Tamla Horsford: Unanswered Questions in Black Georgia Mom's Death - Rolling Stone
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The Unanswered Questions of Tamla Horsford’s Death

A black mother of five died at an all-white party in Georgia. It might have been a complete accident. But because of a compromised investigation, we may never know

Tamla Horsford

Courtesy of Justice For Tamla

Tamla Horsford arrived at the party around 8:30 p.m. The 40-year-old black mother had made dinner for her five sons and husband, Leander, before heading out to celebrate the birthday of her friend Jeanne Meyers. Meyers had invited a group of moms — most who’d met through the local youth football league — to spend the night, not wanting anyone to drink and drive. Horsford arrived with a bottle of tequila and a small overnight bag, and changed into white onesie pajamas covered in paw prints shortly after she got there.

The party, held the evening of November 3rd, 2018, was originally meant to be all women. But Meyers’ boyfriend, Jose Barrerra, and Tom Smith, the husband of another attendee, ended up sticking around. In the end, the group — who advocates for Horsford would later dub the Forsyth 12 — included nine women, two men, and one husband who, according to police interviews, only dropped off and picked up his wife. Out of these 12, eight were planning to spend the night — as was Tamla.

While the women drank, socialized, and watched the LSU-Alabama game upstairs, Barrerra and Smith watched football in Meyers’ finished basement. During this time, Horsford — the only habitual smoker at the party — regularly stepped out to the balcony for cigarettes. She also smoked marijuana that evening, but Meyers asked her to stop. According to Meyers’ own statement, she had teased Horsford during the conversation, calling her the “female Bob Marley,” and reminding her that Barrerra worked as a pre-trial officer and did not approve. Eventually, the men joined the party and the group played Cards Against Humanity; photographs and videos captured during the game show Horsford smiling, happy. She had been drinking tequila, and would later be found to have a significant BAC, but according to photos, videos, and witness accounts, Horsford didn’t appear particularly drunk that evening. Guests who weren’t spending the night began to leave around 11:30pm, while those who were staying trickled off to bed over the next couple of hours.

According to police interviews, Horsford remained awake after Meyers and Barrera headed to bed around 1:30 a.m. The last person to see Horsford was Bridget Fuller, who was picked up by her husband at 1:47. In her statement, Fuller says that Horsford was eating a bowl of gumbo, and had said she planned to smoke a cigarette and head to bed. Over the next ten minutes, the home security system registered the back door opening, closing, and then opening again — for the last time — at 1:57 a.m.

Around 8:45 the next morning, Madeline Lombardi, Meyers’ aunt who lived at the house, headed into the kitchen to make her morning cup of coffee. In her interview with police, Lombardi describes seeing something chilling through the window, in the backyard: The white dog-print onesie. It was Horsford, face down in the grass, not moving. After saying a prayer, Lombardi headed upstairs to find Meyers, telling her something appeared to be wrong with her “friend from the islands.” (Horsford was born in the Caribbean but moved to the U.S. when she was 11.)

Forsyth County 911 got the call just before 9 a.m. On the line, both Meyers and Barrera speak. “She’s not moving one bit. She’s not breathing. She’s completely face down in the yard. She is…stiff,” Barrera tells the dispatcher. “She was drinking, and […] it looks like — I’m guessing maybe she fell off the balcony,” Meyers offers.

Horsford was pronounced dead at the scene, and her body sent for autopsy. But even before the report came back, the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office began to work the theory that Horsford’s death had been an accident, a fall from the second-story outdoor deck. The case remained open for almost four months, until the FSCO made their official determination on February 20th, 2019 — two weeks after the State of Georgia Medical Examiner provided their final report. The FSCO pointed to the toxicology report, which tested positive for THC and clocked her Blood Alcohol Content at .238, just shy of three times the legal limit to drive. With a BAC typically associated with blackouts, loss of coordination, and even vomiting, the FCSO determined that marijuana and alcohol use likely contributed to the fall. They also noted the door alarm log, as well as an unlit cigarette and lighter Barrera said he found on the upper deck. Together, the investigators found that this evidence suggested Horsford went out for a cigarette sometime around 1:57am and accidentally fell to her death.

When they closed the case, the department released the incident report and death investigation to the public. But these documents didn’t provide the answers Horsford’s family and friends were looking for — in fact, they only caused more confusion. How did a woman with that high of a BAC appear in control of her facilities, according to interviews as well as videos taken that night, yet manage to fall over a nearly four-foot railing and into the backyard? How could a house full of people, some asleep for less than a half hour, not hear Horsford fall to her death right outside their windows? Could a 15-to-20-foot fall cause not only death, but a dislocated wrist, broken neck, and laceration to her heart muscle? Why wasn’t the scene preserved, evidence tested, or potential witnesses interviewed immediately? What really happened when the back door opened just before 2 a.m., and why was it left open until the next morning? And would the investigation have gone differently if Horsford wasn’t the only Black person at the party?

Horsford was born in St. Vincent and the Grenadines in 1978, where she lived until her family moved to the Bronx in 1989. She’d met her husband in Florida, who had a daughter from a previous relationship, and they went on to have five sons together; when Horsford died, her youngest son was only four years old. By all accounts, Horsford was the life of the party — she liked to laugh, to dance, to have fun. When the Horsfords moved to Georgia five and a half years earlier for Leander’s work, it was this warmth that had attracted Meyers and others to the charismatic mother.

Tamla Horsford and her husband, Leander Horsford.

Tamla Horsford and her husband, Leander.

Courtesy of Justice For Tamla

Located about 40 miles northeast of Atlanta, Forsyth County is a primarily white suburban region in the Atlanta Metropolitan Area. The only incorporated city in the county is Cumming, which attracts families to its large lots, annual country fair, and quaint downtown. But Forsyth County has a deeply rooted history of animosity towards black people, and was home to a “racial cleansing” in 1912. When a black man was blamed for the rape of a white women — and another was blamed for the rape and beating of a different white woman, who died from her injuries — white mobs descended on local Black homes and businesses. In the end, the town’s 1,098 Black residents — approximately 10% of the population at the time — were driven out. For decades, the county remained entirely white, and as recently as 1990, there were only 14 Black residents in the entire county.

A quintessential small Southern town, everyone knows everyone in Cumming — and people seem to take care of their own. Take, for example, Sheriff Ron Freeman and current FCSO deputy coroner Chris Shelton. In 2014, Shelton was forced to resign from a nearby police force after distributing photos of himself posing with racist Mammy dolls. Just two years later, he appeared in Facebook photos for Ron Freeman’s 2016 campaign for Sheriff. After Freeman won, Shelton was appointed Deputy Coroner for Forsyth County. Shelton also works for Operation 21, a business owned by law enforcement and military veteran Brian DeBlois that aims to educate offenders on the law to help reduce recidivism. According to campaign registration information, Brian’s wife Anna also served as the treasurer on Freeman’s 2016 campaign. According to social media posts, the DeBloises are also friends with some of the individuals who were at the party, including Stacy and Tom Smith; photos show the Smiths and DeBloises boating, out to dinner, and celebrating birthdays with what Anna refers to as their “friend family.” Advocates for reopening the case have questioned whether these relationships may have contributed to FCSO’s handling of the investigation.

In response to an inquiry to the Forsyth County Coroner’s Office, Forsyth County Attorney Ken Jarrard told Rolling Stone that Shelton did not work on the Horsford case. Further, FCSO Public Information Officer Stacie Miller offered an unequivocal denial that any personal connections would have influenced the way the case was handled. “There is no relationship between Ron Freeman and the DeBloises or anyone else at the party the night [of] Tamla Horsford’s tragic death,” she told Rolling Stone, explaining that Freeman and Anna only knew each other in a limited, professional capacity. “The FCSO investigates each case with the same tenacity, without bias, no matter who the victim, witnesses or suspects are.” Miller also noted that the Forsyth County Coroner’s Office is an independent agency, not affiliated with the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office.

But the questions surrounding Horsford’s case goes beyond the optics of a Black woman dying at a party with a group of white people. According to the autopsy from the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, Horsford showed blunt force trauma to her head, neck, torso, and extremities, including abrasions of the face, four types of hemorrhages in the skull and brain, dislocation of the right wrist, and cuts on her arms and legs. Additionally, she suffered a broken neck and laceration of the right ventricle of the heart. According to the incident report written by lead investigator Mike Christian, Horsford’s body position was also examined at the scene. “Most notable, when Tamla was turned over was the fact she had come to rest face down,” Christian writes. “Her head had not been canted to one side or the other.” Horsford’s legs were found extended behind her, with both feet pointing to the right, and her right arm close to her body. Her left arm was found extended and bent at the elbow.

Friends, family, and advocates have doubted whether Horsford’s injuries and resting position could be the result of a fall from the balcony. Some have questioned whether the injuries to her hands and arms could be defensive wounds, which would suggest perhaps an altercation before either going over the balcony or being positioned in the backyard. In fact, the incident report shows that Christian’s initial theory was that Horsford has experienced a fall not from the deck but from the ground, due to landscaping edging that matched scrapes on Horsford’s shins. According to the same report, Christian only brought the balcony fall theory to Dr. Andrew Koopmeiners, Associate Medical Examiner with the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, after the medical examiner explained that the injuries suffered could not have been caused by a ground-level fall. In his final report, Koopmeiners concludes that it “appeared as though she may have fallen from the deck,” ultimately ruling that her injuries were consistent with those received in a roughly second-story fall.

Potential evidence may also have been compromised or missed. The scene was never secured, and at least one witness — Pre-Trial Officer Barrera — told investigators he touched the body, saying he moved Horsford’s leg while trying to figure out if she was still alive. Barrera also said in his interview he found and moved the unlit cigarette and lighter on the deck before he saw the body. But because police believed the death to be an accident, no evidence was ever fingerprinted. And though Barrera states on the original 911 call that security cameras were installed and pointed at the backyard, the batteries were found to be dead and the cameras not recording. During the autopsy, neither a sexual assault kit nor fingernail clippings were collected. In a call with Rolling Stone, GBI Public Affairs Director Nelly Miles explained that these steps are not routine, and weren’t taken in this case because there was no indication of foul play. The GBI’s Division of Forensic Science also declined to test the contents of the bottle of tequila that Horsford had brought that evening. Miles explained that it’s standard policy not to test for illicit substances when the possible suspect is deceased, as there would be nobody to hold accountable if they were to find drugs present.

Police in this case also contributed to a feeling of distrust among the family early on. According to the incident report, deputy Christian brought his theory that Horsford experienced a ground fall not only to the medical examiner, but also to Horsford’s father, Kurt St. Jour. The family struggled to understand how Horsford could have died from a ground-level fall, and when Horsford’s husband later asked investigators about this theory and the confusion it caused, investigators agreed it had been a mistake to hypothesize to the family early on. “We probably have created part of a mess here,” Christian told Leander, according to interview transcripts. “We had an idea of what happened which was absolutely wrong,” Christian said of the ground-fall theory. “What I should have done probably was keep my mouth shut and not spun theories.”

But the shift to the balcony theory didn’t answer all of the outstanding questions. While speaking with police roughly two weeks after the death, fellow party attendee Stacy Smith expressed doubt that Horsford could have fallen. “I don’t get it at all,” Stacy told police, according to transcripts released by the FCSO. “I mean I’ve been on that deck like a million times like, I’ve looked, and I’ve tried” — testing a theory that a drunk Horsford had leaned over to vomit, but gone too far — “and I don’t understand.” Officer Sexton sympathised with her confusion, but continued to explore the fall theory. “I mean like you said, that she leaned over, was trying to throw up or thought she was going to throw up, maybe she sat up on the rail and was smoking,” he says. “Or just who knows.” Yet Stacy notes that Horsford wasn’t acting sick; despite her high BAC, this is supported by the other interviews as well as videos and photos taken that night. In Fuller’s interview with police, she explains that this may be due to Horsford being a “seasoned drinker,” and says that it would take an “enormous amount [of alcohol] to knock her on her ass.” Diane Koulouvaris, a friend of the victim, also had lingering questions. “I just got several inconsistent stories,” she said of her interactions with the group. “[The accident theory] just doesn’t make sense. Not when everyone there said she was fine.”

Suspicions were further raised in February 2019, when Jose Barrera, the parole officer and boyfriend of the homeowner, was fired after he used his position to illegally access the Horsford incident report and name record for Meyers via the Records Management System database. This came to light as part of an ongoing conflict between the so-called Forsyth 12 and Horsford’s close friend, Michelle Wynne Graves. Later that month, seven of the individuals present the night of the incident, including Meyers and Barrera, sued Graves for defamation, pointing to Facebook posts accusing them of being responsible for Horsford’s death. That lawsuit was dismissed, but they have appealed. (Meyers and Barrera were dropped from the suit.) Legal representation for the remaining five declined an interview for this story, and did not respond to a list of questions about their clients and the larger case.

Ashland Harris, an advocate for the reopening of the case and the organizer of the original Change.org petition, also claims she’s been targeted for publicly criticizing the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Department, alleging harassment by the agency. In November 2019, a Cumming police officer detained Harris while looking for three men involved in a car accident, calling in a Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office deputy to help with the investigation. Harris was cleared and let go, but went on to file a complaint against the officer involved; he was later exonerated by Cumming Police Chief David Marsh. But Harris says her issues with local law enforcement continued; later that same month, deputies from the  FCSO showed up at her home with a warrant for her devices, based on the suspicion that Harris sent an accusatory anonymous email to one of the individuals present the night of Horsford’s death. Harris denies authoring that email and has now sued Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office Detective Jeffrey Roe and Sheriff Ron Freeman for civil rights violations. The FCSO was not able to provide Rolling Stone with comment on pending litigation, but noted that it was not FCSO, but the Cumming Police Department, that initially detained Harris on November 15th, 2019.

Tamla Horsford

Following the Black Lives Matter protests earlier this summer, advocates called for her case to be reopened.

Courtesy of Justice For Tamla

Yet none of this — not the questions surrounding Horsford’s death, nor the firing of Jose Barrera — seemed enough to convince the FCSO and GBI to take a closer look at the case. That is, until the Black Lives Matter movement reignited interest in the story on social media, catching the eye of celebrities including T.I., 50 Cent, Gabrielle Union, and Kim Kardashian. Influencers and individuals alike began to sign and share the Change.org petition to reopen the investigation, resulting in more than 600,000 signatures so far. In the midst of this, the Tampa lawyer representing Horsford’s family, Ralph Fernandez, released a letter summarizing the findings of his own review of the evidence. He concluded that “homicide is a strong possibility,” pointing to the abrasions on Tamla’s arms and hands that he believes could be defensive wounds. Fernandez also noted conflicting witness statements and issues with the initial investigation, including the unpreserved scene where Horsford’s body was found. In particular, Fernandez was struck by the lack of autopsy photos, a practice he characterizes as “unheard of” and likely done at someone’s direction.

The autopsy photos would soon become a point of contention. Following Fernandez’s letter, the FCSO and GBI released statements to local news source WSBTV claiming autopsy photos were taken and standing behind their original conclusion. In response, Fernandez released a second public statement on June 12th that included records of multiple failed attempts to secure said autopsy photos. Based on the emails Fernandez released between himself and the FCSO and GBI, requests for these photographs appear to have been ignored, even when other requests were fulfilled. In an email to Rolling Stone, GBI confirmed that autopsy photos were taken and claimed the holdup is related to a missing release from Tamla’s next of kin. However, Fernandez insists this release was not introduced until after he went public. As of publication, autopsy photographs have not been provided to Fernandez; the GBI has said they are happy to do so when provided with the release.

While Fernandez has yet to see the photos, the FCSO did respond to mounting pressure. On June 12th, just a few hours after Fernandez released his statement addressed to the two agencies, the sheriff’s office announced that they’d formally asked the GBI to assume the case and open an independent investigation. It’s a win for Horsford’s family and friends, who just want to see answers for the woman they loved so much. “People gravitated to her energy and warmth,” said Elizabeth Potts, her mother, in a statement to Rolling Stone. “Everywhere she lived, it was her home that became the house that all the neighbors and the neighbors children congregated.”

But in this case, reopening the inquiry isn’t likely to be enough for Horsford’s friends, family, and legal representation. Many have called for an independent investigation into the case, unable to trust that the agencies responsible will conduct an unbiased investigation — or hold anyone found to have been involved accountable. This includes Fernandez, who called the GBI “compromised” in a public statement following the death of Rayshard Brooks, killed by police in Atlanta after falling asleep in his car in a Wendy’s drive-thru. “This case is an indictment of the quality of the work that GBI does when there are no videos,” Fernandez told Rolling Stone of the Horsford case, referencing the video that captured Brooks’ final moments. Due to this distrust in the GBI, Fernandez is now pushing for the FBI to take on the case. Yet the GBI has made it clear that they intend to do a comprehensive, independent investigation that takes into account all possible evidence. “We’re looking at everything,” said GBI representative Miles. “So if there is information — particularly new information — that’s out there, we are encouraging people to come forward.”

As for the family, they just want the truth. “We want answers,” Elizabeth says. “We want justice.”

Anyone with tips should call the Georgia Bureau of Investigation at 1-800-597-TIPS (8477).

 

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Jose Barrerra worked as a parole officer. Though he had been employed as a parole officer, at the time of the party, he was a pre-trial officer. This article has also been updated to clarify that Jeanne Meyers and Jose Barrera have been dropped from Michelle Wynne Graves’ defamation suit. 

In This Article: Black Lives Matter, Death, Georgia

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