Georgia law enforcement probes girl's death; foster parents, mom quizzed about 2-year-old's injury

photo Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Greg Ramey is seen in this file photo.

Two-year-old Sahara Palmer's short, troubled life ended on New Year's Day from apparent head injuries she suffered while in foster care in Catoosa County, Ga., and authorities are trying to sort out what occurred.

Sahara "was taken to the hospital Sunday and she was in a life-threatening condition," Catoosa County Sheriff Gary Sisk said Thursday. Sahara was being treated for a head injury, he said, but couldn't elaborate.

"We're investigating how she came to that condition and just trying to figure out what happened," Sisk said.

"We're pretty much backtracking the last 48 to 72 hours of her life and having to talk to a lot of medical professionals and go through medical files and waiting on an autopsy for a cause [of death]," he said.

The sheriff and state officials said it's too early to say whether foul play is involved. No charges have been filed.

Authorities haven't released the names of the foster parents and have no familiarity with them, Sisk said.

Sahara's mother, Jennifer Palmer, who is about 30, is from Fannin County, Ga.

Sisk said the little girl's mother has talked with investigators. The foster parents also have talked with investigators, but he wouldn't elaborate on their statements.

Sisk said authorities don't have "all the facts" about why Sahara was in foster care.

"We don't have a whole lot of facts right now. We've just talked to several people and we're just trying to nail down the chain of events," he said. "Our child death investigation team is working on it."

The team is made up of several agencies including the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the district attorney's and coroner's offices, he said.

GBI Special Agent in Charge Greg Ramey said Sahara's 7-year-old brother also was in the care of the foster parents and has been placed in Department of Human Services custody elsewhere while the investigation continues.

While foul play is not officially suspected, "anytime you have a young child die like that, it's automatically suspicious," Ramey said.

"We've still got some work to do," he said. "There's no timeline on it. We have to take a careful look."

Ramey said he wasn't sure how long the Palmer children had been in foster care, but they have been victims of violence in the past, along with their mother.

He said the recent incident involving Sahara and one early last year in McCaysville, Ga., are unrelated.

According to Associated Press reports and the News Observer in Blue Ridge, Ga., Jennifer Palmer and her children were the victims in a knife attack and kidnapping from the home where they lived in McCaysville on Feb. 5, 2013.

When McCaysville police arrived at the home of Jennifer Palmer's then-boyfriend, Ellis James Weatherspoon, he had stabbed Jennifer Palmer multiple times and absconded with Sahara and her brother, reports state.

Officers were able to narrow the search to the Epworth area, where Weatherspoon was hiding in a camper trailer inside an enclosed lot next to Highway 5 at Galloway Road.

Fannin County Sheriff Dane Kirby told the News Observer that after Weatherspoon abandoned his vehicle, he fled on foot, but was able to hitch a ride with the children in an effort to get to a friend's house.

Weatherspoon was unable to find the friend's house and had the driver let him out on the side of the road, and he soon hid out inside the parked camper, Kirby said.

After entering the camper, Kirby said, Weatherspoon turned the gas on inside the trailer in an effort to kill himself and the children, but when officers arrived he was still conscious and able to respond verbally.

Weatherspoon refused to open the door of the trailer, and officers had to force their way in.

He told the newspaper Weatherspoon tried to ignite the gas, causing a small fire, but no one was injured.

Deputy Anthony Walden, a school resource officer, said he grabbed then-1-year-old Sahara and handed her to another deputy while another officer rescued her brother and Weatherspoon.

Weatherspoon was taken into custody and the two children were recovered without injury.

Jennifer Palmer, meanwhile, was treated for her wounds after being flown to Erlanger hospital in Chattanooga.

The family also made headlines in 2011 when they lived in Tennessee.

The Times Free Press reported on the couple being the targets of racial intimidation that year, before Sahara was born. Jennifer Palmer is white and Weatherspoon is black.

On June 13, 2011, a chunk of cinder block came through the window of their trailer in Polk County, Tenn., with a note tied to it that read "Get out of town [ethnic slur deleted] or u die" and signed with the initials "KKK."

A few days later, the couple found their 6-month-old pit bull/German shepherd mix dead at the home, a rope tied around its neck several times and its body propped against its doghouse. They didn't report that incident to police.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at or 423-757-6569.