COTTONDALE, Texas — The mother of 7-year-old Athena Strand, who investigators said was abducted and killed by a FedEx driver last week outside her rural home in Paradise, spoke publicly for the first time since losing her daughter Tuesday night.
Maitlyn Gandy thanked thousands of people outside First Baptist Church in Cottondale during a candlelight vigil and church service to remember little Athena.
Gandy was sentimental to many who volunteered to look for her little girl when she was missing and all those who supported her family after the heartbreaking news of her death surfaced.
"Y'all are amazing people, and I don't know how to thank you all for all you've done for my family, especially my baby," Gandy said.
"I just want y'all to know that she was amazing and that she would truly love every single one of you because she has loved every human she has ever met."
First Baptist Church in Cottondale is where volunteers, law enforcement, and Strand's family sought refuge during exhaustive searches for the little girl, serving as a beacon and command post for many hours.
A growing memorial for Athena is on the church's front lawn, where Tuesday night's service was held.
Several chairs lined the front of the stage for the service, each holding a large photo of the little girl.
An angel, built to represent the little girl, was also placed on the stage.
"I just want to keep her face and story alive," Gandy said. "I want everyone to know Athena for Athena, not what someone tried to make her out to be. Because she was the best little girl."
The pastor at First Baptist Church Cottondale also gave a religious message, and a member of the sheriff's office also addressed the crowd.
Athena's first-grade teacher, Lindsey Thompson, also spoke.
"Every one of my students plays an important role in our classroom family, and now we're missing one of those students," Thompson said.
"I now have 18 six and seven-year-olds who are hurting because they no longer have a friend and classmate."
Gandy finished her address with a simple request: remember her daughter.
"I don't care if it's five years from now, ten years from now, or 20 years from now, remember Athena Strand," Gandy said.
Tanner Horner, 31, has been arrested and charged with Strand's capital murder. He also faces an aggravated kidnapping charge.
He remains in the Wise County Jail. Sheriff Lane Akin told WFAA no new updates could be shared as his office builds a case against Horner.