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Athena Strand's mom would tell her daughter's killer 'he is nothing, and she is everything' if given the chance

In her first TV interview, Maitlyn Gandy reacts to the confession of her daughter's accused killer and opens up about what broke her while laying Athena to rest.

DECATUR, Texas — In an office in Downtown Decatur, Maitlyn Gandy enters the room surrounded by her legal team. 

She is the easiest to spot -- her pink hair stands out above all. 

The color was Gandy's oldest daughter Athena Strand's favorite. The mother says her hair was initially intended the color to be red. But, well, it turned out the way it did. 

After enduring two of the most challenging weeks of her life following the murder of her 7-year-old child, Gandy says she might never change her hair color again. 

"I don't know if I can now," Gandy told WFAA before sitting down for the first formal interview she's given since her daughter's death.

Gandy has been in an unforgiving and solemn spotlight following Strand's death. 

Investigators say a FedEx contract delivery driver killed her after dropping off a package at the home of Strand's father in rural Paradise. 

Credit: WFAA
Man accused of killing 7-year-old Athena Strand was delivering her Christmas present, mom reveals

Athena had been living with her dad, who was sharing custody with Gandy. 

It was first believed that the little girl might have wandered off. Hundreds searched for her in the rural corner of Wise County -- an AMBER Alert was even issued

WFAA first met Gandy hours after the alert. And she wasn't convinced her daughter had just ran off. Her instincts as a mother feared something much worse -- what that was, though, she didn't yet know. 

Police finally zeroed in on suspect Tanner Horner, who had dropped off a collection of Barbie dolls that were part of Strand's Christmas presents on the day the girl went missing. 

Horner, 31, confessed to police that he accidentally hit Athena with his delivery van, panicked, put the little girl inside his vehicle and then strangled her to death, fearing what consequences would come. 

After his confession, Horner led police to a rural part of Boyd, where he said he abandoned and hid Athena's body. 

Autopsy results are still pending. 

Now ready to speak publicly in the wake of losing her daughter, Gandy tells WFAA that Sheriff Lane Akin broke the news to her alongside Athena's father, Jacob. 

"I knew from the moment that Sheriff Akin walked in that he would tell me everything that I had felt that happened," Gandy says. "It's hard to look people in the face when you're giving them the worst news of their life. So I knew when he walked into the room, and he was looking down. I remember feeling broken and empty, and I couldn't breathe. It took my dad and the FBI trauma agent to help me start breathing again." 

The most haunting part of Horner's confession: He told investigators that little Athena was alive and talking to him before taking her life. 

"Athena could have just walked away... and I wish he would have let her." 

Gandy says there was a chance for him to do the right thing in that moment, to call for help or notify the family of what happened.

Credit: Brandon Mowry
Maitlyn Gandy (left) talks with WFAA's Matt Howerton.

"Jacob and I are very forgiving people," Gandy says. "If Athena was not injured or there were just bumps and scrapes, he could have just driven away. Accidents happen, but he chose to do more -- and what he did was unforgivable. I did Athena's hair and dressed her before the funeral. I have a hard time believing Athena couldn't have walked away. Athena could have just walked away... and I wish he would have let her."

Horner is now facing a charge of capital murder and aggravated kidnapping. An attorney appointed by the court is representing him.  

Law enforcement and prosecutors in Wise County have made it known that they will be seeking the death penalty in his case

"Every breath he takes is one my daughter doesn't."

Gandy fully agrees with that decision. 

"I support the death penalty," Gandy says. "Every breath he takes is one my daughter doesn't."

Credit: Brandon Mowry
Maitlyn Gandy tells WFAA that she supports the death penalty in Horner's case.

If there were anything Gandy could ask or say to Horner, she would give him a simple reminder. 

"If I could sit down in front of him, I would tell him that he is nothing, but Athena is absolutely everything," Gandy says. "And I will make sure that everybody in this world knows that."

Gandy has since hired a legal team that is now investigating the case for a possible civil suit against FedEx Ground and the Dallas-based contractor that hired Horner, 'Big Topspin Inc.' Her husband Jacob and his legal team have already filed such a lawsuit claiming negligence by the two companies

Big Topspin is run out of a residential home in Dallas and has yet to respond to WFAA"s requests for comment

A spokesperson for FedEx told WFAA Wednesday, "Our thoughts remain with the family of Athena Strand in the wake of this tragedy. We are aware of the complaint filed against FedEx Ground."

Horner had no known criminal history, yet questions surround his employment history, training, onboarding and supervision. 

Credit: WFAA
Athena Strand was 7 years old, and was missing for two days before police found her body.

In the meantime, Gandy now watches and waits for Horner's criminal proceedings to begin from her home in Comanche, Oklahoma. 

"I triple-check my doors every night, and I hold my 3-year-old tighter. I'm scared to let her go. Everything is just very scary and sad." 

Athena's murder has gripped many in North Texas and the U.S. because the circumstances surrounding her death feel like anyone's child could have suffered the same fate. 

But the pain remains with Gandy alone, who still cares for her other 3-year-old girl. 

"She doesn't understand why she can't call 'sissy' or why she hasn't come home yet," Gandy says. "I'm sad. I'm angry. I'm confused. I am doing my best. I've been scared, and I don't sleep very often. I triple-check my doors every night, and I hold my 3-year-old tighter. I'm scared to let her go. Everything is just very scary and sad."

But Gandy is also aware of the monstrous support and love she's received since Athena's death. 

Donations have poured in from all over America and globally. School children across Texas wore pink on the Monday after Athena's death to support Gandy and her family. 

Credit: WFAA
A shirt worn at a motorcycle ride memorializing Athena Strand.

Thousands attended vigils held for the little girl, and several other memorial services were held. A group of motorcyclists has even dubbed themselves "Athena's Angels," and they're riding this weekend to raise funds for Athena's sisters and their future. 

Gandy also wants to create a foundation in Athena's name to protect and advocate for children. 

"Athena was so many things," Gandy says. "She would run up to anyone, scream their name and give them hugs because she didn't know a stranger." 

Credit: WFAA
Gandy cremated her daughter rather than bury because, she said, 'I'm not anywhere close to letting my baby go'

"Raising her was the best seven years of my life, and I just expected a lot more years," Gandy continues. "I only wish that everybody who helped me find Athena would have actually gotten to meet Athena. Because everybody would have loved her so much more than they think they already do. It was a privilege to know Athena and be her mother. I am so very grateful for everything that everyone's done." 

"She's not just a name or a face. She was a real little girl, and she was taken from me." 

One of the most significant donations came from Trey Ganem and SoulShine Industries, who made Athena's casket for her funeral

Credit: Trey Ganem
Trey Ganem stands next to customized casket for Athena Strand.

Gandy said the most challenging part for her, on the day of the service, was seeing Athena's face one last time before she was cremated. 

"I was the one who saw her face last," she says. "I closed her casket before her daddy, uncles and grandfathers carried her out. I held her hand, kissed her and told her how sorry I was, and how much I love her. That was the last time I saw her." 

Above all, Gandy says she has a simple wish: Do not forget Athena Strand. 

"I want people to know her," Gandy says. "She's not just a name or a face. She was a real little girl, and she was taken from me. I want people to know not to take the time with their children for granted because I would do anything to go back to May 23, 2015, and relive every moment from that time forward."

Gandy's legal team is still asking for tips as they investigate what happened. If you have any information regarding the suspect's employment, past, or any other information or insight that might aid investigators--they ask you to email answersforathena@versusinjury.com. You may also call (817) 203-2220.

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