GADSDEN, Ala. – At the end of a dirt road leading to a double-wide trailer in rural Alabama, authorities say 9-year-old Savannah Hardin was being forced to run for three hours as punishment for having lied to her grandmother about eating candy bars. The severely dehydrated girl had a seizure and died days later, her death ruled a homicide.
Her grandmother and stepmother who police say meted out the punishment are in jail, facing murder charges Wednesday.
Witnesses told deputies that Savannah was told to run and not allowed to stop for three hours on Friday, an Etowah County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman said. The girl's stepmother, 27-year-old Jessica Mae Hardin, called police at 6:45 p.m., telling them that Savannah was having a seizure and was unresponsive.
Neighbor Rodger Simpson said he saw a little girl running at around 4 p.m., but didn't see anybody chasing or coercing her.
"I saw her running down there, that's what I told the detectives," Simpson said from his home on a hill overlooking the Hardins. "But I don't see how that would kill her."
Authorities are still trying to determine whether Savannah was forced to run by physical coercion or by verbal commands. Deputies were told the girl was forced to run after lying to her grandmother, 46-year-old Joyce Hardin Garrard, about having eaten the candy, sheriff's office spokeswoman Natalie Barton said.
Savannah Hardin died Monday at Children's Hospital in Birmingham, according to a news release from the sheriff's office. The sheriff's release says the autopsy report showed the girl was extremely dehydrated and had a very low sodium level. A state pathologist ruled it a homicide.
The sheriff's office received calls from concerned citizens who had witnessed the running. No other details were released.
Gail Denny and her husband Phil, live just up a dirt road from the home. They've known the family since they moved to the area in northeastern Alabama seven years ago.
The Denny's say they were used to seeing Savannah and other neighborhood children out waiting on the school bus in the morning. Gayle said her grandson had a crush on Savannah.
"My grandson asked her to be his girlfriend on Valentine's Day, and she said `yes,"' Gail said before dissolving into tears.
The trailer where Savannah lived with her father, Robert Hardin, and stepmother was surrounded by a wooden fence, playground equipment and toys. Neighbors say they never saw children playing in the yard.
Neighbors tell The Associated Press that Garrard owned a lot of property along the road and much of her family lived in homes on that property.
"It seems like a very happy extended family around here," Denny said. "There are mothers, grandmothers, kids. It sounds like a punishment that got out of hand."
Denny had brought a candle to the Hardin property and lit it beside a stuffed animal surrounded by roses.
Garrard and Jessica Mae Hardin are being held in the Etowah County Detention Center, each on a $500,000 cash bond.
Court records show that Robert Hardin filed for divorce in August of 2010. In his complaint, he asserted his wife was bi-polar and of had alcoholic tendencies. He accused her of previously having run off with the couple's own child.
In her response, Jessica denied all of Robert's allegations.
Five months after filing for divorce, the two asked a judge to dismiss their case.
Savannah Hardin was a third-grader at Carlisle Elementary School. Superintendent Alan Cosby said her desk had been turned into a makeshift memorial where her classmates could leave notes and mementos. He said counselors and social workers were made available for students.
"This is obviously a very tragic, devastating, heartbreaking situation," Cosby said. "Nothing like this has ever happened before."