A year after Athena Strand’s death in North Texas, her accused killer still awaits trial

One year after the abduction and death of 7-year-old Athena Strand in North Texas, her accused killer is still awaiting trial.

Athena disappeared from her father’s home near the Wise County town of Paradise on Nov. 30, 2022. Her body was found two days later at a site along the Trinity River, less than 10 miles from the house.

Law enforcement officers arrested Tanner Horner, a FedEx contract driver who delivered a Christmas gift of Barbies for Athena to her father’s home right before the 7-year-old went missing.

According to the arrest warrant affidavit, Horner confessed to authorities that he backed into Athena with his FedEx truck. She wasn’t seriously hurt, but he kidnapped her, strangled her and killed her so she couldn’t tell her father about the accident, he said.

A Wise County grand jury indicted Horner on Feb. 16 on charges of aggravated kidnapping and capital murder of a child. The next day prosecutors with the Wise County District Attorney’s Office filed notice with the 271st District Court that they intend to seek the death penalty for Horner if he’s convicted of capital murder at trial.

On March 6, Horner pleaded not guilty at his arraignment hearing in Wise County.

Today's top stories:

New details in investigation of head-on crash that killed Fort Worth CEO, 2 kids

North Texas resident shoots elderly man who crashed into home in medical episode

Man pleads guilty in bizarre murder after forcing victim to get neck tattoo

🚨Get free alerts when news breaks.

Technicalities have since slowed the case, which was temporarily paused for a time over the question of who should represent Horner at his trial, according to the Wise County Messenger.

In July, a district judge in Wise County ruled to remove Horner’s court-appointed attorneys, Bill Ray and Steven Gordon, and replace them with lawyers from the Regional Public Defender’s Office, according to court documents. The ruling resulted from the judge learning that RPDO has a contract with Wise County to represent capital murder defendants.

The following month, Wise County District Attorney James Stainton asked the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to rule on what he believed could be “a reversible error” by the judge. Stainton had previously told the Messenger he didn’t want to risk Horner appealing for a new trial if convicted based on the decision to change attorneys.

Horner appeared in the 271st District Court in Decatur on Oct. 16 to clarify his attorney preference, the Wise County Messenger reported. It was his first time to speak on the record about his case.

“I would like RPDO to continue representing me on my capital murder case,” Horner said.

Horner also said he didn’t want Ray and Gordon representing him on the aggravated kidnapping charge and asked the judge to assign him another attorney.

A date has not been set for Horner’s trial, which may be held in 2024 at the earliest.

Athena’s parents, Jacob Strand and Maitlyn Gandy, have filed a wrongful death civil lawsuit against Horner, FedEx and Big Topspin Inc., which is the Dallas-based contractor that employed Horner.

Strand and Gandy are asking for a jury trial and damages of more than $1 million, with the amount to be determined by jurors.

“This lawsuit is about Athena Strand — a vibrant young girl who deserves to have her memory live on for the good she brought to the world,” the lawsuit says. “It is about a life that was taken senselessly — a child who could have been any of ours. It is about a loss that could have and should have been prevented.”

Gov. Greg Abbott signed the “Athena Alert” bill into law in July. The “Athena Alert” is intended to bridge the gap between the time a child goes missing and the time a state-wide Amber Alert is issued. Under the new law, local authorities can quickly activate a regional alert without verification of an abduction.