PARADISE, Texas - Thousands came together Tuesday to remember Athena Strand, a 7-year-old girl kidnapped and killed by a delivery driver earlier this week.
With encouragement from the crowd, Athena’s mother gave her first public statement since her daughter's murder. She made the appearance on stage at a vigil for her daughter in Wise County Tuesday.
The grounds of the Cottondale Baptist Church were awash in candlelight and pink as hundreds of people gathered to support her family.
To cheers and shouts of "Athena Strong," her mother thanked the volunteers and the show of support from the community. She asked people never to forget her daughter's name.
Courtesy: Maitlyn Gandy
More than 1,000 people showed to offer support to Athena’s family.
At the center of the pain was Athena Strand’s mother, Maitlyn Gandy.
"Cause she’s the best little girl. She really was," she said. "I needed to be strong for her."
Less than a week ago, investigators say Athena was abducted outside her Wise County home and murdered.
Athena’s mother came to North Texas from Oklahoma shortly after learning her daughter had disappeared last week. She addressed the overflowing parking lot of people at Tuesday night’s vigil.
"Y’all are amazing people. And I don’t know how to thank you guys for all you have done for my family and my baby," she said.
The church was once a makeshift command post for search efforts. Now, it’s hosting hundreds with candles and flowers in hand who are all trying to heal.
All day Tuesday, the town prepared for the vigil.
A pink memorial outside the church grows by the day.
Tanner Horner, a contract FedEx driver, sits in the Wise County Jail and is charged with capital murder and aggravated kidnapping.
Investigators say the 31-year-old was delivering a package to her father’s home when he abducted her around the time Athena’s stepmother reported her missing.
After a two-day search, Horner confessed to killing Athena and then pointed investigators where to find her body, southeast of Boyd.
The arrest paperwork, which could reveal Horner’s motive in his confession, is still sealed.