Heather Walker thought she had finally reached the end of a grueling three-year custody battle for her 9-year-old daughter, Savannah Hardin. But the next time she saw Savannah, the little girl was in a coma after allegedly being forced to run laps for hours as a punishment for eating candy bars.
Now, Savannah’s grandmother Joyce Hardin Garrard is on trial for capital murder in connection with Savannah’s death, and the girl’s stepmother, Jessica Hardin, has been charged with murder for allegedly failing to intervene when Savannah pleaded for help.
Walker, who declined to speak publicly about the tragedy for three years, told her story in an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast.
Heather Walker sat beside 9-year-old Savannah in a Birmingham children’s hospital on February 19, 2012. Savannah's mop of blond hair had been pulled into a tight ponytail on the top of her head, and it looked as if she was just sleeping. Heather wiped the blood off Savannah’s face and hands with a warm cloth and thought how big the little girl had gotten in the two years since she’d seen her last.
She didn’t know if Savannah could hear her—she had learned in radiology school that doctors don’t really know how sentient the brain of a coma patient really is—but there were so many things Heather wanted to say to her daughter, and so many questions she’d wanted to ask. So Heather just talked like Savannah was there with her, though part of her knew that this was her last chance to tell her daughter anything again.
What was daily life like for Savannah? Was she still cheerleading like she had been at home? How was she doing in school? Did she have pets at her new house? Had she received any of the packages Heather had been sending? Did she know Heather had been fighting for her, that she didn’t just give her away?
“I just want you to know that mommy fought for you and never gave up on you,” Heather told her. “I love you with all of my heart,” Heather said, making the secret circle with her hands that she and Savannah had done back and forth so many times.
A tear ran down Savannah’s face.
Maybe it didn’t mean anything. A nurse said it was just a nerve, a reflex, and maybe she was right. But for Heather, it was goodbye. And she felt Savannah let go.***
What happened to Savannah?According to doctors, Savannah had suffered from seizures triggered by low sodium, brought on by “prolonged physical exertion.”Savannah’s grandmother, 49-year-old Joyce Hardin Garrard, had taken Savannah to the hospital. She told Heather that Savannah was practicing for a race at school. “She keeps coming in second place,” Heather says Garrard told her. “So we were outside practicing in the yard and I don’t know what happened.”
When Heather heard Garrard telling the seizure story to her sister, the details had changed: Now Savannah had tripped and fallen.“Joyce’s story kept changing. Nothing was consistent,” Heather says. (A paramedic, a school counselor, and an investigator would all later say that Garrard had changed her story with them as well.)
When Heather finally arrived at the Birmingham Children’s Hospital—after 12 hours of travel, where the doctor’s “Ma’am, how soon can you get here?” echoed in her brain—she says it was Joyce who tried to stop her from seeing Savannah. Heather says she walked into the ICU as Joyce shouted behind her to the nurses, “Don’t you let her in there with that baby alone!”
When Joyce finally agreed to let Heather see her daughter, she told her that she would only be able to sit a minute, that she would have to switch with her and Jessica Hardin, Savannah’s stepmother. “And don’t be touching her a lot,” Heather says Joyce said when she hugged Savannah.“When you looked at Joyce you didn’t see an upset person. There was just…nothing,” Heather says of her ex-mother-in-law’s demeanor. After they had taken Savannah off the breathing machines, Heather says, Joyce started to panic.
“She pinned Jessica up against the side of the hospital wall. She was staring into her eyes and telling her in a low stern voice, ‘Listen here, you need to pull it together. Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you? There’s a lot on the line here.’”
“And I knew something wasn’t right,” Heather says.
***Savannah’s grandmother had reason to worry.Both she and Jessica Hardin would be arrested the next day on charges of murder for Savannah’s death. Joyce Garrard currently is on trial in Alabama facing capital murder charges. She maintains her innocence, but if found guilty, she could receive a death sentence or life without parole.According to investigators, on the afternoon of February 17, 2012, Garrard—whom prosecutors have dubbed the “drill sergeant from hell”—forced little Savannah to run 50-foot sprints for close to three hours while carrying firewood the size of cinder blocks, until the girl collapsed from vomiting and dehydration. It was corporal punishment, officials say, for eating chocolate bars on the school bus and lying about it.At Garrard’s trial, witnesses for the prosecution have testified about what went on during Savannah’s last hours.A neighbor said he watched Savannah as she begged Garrard to stop. “Keep running,” Garrard replied. “I didn’t tell you you could stop.” When Savannah pleaded for her stepmother, Jessica Hardin, to stop the punishment, Garrard reportedly said, “‘Don't look at her. She won’t help you.”It seems Garrard was right. Officials say Savannah’s mother and father were miles away and Savannah’s stepmother (who has also been charged with murder for failing to intervene), her neighbors, and the bus driver who all watched as the punishment was taking place, did nothing to stop it.A surveillance video taken from the bus Savannah rode to school captured a conversation between bus driver Raeanna Holmes and Garrard. On it, Garrard tells the driver, “She’s going to run until I tell her to stop.”“She’s going to learn,” Garrard said.
Savannah ran until she couldn’t anymore. Neighbors testified they thought the punishment would stop when they saw Savannah down on all fours, vomiting in the yard. Garrard was pouring water in her mouth. Eventually Savannah just collapsed and her stepmother finally called 911.
When an ambulance arrived, medics found the 75-pound girl in panties and a T-shirt, passed out on the lawn, freezing and soaked to the bone, a wet blanket laid on top of her. Cuts from the firewood lined Savannah’s arms.
When a child suffers such a horrific ordeal, the natural question follows: Where were her parents? In Savannah’s case the answer is simple: Her mother was in Florida, her father overseas working as a civilian contractor. The “why” behind Savannah’s separation from her mother is much more complicated.
Robert and Heather Hardin got married young after getting pregnant with Savannah. Robert’s mother, Joyce Garrard, had arranged the shotgun wedding, Heather says. “In two weeks we planned to get married by a pastor I didn’t know, in a church I had never been to,” she says.
Robert joined the military and was gone for long stretches. Before long, the two had grown apart and by the time Savannah was 3 years old, her parents’ divorce was final and Heather had moved with her daughter to Plant City, Florida. The divorce wasn’t amicable. As Heather boarded the plane to Florida, she says Robert said, “I hate you and you’ll pay for this one day.”
But it was Robert who started paying, $200 a month in child support, and even when he moved to Jacksonville, Florida, in 2006, he didn’t see much of Savannah. By 2009, he was remarried, to Jessica Hardin, and had had another child, their son Gavin. According to Heather, his new family sparked a desire on Robert’s part to be a bigger part of Savannah’s life.
Heather says Robert started asking to take Savannah on the holidays and weekends. He would come to see her cheer at Little League games and the co-parenting arrangement was working well. Savannah went to visit her dad on spring break in 2009—but when Heather arrived at the usual exchange point in Daytona, she says Robert never showed. Heather says Robert was adamant: “I’m not giving her back,” he said.
Later that day, she got a call from an investigator at the Florida Department of Children and Families; Robert had charged her with abandonment, claiming that she had relinquished rights to their daughter by going on a weeklong trip to visit a boyfriend in Wyoming during Robert’s scheduled visit with Savannah. When she got home, a sheriff met her at the door with paperwork asking a judge to turn over full custody.
When Robert decided he wanted Savannah, he hired a lawyer and started an aggressive campaign to keep the child away from her mother. According to Florida Department of Children and Family records, Robert filed at least five complaints between 2009 and 2012. The state investigations found his accusations—from physical and mental abuse of Savannah to inhabitable living conditions—to be unfounded and each of the cases were closed. In one of the reports, an investigator said Savannah sounded as if she had been “coached” by her father.
On top of the constant DCF investigations, and a legal process that she had to make her way through without the help of a lawyer, Heather was laid off from her job as a catering truck delivery driver. She had been forced to move from her home and while she was waiting for her new job at a hardware store to start, she had to move into an ex-boyfriend’s home. Robert reported the man to the court for being a former felon. (An investigation found the boyfriend not to be a threat to Savannah’s well-being). Other reports were specifically aimed at Savannah’s babysitter, who subsequently refused to watch Savannah anymore, reportedly fearing for her own children’s safety.
“Robert took every avenue to make things more difficult for me,” Heather says.
They were going back and forth to court. Robert’s attorney filed petitions on his behalf while Heather went to the courthouse alone and sought out pro bono legal services, which would help her fill out forms, but wouldn’t give legal advice. One service could only help if she was a victim of domestic abuse, which she wasn’t.
“He had an attorney and I didn’t. He was in the military, and people look highly on that,” Heather says. “I was afraid that we would go to court and a judge would say, ‘Well, how do you think you’re going to take care of her?’ So I brought myself to terms with voluntarily letting her live there, against my better judgment, because if I thought if I don’t, the judge is probably going to take her anyway.”
And so the couple agreed that Savannah would temporarily move into her father’s Jacksonville home in September of 2009. A court-ordered parenting plan shows that Heather and Robert shared custody—school and medical decisions and the like would be made jointly—and Heather would visit with Savannah on designated weekends. Heather sent Savannah trinkets and treats in care packages and they would talk on the phone. In the meantime, Heather was going to school and working a new full-time job. Soon she moved into a little house with her 3-year-old son, Savannah’s younger half-brother.
Things looked like they were settling down. She would have Savannah back soon; that was the plan.
On Martin Luther King Day weekend 2010, Heather took Savannah to get pictures made at Walmart. Their birthdays were close together so they bought a cake, too. Savannah asked the woman behind the bakery counter to write, “Happy Birthday, Savannah and Mommy.”
“And that was the last birthday we ever shared together,” Heather says. “It was the last time I saw her outside of a hospital bed.”
Heather says Robert never told her that he was moving his family back to Alabama. When Savannah’s birthday package was returned to Heather’s address and Robert stopped answering his phone, Heather called Joyce Garrard, who told her that Savannah was at her home. Heather says she was allowed to speak to her only once, and Savannah told her they had moved into “Maw-maw’s house.” It was the last time she would be able to talk to her daughter.
What happened during the next two years that Savannah lived in Alabama with her father and stepmother is still something of a mystery to Heather. Robert was working as a civilian contractor overseas; a spokeswoman for the Etowah County Sheriff's office told the AP that Robert “lived outside the country,” leaving Jessica and Joyce to do the majority of the caregiving.
Still, the custody fight continued in Alabama. Robert filed for a petition to modify custody, an action that, if granted, would strip Heather of her parenting rights, reasoning he could “provide a more stable home” for Savannah. Heather answered in court documents that Robert was on “a crusade to keep Savannah away” from her.
She continued: “[Savannah] was doing well in school, enrolled in cheerleading, and was a well-rounded child. Since residing with Robert she is now in counseling and seeing therapists…I am extremely concerned for the welfare of Savannah as I am concerned that there may be things going on in their home that are the cause of the problem.”
Though Heather didn’t know it, she had reason to be concerned. At Joyce Garrard’s trial, Savannah’s pediatrician, Dr. Deborah Smith, cryptically testified that the relationship between Joyce, Savannah, and her stepmother Jessica "was not normal" and said she almost contacted authorities, but in the end didn't.
Meanwhile, Robert and Jessica had been going through a divorce and custody dispute as well. Records show an environment far from stable. Robert’s divorce complaint charged Savannah’s stepmother with verbal and emotional abuse. He claimed she had a drinking problem and suffered from bipolar disorder that she refused to treat.
Jessica, in turn, filed for a restraining order against Robert in August 2010. In her petition, she said Robert had become physically and mentally abusive. He “pushed her against a wall and threw her on the couch” and threatened her. “Robert has said I will never be allowed to see my son and will do whatever it take to make sure of it,” the complaint says.
The following day, Robert filed an affidavit claiming Jessica was “not financially, mentally, or physically able to provide a safe environment for the child.”
Five months later, Robert and Jessica reconciled and asked a judge to dismiss their case.
Heather didn’t know any of this as she drove back and forth to Alabama half a dozen times between 2010 and 2011 to appear in court in her attempt to win Savannah back. She’d stop by Savannah’s new home but no one was ever there. She’d leave packages for Savannah on the porch but still doesn’t know if she ever received them. The Hardins changed their phone numbers so contact was impossible.
Robert never appeared in court for the custody hearings, Heather says. She says Robert’s lawyer explained his client’s absence by saying her ex-husband was working or training. The repeated motions for continuances were wearing on Heather and at their final court appearance in December 2011, Heather says Robert made new accusations that she was too mentally unstable to take care of Savannah. At every appearance, Heather says the judge would tell her the same thing: “You need to get an attorney.” That’s when she says she broke down in the judge’s chambers.
“I just need to see my daughter,” Heather says she told the judge. “I don’t have money for an attorney and I just need someone to tell me what to do. I’m not crazy, but if I was, it’s because he took my child away from me and hasn’t let me see or talk to her for two years.”
Finally she says—and court documents show—the judge told her, “Look. You need to go get a psychiatric evaluation and when it comes back the way I’m pretty sure it will, I will make up the time you’ve lost with your daughter.”
“We left that day and never made it to the next trial,” Heather says. “I did everything I knew to do, but in the end, everything I knew to do wasn’t enough.”
It’s been three years since Savannah’s death. The little girl who loved the color blue and horses should be in the sixth grade. Time hasn’t dulled Heather Walker's loss; the Florida mother has a 9-year-old, a 10-month-old, and two stepchildren with her new husband, who she met the weekend before Savannah’s death. Heather finished her radiology degree in 2011, but can’t bear to step foot in a hospital anymore, so she says she’s in a kind of limbo. She works two jobs in Florida while her husband is training to be an EMT.
Heather sometimes finds herself picking up trinkets at the store that Savannah would love before remembering there’s no way to send them to her. And she doesn’t know how to reply when people ask how many children she has—to say two feels like a betrayal of Savannah, to say three opens herself up to questions that are hard to answer.
And she’s keeping an eye on the trial in Alabama. Heather has been subpoenaed as a potential witness, but says prosecutors haven’t called her yet. She may go to Alabama for the verdict, but says the thought of seeing Joyce and listening to the closing statements where prosecutors will relive Savannah’s final moments may be too much to handle.
“I feel like she’s guilty,” Heather says. “It might not have been her intention, but ultimately it all falls on Joyce…As an adult and a parent and a grandparent, you should know when enough is enough. Even if Savannah really did do what they are saying she did, you don’t punish a child like that.”