Savannah Hardin, 9, died after being forced to run as punishment. Etowah County, Ala., sheriff's officials say 46-year-old Joyce Hardin Garrard of Carlisle and 27-year-old Jessica Mae Hardin are accused of murder in the death of Savannah Hardin. Investigators say Garrard allegedly made the girl run without stopping for there hours as punishment for lying to her.Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
By JAY REEVES
ATTALLA, Ala. — Savannah Hardin’s life was in turmoil long before police say the 9-year-old was run to death by her grandmother and stepmother for allegedly lying about some candy she ate.
Divorce and custody documents filed in family court over a period of several years reflect a history of fractured family relationships, with Savannah’s divorced parents fighting over her welfare; claims of mental instability and abuse between her father and his second wife; medical problems that required frequent doctor visits; and counseling for the girl who still somehow managed to remain among the top students in her third-grade class.
Authorities say Savannah’s life ended in exhaustion earlier this month when she was forced by her paternal grandmother, Joyce Hardin Gerrard, to run for three hours, while her stepmother, Jessica Mae Hardin, did nothing to stop it.
The grandmother prodded her along cruelly, and the stepmother didn’t intervene until Savannah collapsed in an unconscious heap, investigators say.
Now, Hardin Garrard is in jail and Savannah’s stepmother is being held in police custody at a hospital after giving birth to another child. Both have been charged with murder.
Jessica Mae Hardin’s attorneys, Morgan Cunningham and Vince Pentecost, said in a statement Friday that Hardin was “incredibly devastated over Savannah’s death” and they would prove her innocence.
“Unfortunately, whenever a child passes away, our society wants to place blame, our media wants to sensationalize and our elected officials want to make grandiose statements that are not based in fact,” they said.
A defense lawyer representing the grandmother said she will be cleared of any crime.
“Even then, Joyce Garrard and her family will continue to grieve over the loss of their beloved Savannah,” Dani Bone said.
Neighbors and classmates created a small memorial for Savannah, depositing stuffed animals and flowers and attaching balloons to a wooden fence surrounding the trailer where she lived with her family off a dirt road. Included in the informal memorial was a white wooden cross hung with a blue ribbon and to which a poem had been attached. A neighbor of Savannah’s family, Gail Denny, held back tears as she placed a candle and a stuffed animal at the site Wednesday. She noted that on Valentine’s Day, her grandson had asked Savannah to be his girlfriend, and she said yes.
“I just can’t believe it,” she said of Savannah’s death.
A few miles away at Carlisle Elementary School, students placed written letters and hand-drawn pictures on Savannah’s desk, which was brought into a main hallway.
“Savannah was an excellent student, earning A’s and B’s in her school work,” said a statement released by school Principal Linda Johnson. “Her favorite subject was math; she enjoyed reading books to earn points in the Accelerated Reader program — and was very proud of always meeting her reading goals. ... Savannah was a happy child at school. She always wore a smile, and often brightened the day of teachers and administrators with her kind comments.”
Many who knew Savannah described her as normal and happy. She played and laughed with other kids at the bus stop, and sometimes rode a four-wheeler with her dad when he visited, they said. She loved horses and her favorite colors were lime green, hot pink and ocean blue, Johnson said in her statement.
Court documents filed by Savannah’s father, Robert Hardin, last May show she attended counseling sessions every other week but seemed well adjusted.
But the records also tell a different story, that of a brief life rocked by tumult.
Robert and Savannah’s biological mother, Heather Hardin, divorced in July 2006 when she was 3, the records show. The former couple shared custody of the girl, but the mother was her primary caregiver.
Each one of the parents later moved separately to Florida, according to a sworn statement by Robert Hardin. He claimed that Heather Hardin was unfit to care for Savannah.
The Florida Department of Children and Families investigated allegations that Savannah was being mistreated or was living in hazardous conditions at least four times between 2007 and 2009 while living with Heather Hardin in Plant City, Fla., according to documents obtained by The Ledger in Lakeland, Fla., through an open records request. But state officials were unable to find evidence to support the allegations.
Robert Hardin said Savannah began living with him in October 2009. He said they moved northeast of Birmingham in January 2010. Hardin later married Jessica Mae, with whom he had a son, now 3.
Hardin works for the U.S. State Department and lived outside the country, so Jessica Mae and Joyce Hardin Garrard cared for both Savannah and the boy, said a spokeswoman for the Etowah County Sheriff’s office, Natalie Barton. Hardin and Jessica split in July 2010, court documents show, with him claiming she had bipolar disorder and alcoholic tendencies. She, in turn, accused him of mental and physical abuse, including pushing her against a wall and throwing her onto a sofa. She also accused him of transferring ownership of the mobile home to Hardin Gerrard to prevent Jessica from getting it in the divorce. Despite claiming they could no longer live together, the couple reconciled by late 2010.
Court documents also show Savannah had an unspecified medical condition that required continuous medication and treatment, including monthly visits with her regular doctor and trips every few months to see a urologist in Birmingham, about 60 miles away.
Authorities say the grandmother became angry when Savannah allegedly ate chocolate, because it contains caffeine, and the girl was not supposed to ingest caffeine given her condition.
Sometime during the afternoon of Feb. 17, Joyce Hardin Gerrard allegedly forced Savannah to begin running in the yard outside their trailer. Barton said the grandmother was running the little girl “like a drill sergeant,” pushing her to keep running by saying things like “Move it, move it, move it! Go, go, go!”
Barton said there is some evidence that the girl also was picking up sticks and other items in the yard and placing them in a burn pile. A large pile of unburned sticks and other items could be seen Friday behind the family’s mobile home.
The stepmother, Jessica Mae Hardin, didn’t intervene and call 911 until after the girl collapsed about three hours into her ordeal, Barton said. Savannah was taken to an area hospital and then later transferred to a hospital in Birmingham, where she was put on life support. Her father made the decision to disconnect her, and she died Monday.
While court documents show the girl’s biological mother, Heather Hardin, hadn’t been able to see her in months, an ex-husband said the woman rushed to Alabama from Florida in time to see Savannah in the hospital before she died. Authorities said an autopsy showed the child was severely dehydrated and had an extremely low level of sodium, which is necessary for the body to prevent seizures and dehydration.
With both Joyce Garrard and Jessica Hardin in police custody, state welfare officials said a relative is now caring for Savannah’s younger half-brother. The same person will care for Jessica Mae Hardin’s newborn, they said.
Friends and strangers alike have posted scores of messages on a remembrance site set up on Facebook, with many of them saying they wished something could have been done to save Savannah’s life.