Athena Strand

Accused Killer Tanner Horner Pleads Not Guilty in Athena Strand Murder

Nearly two dozen members of law enforcement appear at an arraignment hearing in a show of support for the victim's family

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A FedEx driver who confessed to police he killed a 7-year-old girl last November pleaded not guilty Monday morning during his capital murder arraignment hearing.

Tanner Horner, 31, last December, told police he accidentally hit 7-year-old Athena Strand with his delivery truck on Nov. 30 and that he killed the girl with his bare hands after he got scared when she said she was going to tell her father about the minor accident.

Horner, police said, then told investigators where to find the missing girl's body two days after she disappeared. He was indicted on a capital murder charge last month.

Benson Varghese, an attorney representing Strand's mother, Maitlyn Gandy, spoke outside of the courthouse after the hearing Monday morning and said Horner's attorneys waived arraignment and entered the plea of not guilty on their client's behalf.

Horner, Varghese said, said nothing at the hearing.

Gandy was in the Wise County Court Center courtroom for the arraignment hearing. It was the first time she'd been in the same room with the man accused of killing her daughter.

"It was probably one of the most difficult moments of her life, to see the person who killed her daughter. It's a moment she's thought about for a long time. I suppose it's surreal in some senses but it was of just grave importance for her to be there."

Gandy was joined in the courtroom by about 20 members of law enforcement, about half of whom had been involved in the search for the missing girl and the investigation into her death.

"This morning, something that was unusual is that the courtroom was full of law enforcement officials. We had the constable we had the sheriff, we had rangers, there were at least 20 individuals from various law enforcement agencies in the courtroom," Varghese said. "It means a lot to her [Maitlyn Gandy] and a number of the individuals who were involved in the investigation came up and gave her hugs and greeted her warmly ... and just showed up for her and that was powerful."

Last month Gandy joined a civil lawsuit filed by her ex-husband, Athena's father, against Horner, FedEx Ground and Big Topspin, the contracted delivery service that hired Horner to deliver packages. The family is seeking more than $1 million in damages.

The civil lawsuit, Varghese said, gives them additional abilities to investigate the circumstances around the girl's death including who was responsible as well as all of the decision-makers who could have prevented the girl's death from happening.

Prosecutors announced last month they plan to seek the death penalty in the capital murder case.

Horner, it was later learned, on the day of the murder delivered a six-pack of "You Can Be Anything" Barbie dolls that were meant to be a Christmas present for Athena. In January, Mattel donated 2,000 Barbies and other toys to Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth in Athena's honor.

Horner remains in the Wise County Jail on six bonds totaling $1,560,000. Horner is also being held on four charges of sexual assault of a child dating back to 2013 unrelated to the Strand case.

No other court dates have been set in the case.

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