminal record in Wise County, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.

On Tuesday night, mourners held a vigil for Athena in Paradise, a small town about 40 miles from Fort Worth. Many showed up dressed in pink. At Thursday’s news conference, Gandy thanked the community for its support and called for changes to hiring policies, so that “monsters wearing delivery uniforms don’t show up on our children’s doorsteps.”

Gandy’s attorney said Thursday that the investigation is ongoing. The Wise County sheriff will ask the district attorney to seek the death penalty for Horner, WFAA reported.