Overwhelming sorrow and a search for comfort: Wise County church remembers Athena Strand

Archiebalde Browne/abrowne@star-telegram.com

In an emotional service Sunday at First Baptist Church of Cottondale, Pastor Charles Pugh said the death of 7-year-old Athena Strand put him on “overload” but that “evil didn’t win.”

As tears filled the eyes of some in the choir and members of the clergy, Pugh said it was above his capacity to understand why someone would abduct and murder a little girl.

“In our state with our sorrow, my sorrow was not for Athena,” he said. “What she went through for a little while, that bothers me, but not right now. She’s in heaven before Lord. Now there’s intense overwhelming sorrow for the family and those are left behind last. That is where the hurt is.”

Athena’s body was found Friday near Boyd, a town about eight miles east of this unincorporated community in Wise County.

Tanner Lynn Horner, 31, a FedEx Ground driver from Fort Worth, faces charges of kidnapping and capital murder in her death. Authorities said he was making a delivery at the gate outside Athena’s house in Paradise at the time she disappeared on Wednesday.

The church served as a debriefing area for law enforcement during the investigation, something Pugh described in an interview as “chaotic, surreal” and beyond anything he’d ever anticipated.

The church has set up a fund for the family and has scheduled a candlelight memorial service for 6 p.m. Tuesday at the church, 145 CR 3355, Paradise.

During his sermon, Pugh read a Facebook post from Athena’s grandfather, Mark Strand.

“This flesh, this man that I am, is angry and I want 5 minutes alone in a cell with the psycho that took our Athena away from us, but there’s a soft gentle voice in the back of my head telling me I need to forgive him,” Mark Strand wrote. “This flesh man, wants that psycho to burn in hell for all eternity, yet that gentle voice continues to tell me, I need to forgive him. This flesh man hopes he remains blind and deaf to the message of salvation and never sets foot in the same heaven that I know in my heart my darling Athena resides in now and yet, that gentle voice persists.”

Associate Pastor Phil Erickson has a son who was one of Athena’s first grade classmates at Paradise Elementary School.

Erickson, a father of three, said his son is able to understand what is happening. After Athena was reported missing Wednesday, Erickson told his son that they needed to pray for her.

“We got my boys around and when I told him, his eyes just widened and his head just dropped,” Erickson said. “And he started crying.

“And we just prayed for her. Wherever she is, praying that she might be with some family and the other family just doesn’t realize it and, and just wherever she is, and he prayed for her specifically.”

After Athena’s body was found, Erickson said he dreaded having the conversation with his children the next morning. His youngest, Athena’s classmate, was the last to wake up on Saturday.

“He took it pretty hard,” Erickson said. “He’s very sensitive and even though he’s young, he’s a spiritual kid. He loves Jesus and believes in heaven and knows that’s where she is. And he took comfort in that.”

Pugh said the overwhelming support experienced by the community is just a “small town thing.”

“There are loving people everywhere,” Erickson said, “I’ve never seen anything like this community coming together.”

Pugh said there were over 400 people and 35 FBI agents helping in the search. He said on a normal weekday they’d “be lucky to have 10 people here.”

“I never thought I’d see that in Cottondale. And so it just overwhelms you,” Pugh told the Star-Telegram. “And then to find out she had died, and not only did she die, but how it happened. That somebody abducted her and killed her. It was just emotional.”