A FedEx driver has been arrested and faces kidnapping and murder charges after a the body of a missing 7-year-old girl was found Friday, authorities said.
The disappearance of 7-year-old Athena Strand from her home in rural Wise County, Texas, had prompted a widespread local search. At 4:15 p.m. on Wednesday, she stepped off her school bus and arrived home. At 6:40 p.m. the same day, the Wise County sheriff's office dispatch received a 911 call from her stepmother, reporting the young girl was missing. The two had just had an argument while Athena's father was not home, CBS News reported, and initially, authorities believed she had run away.
Wise County Sheriff Lane Akin spoke to reporters on Friday evening, several hours after her body was found. "It's one of the toughest investigations that I've been involved in because it's a child. And anytime there's a child that dies, it just hits you in your heart," he said.
Authorities received a tip Friday that led them to suspect a FedEx driver had taken the child from her driveway, which extends about 200 yards from the home. Tanner Lynn Horner, a 31-year-old contract driver for FedEx, delivered a package to the Strand family home around the time that Athena disappeared, Akin said, and he was arrested Friday.
Akin said the driver confessed to the kidnapping and murder of Strand, and after giving detectives at least two false locations, he directed them to the child's body. Investigators believe she was killed an hour after her abduction, and she was found near a country road about six miles from her home.
Horner sits in Wise County jail; according to records, his bond is set at $1.5 million. The sheriff's department did not share a known motive, but Akin said Horner did not know the family or Athena. Her cause of death has not yet officially been released.
Her mother, Maitlyn Presley Gandy, posted a tribute on Facebook on Saturday, describing the girl as "just the brightest, happiest soul you could ever meet." Gandy said Athena loved dressing up as princesses, swimming, drawing, and going to school, and she had a fondness for jewelry and anything shiny. Her favorite fast food joint was McDonald's, and her favorite color was pink. She wanted to be a Viking princess when she grew up.
"My daughters name is Athena Presley Monroe Strand, which she would happily announce to anyone listening, and anyone not listening she would make listen," Gandy wrote. "I don't want her to be the girl known as the one murdered and discarded by a monster. I want everyone to know, every single person in this world, that this is my baby and my baby was taken from me. I want everyone to know her face and her voice and just how wonderful of a person she is."
The Wise County sheriff's office and Gandy did not immediately respond to BuzzFeed News on Saturday.
In an email, FedEx told BuzzFeed News it sometimes contracts with independent businesses that use their own employees and vehicles to make FedEx deliveries. "The employees of these service provider companies are subject to criminal history background checks as part of the driver eligibility process," a spokesperson said.
The company also offered condolences to the Strand family.
"Our thoughts are with the family of Athena Strand during this most difficult time. Words cannot describe our shock and sorrow surrounding this tragic event. We continue to cooperate fully with the investigating authorities."