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‘A lasting impact’: Athena Strand’s ‘nightmare’ murder allegedly at hands of FedEx driver may soon change how Texas handles child abduction alerts

Athena Strand and Tanner Lynn Horner (Wise County Sheriff's Office)

Athena Strand, on the left, and Tanner Lynn Horner, on the right, her alleged killer. (Wise County Sheriff’s Office)

Last November, 7-year-old Athena Presley Monroe Strand was kidnapped and murdered by a contract driver for FedEx who delivered a package of Barbie dolls she was supposed to receive as a Christmas present, Wise County, Texas, authorities have said. Half a year later, the Texas Senate approved a change in state law that would enable missing or abducted children alerts to go out more easily within a 100-mile radius, according to attorneys for Athena’s mother.

Lawyers with Varghese Summersett said in a press release Thursday that the “Athena Alert” bill Maitlyn Gandy fought for “overwhelmingly” passed in the Texas Senate, meaning the AMBER Alert-esque legislation would next head to the desk of Gov. Greg Abbott for signing. The “key distinction,” as attorney Benson Varghese put it, is that “the alert can go out as soon as a child is known to be missing, in close proximity to their last known location.”

“The Athena Alert uses systems that are already in place for an AMBER Alert. The key distinction is that the alert can go out as soon as a child is known to be missing, in close proximity to their last known location. The higher threshold of knowing a child has been abducted is reserved for the statewide notification that the AMBER Alert provides,” the lawyer explained. “The sooner we can get the word out locally, the more chances we have to save a child’s life.”

In other words, unlike the AMBER Alert — which has the “higher threshold” for issuing an alert statewide — an “Athena Alert” would enable an alert to go out regionally without law enforcement having to confirm that an abduction has, in fact, occurred.

HB 3556, which passed in the Texas House on May 9 and was backed by state Rep. Lynn Stucky, says that law enforcement “shall” send out an Athena Alert “within a 100-mile radius of the location from which the child is believed to have gone missing or the county in which the child was last seen” even if authorities haven’t “verified the criteria described by Section 411.355(a).”

In the AMBER Alert context, local law enforcement “must verify that the criteria described by Section 411.355(a) or (b), as applicable, have been satisfied” before they can request such a statewide alert. An AMBER Alert went out the day after Athena Strand was abducted because law enforcement did not believe the criteria for a statewide alert had been met, the victim’s mother said. By then, it was already too late to save Athena.

“If this alert had been in place when my daughter disappeared, I have no doubt that the Wise County Sheriff’s Office would have activated it. Unfortunately, their hands were tied because my daughter’s disappearance didn’t immediately meet the strict criteria for a statewide AMBER alert,” Maitlyn Gandy told lawmakers.  “It was a helpless feeling that I wouldn’t wish on any parent. My hope is that every state will follow Texas’ lead and amend the law so that no other parent has to wait when their child is missing.”

Gandy said in a statement Thursday about the legislative victory that it “means so much to know that my daughter’s life will have a lasting impact.”

“I am so grateful to Texas lawmakers for fast-tracking the Athena Alert and for everyone who has supported this legislation,” she said.

Gandy and Athena Strand’s father Jacob Strand previously filed a lawsuit against Tanner Horner, the 31-year-old capital murder suspect previously employed as a contract driver for FedEx through Big Topspin.

FedEx truck in Athena Strand case

Pictured the FedEx truck allegedly driven by Tanner Horner (via exhibit in parents’ civil lawsuit)

The parents alleged that negligent hiring practices and shoddy background checks allowed Horner — separately accused of three counts of child sexual abuse stemming from unrelated alleged 2013 incidents — to strangle Athena Strand to death after delivering “You Can Be Anything” Barbie dolls she never got to open.

The little girl was playing in the front yard outside her Paradise, Texas, home when she was abducted.

Athena Strand's Barbie dolls

Pictured: The Barbie dolls Athena Strand never got to play with (via exhibit in parents’ civil lawsuit)

Horner was indicted in February on capital murder and kidnapping charges in Athena’s death, and prosecutors expressed their intent to seek the death penalty.

Though the suspect has allegedly admitted that “he attempted to break Athena’s neck [and] it did not work so he strangled with his bare hands in the back of the Fed Ex van,” Horner pleaded not guilty when he was arraigned in March.

“HORNER brutally murdered Athena by strangling, smothering, or asphyxiating Athena. HORNER then continued his trail of terror in the FEDEX vehicle by attempting to ‘dispose’ of Athena’s body by placing her in a body of water on the side of the road,” the civil lawsuit said, calling the case “every parent’s worst nightmare.”

Law&Crime reached out to Gov. Abbott’s office for comment.

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Matt Naham is the Senior A.M. Editor of Law&Crime.