A former FedEx Ground contractor, accused of killing 7-year-old Athena Strand of Paradise, Texas, pleaded not guilty to capital murder and aggravated kidnapping charges on Monday during his arraignment in Wise County, Texas.
Wise County District Attorney James Stainton said he intends to seek the death penalty against Tanner Horner, 31, if he is found guilty of capital murder at trial. Stainton filed his notice with the court a day after a grand jury indicted Horner on the two charges in mid-February.
Horner has remained incarcerated at the Wise County Detention Center since his arrest on Dec. 2, two days after Athena went missing from her home.
During the initial search for Athena, investigators discovered that a truck with a FedEx logo had made a delivery to her house around the time she went missing, about 5:45 p.m. on Nov. 30. Through further investigation, law enforcement discovered that Big Topspin was the contracting company used to deliver packages for FedEx.
Employees of Big Topspin helped investigators determine which van and driver had made the delivery to Athena’s home, according to the arrest affidavit.
The arrest affidavit states Horner confessed to accidentally hitting Athena with his GMC box truck when he was backing up. Although she “was not seriously injured [he] panicked and put her in the van.”
“[Horner] stated Athena was alive at that time, talking to him and told him her name was Athena,” according to the affidavit. “[Horner] stated he attempted to break Athena’s neck to kill her. [Horner] stated, when he attempted to break Athena’s neck it did not work so he strangled [her] with his bare hands in the back of the FedEx van.”
The affidavit states that Horner said during the interview that “he strangled Athena because she was going to tell her father about being hit by the FedEx truck [Horner] was operating.”
According to the report, Horner allegedly directed investigators to the location where he dumped Athena’s body near Trinity River in Boyd, Texas.
Civil suit names Horner, FedEx Ground and Big Topspin
Athena’s mother, Maitlyn Grandy, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Horner, FedEx Ground Package System Inc. (NYSE: FDX) and Big Topspin Inc.
Grandy’s attorney, Benson Varghese, managing partner at Varghese Summersett, filed the 19-page lawsuit on Feb. 17 in the 271st District Court, as an intervenor in a civil suit previously filed by Athena’s father, Jacob Strand, in December. The couple are divorced but shared custody of Athena.
“The lawsuit accuses FedEx and Big Topspin of negligence in their hiring of Horner by failing to properly investigate his criminal history, mental history, and prior employment history; failing to properly train and supervise him; and failing to implement and enforce safety policies and procedures,” according to the news release issued by Varghese Summersett.
FedEx Ground spokesperson Meredith Miller said the company’s “thoughts remain with the family of Athena Strand.”
“There is no higher priority for FedEx Ground — and our network of 6,000 independent service provider companies — than ensuring the safety of our operations within the communities we serve,” Miller said in a statement to FreightWaves. “As is common across the industry and considered standard practice, employees of service provider businesses are subject to a criminal history background check as part of the eligibility process.”
Sources familiar with FedEx Ground’s hiring procedures state the company requires its contractors to use First Advantage Corp., headquartered in Atlanta, for background screening services of all of its potential drivers. First Advantage (NASDAQ: FA) isn’t named in the civil litigation.
As of publication, First Advantage did not respond to FreightWaves’ request seeking comment.
Grandy’s lawsuit claims that FedEx [Ground] retains significant control over its contractors like Big Topspin and their employees’ business practices.
Court filings include other criminal cases pending against former FedEx contract drivers, including a driver in New York who was arraigned on murder and arson charges in November for allegedly killing a 74-year-old woman on his delivery route.
Little information is known about how many drivers work for Big Topspin or how long Horner had worked for the FedEx contractor prior to his arrest.
According to the Texas secretary of state’s office, the Dallas-based contractor Big Topspin was incorporated in April 2022 in Dallas.
Big Topspin’s attorney, Kevin Didway, did not respond to FreightWaves’ request seeking comment.
“This lawsuit is about affecting change in the practices of FedEx subcontractors, like Big Topspin, so that these tragic, life-altering and life-ending acts are not repeated,” the civil suit states.
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