ETOWAH COUNTY, AL (WBRC) - The stepmother charged with the murder of her nine-year-old stepdaughter in Etowah County has given birth in a Gadsden hospital while under the guard of sheriff's deputies.
Jessica Mae Hardin is charged in the death of her stepdaugher Savannah Hardin. Savannah was allegedly "run to death" by her grandmother as punishment for eating candy on a school bus, Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin said Wednesday in a news conference.
Savannah apparently ate a candy bar while on the school bus Friday, Feb. 17. She apparently had a bladder condition that could have been worsened by eating the candy, according to the sheriff.
Entrekin says the girl's grandmother, Joyce Hardin Garrard, allegedly punished Savannah for eating the candy and lying to her by making her run without stopping around the house for about three hours. The incident happened at a residence at 20 Carlisle Acres Drive in the Carlisle community.
Around 6:45 p.m. Friday, Savannah's stepmom, Jessica Hardin, called 911 to report that her stepdaughter was having seizures and was unresponsive. Savannah was taken first to a hospital in Gadsden and then airlifted to Children's Hospital in Birmingham.
Savannah's father was working for the government overseas when he was notified about his daughter's condition. He took eight flights to get home and made it to the hospital four hours before Savannah was taken off the ventilator. Savannah died at approximately 12 p.m. Monday, Feb. 20. Her body was taken to Huntsville for an autopsy and ruled a homicide by a state pathologist.
The preliminary reports show she was severely dehydrated and her 65-pound frame was in a condition similar to a marathon runner without water, Entrekin said. She also had low sodium levels.
"Basically she was caused to undergo physical exertion to the point in time where she just got dehydrated and her electrolyte levels got to the point where she couldn't survive life," Etowah County District Attorney Jimmie Harp said.
Savannah's grandmother, Joyce Hardin Garrard, 46, and her stepmother, Jessica Mae Hardin, 27, have both been charged with murder in her death. The stepmother, Jessica Hardin, was considered Savannah's primary caregiver since her father was away working overseas. Hardin was apparently home at the time of the incident and was consequently given the same murder charge as Savannah's grandmother for not stopping the punishment.
Both Garrard and Hardin are in the custody of the Etowah County Detention Center on bonds of $500,000 each. A source on the MyFoxAl.com Facebook page said Hardin had given birth to a baby Wednesday afternoon. The Etowah County Sheriff's Office confirmed that Hardin was being guarded by deputies at a local hospital.
The charges against Garrard and Hardin could be upgraded, possibly to capital murder, as the investigation continues.
Another child, Savannah's three-year-old stepbrother, was also in the home when the incident occurred.
The Etowah County Sheriff's Office became involved in the case when concerned citizens called to report what they had seen.
"It's sad when a family is grieving over the death of a daughter and granddaughter and so soon to find out that the death could have been prevented. My thoughts and prayers are with the family," Entrekin said.
Jimmie Harp, the Etowah County District Attorney, called Savannah's death "a very tragic situation."
"A very, you know, unnecessary act. From what we can tell, taking of a candy bar turned into [an] all-day marathon, so to speak, type physical PE type exercise until the point of time she just collapsed. We're very disturbed by that," Harp said.
Prior to Savannah's death, Alabama Department of Human Resources was already looking into abuse allegations. They released the following statement in response to our enquiry about abuse complaints:
"The Department has one pending investigation concerning Savannah Hardin that allegedly occurred in another state involving an alleged perpetrator that resides in that state. We are working with law enforcement in the other state to conduct interviews in that state," Barry Spear with Alabama DHR said.
Robert Hardin and Savannah's biological mother divorced in 2006. Court documents obtained by FOX6 News show Robert and Heather Hardin shared joint custody. Heather served as the primary custodial parent. In May, Savannah's father filed a petition to have that agreement changed. Robert Hardin said he could provide a more stable environment for Savannah, claiming her mother's lifestyle was not fit for custody of a child. Custody was eventually granted to Savannah's father. In those same court records, Heather says she lost custody because she could not afford an attorney to fight for custody.
Savannah was a third grader at Carlisle Elementary School. Grief counselors are at the school helping her classmates cope with her death. Her desk at school has been turned into a memorial.