After reopening the investigation into the death of Tamla Horsford last year, the Georgia Bureau of Investigations (GBI) concluded their inquiry earlier this year. No charges will be filed in the case of the 40-year-old mother of five, found face-down in the backyard of a friend’s Forsyth County home the morning after an adult sleepover party.
But according to documents obtained by Rolling Stone, the investigation surrounding Horsford’s death has continued to be muddied by scandals within the police department and unanswered questions about the toxicology report.
Horsford was found on November 4th, 2018, the morning after a birthday celebration held by the homeowner, Jeanne Meyers. Horsford knew Meyers, as well as most of the other attendees, through their sons’ youth football league. The initial Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office investigation determined that her death had been an accident, the result of a fall from a second-level balcony. It wasn’t until summer 2020 that the Black Lives Matter movement sparked a national conversation about the case. As celebrities like T.I., Kim Kardashian, and 50 Cent shared photos and information about Horsford on social media, many questioned whether local police had come to the right conclusion. Could Horsford’s death really have been caused by a fall from the balcony? How was it possible she fell without anyone hearing it? And was the fact that she was the only Black guest — in an overwhelmingly white part of Georgia — simply a coincidence?
As details of the case came out, it became clear that multiple parts of the investigation had gone wrong. Working on the assumption that Horsford’s death was the result of an accident and not foul play, the crime scene had not been preserved, with potential evidence contaminated and witnesses not immediately interviewed. When Horsford’s body was sent for autopsy, only a handful of autopsy photos were taken by the medical examiner. The public speculation largely focused on Jose Barrera, the boyfriend of the homeowner and party host. At the time of Horsford’s death, Barrera, was employed by the Solicitor General’s Office as a pre-trial officer for the Forsyth County Court system. But Barrera was fired from this position in December 2018, after he was found to have looked up information relating to the Horsford case while on the job. (Rolling Stone was not able to reach Barrera or Meyers for comment.)
To start, Forsyth County was rife with racial tension. In 1912, every one of the town’s more than 1,000 Black residents were driven out, and Forsyth County has remained primarily white to this day. The Sheriff at the time of Horsford’s death, Ron Freeman, has himself faced allegations of racism and nepotism. It wasn’t until a Change.org petition gained more than 600,000 signatures that Freeman asked the GBI to reopen the case in July 2020. Family and friends of Horsford as well as Black Lives Matter advocates hoped the GBI investigation might provide answers to the many questions left by the original inquiry.
A New Chapter
In May 2021, Forsyth County District Attorney Penny Penn announced that the GBI had concluded their inquiry and there would not be charges filed in Horsford’s death. The GBI largely sided with the Forsyth County investigators, concluding that Horsford’s death was caused by an accidental fall from the balcony. But that’s not to say there weren’t any new revelations from the GBI report. Now, documents obtained by Rolling Stone reveal the full results of the GBI investigation. Specifically, more about the two individuals who left their positions in local law enforcement in the wake of Horsford’s death: party attendee Jose Barrera and responding officer Michael Christian.
Authorities had already disclosed that Barrera had been let go for searches related to Horsford’s case. But Barrera was also the center of another important debate: Whether or not Horsford’s left arm had been moved. When found and photographed, Horsford’s right arm was next to her body, while her left arm was extended and bent at the elbow. However, statements from Barrera and the homeowner, Jeanne Meyers, recall Horsford being found with both arms at her sides. Did someone move her left arm, perhaps to check for vitals? According to a supplemental report from Forsyth County, Barrera admitted to it in a call with Lt. Andy Kalin. “The Supplemental Report essentially advised that Barrera telephonically contacted Investigator Kalin on November 7, 2018 and advised that he checked Horsford’s left arm for a pulse,” reads the GBI report. It continues, “so Barrera did in fact move Horsford’s left arm per Investigator Kalin.
However, in an interview with GBI Special Agent Derek Glasco, Barrera denied moving Horsford’s arm. When the GBI confronted Barrera with Kalin’s report, he called it “bullshit.” Barrera denied ever telling Kalin he’d moved Horsford’s arm, and insisted he hadn’t moved the arm. “…There is no way I checked for a pulse,” he told Glasco.
The GBI report also revealed information about the relationship between Kalin and Barrera, who worked together at the courthouse prior to Horsford’s death. According to the statement Kalin gave to the GBI, Assistant District Attorney James Dunn had previously given him Barrera’s cell phone number within the context of helping Barrera find a job with the FCSO. Dunn told Kalin that Barrera had recently been fired from his job with the State Probation Office along with another female for “lying,” apparently about a relationship between the two. Dunn said that, while Barrera shouldn’t have lied, he was a “good guy” with a “good reputation” around the Courthouse.
Spotlight on Snapchat
The GBI report also reveals new details of concerns relating to the lead investigator from Forsyth County, Mike Christian. In October 2020, Christian resigned from the FCSO amid an Internal Affairs investigation into allegations that Christian sent multiple women with whom he was having extramarital affairs confidential information about his cases. In a statement in January 2021, Christian defended himself, saying that the woman whose complaint triggered the IA investigation had been acting out of hurt: “I am far from a perfect human,” he told WSB-TV in Atlanta. “I chose to end a long-term extra marital relationship abruptly. This person, out of anger and hurt, chose to go to Sheriff Freeman with a list of alleged misconduct on my part. In 20/20 hindsight, I would not have resigned but stayed for the investigation and taken what punishment was fitting, up to termination. As is, the IA investigation lacks my side of the story and makes me out to be something I am not. All the good I had ever done in sixteen years of law enforcement is gone with this document.” The IA investigation ultimately found him to have “violated his oath of office and neglected his duty,” according to WSB-TV.
As part of their investigation, GBI spoke to two women who claimed to have been sent details — and in one case, photos — of the Horsford case. According to these women, Christian exclusively referred to the deceased mother as “porch lady.” In the GBI’s report, one ex-girlfriend recalled Christian sharing the results of Horsford’s toxicology report as well as his suspicion that the body had been moved. Another woman interviewed by the GBI claimed that Christian sent her a photo of Horsford’s body at the crime scene. That woman remembered Christian being obsessed with the case, to the point of having panic attacks about it. According to this ex-girlfriend, Christian told her he believed the death was an accident, but doubted Horsford fell from the balcony based on her injuries.
This ex also told the GBI that Christian told her he’d discovered calls between Barrera and Kalin prior to the 911 call, and suspected Kalin had helped the partygoers come up with a story. According to this woman, Christian was worried he would go down for the officers who set the scene. (If there was evidence of calls between Kalin and Barrera, the GBI didn’t find it. In fact, records for Barrera’s cell phone turned up nothing between 12 a.m. and 10 a.m. the day Horsford died. When the GBI clarified, Verizon confirmed that Barrera had not used the network during those times. Both Barrera and Kalin denied any communication about the death prior to the 911 call.)
Three screenshots of the Snapchat messages Christian sent to his girlfriends were obtained by the GBI. In a message sent the morning of November 4th, Christian appears to joke about notifying Horsford’s husband of her death. “Hello sir, I know we’ve never met but I’m here to tell you that your wife and the mother of your six children is dead. Oh yes I am happy to report that she was really really drunk trip landed face down in the backyard and…I know you have fun memories enjoy corralling these six boys who are now going ape shit.” In a message from November 19th, Christian types, “Greetings from racist cracker bastard murder covering up land. How are you?” He continues, “It’s a nice rainy day good for digging shallow Graves by the roadside.” In this context, Ralph Fernandez, the Horsford family’s lawyer, believes Graves is a reference to Michelle Graves, a friend of Horsford who’s been particularly critical of the investigation.
When interviewed by the GBI about these messages, Christian admitted to sending them, but characterized them as sarcasm and in poor taste. But while Christian admitted to sending the screenshotted Snapchats, he denied sending any photos of the crime scene. Christian also denied having any knowledge of Barrera calling Kalin before the call to 911, as well as any relationship between Barrera and Kalin before Horsford’s death. Christian told the GBI that he believes Horsford’s death was the result of an accidental fall from the balcony, and that he had no doubt Horsford landed where she was found. (Rolling Stone was not able to reach Christian for comment.)
The Whispers Continue
The GBI investigation appears to have left other loose ends. In an interview with investigators, Horsford’s husband’s best friend Steven Reynolds articulated concerns that the death may have been sexually motivated. Reynolds claimed that two of the couples present the night Horsford died were swingers. He told the GBI that his first thought was that Horsford died after someone tried to initiate something with her sexually. This doesn’t appear to come up anywhere else in the investigation, including in interviews with the two couples he implicated.
Another question the GBI left unanswered was the origin of the Xanax found in Horsford’s system. Horsford’s toxicology report has been the subject of much focus, since the results seemed to confirm that she fell accidentally while intoxicated. Her high BAC — .238, almost three times the legal driving limit — seemed easily explained by a bottle of tequila Horsford had brought with her to the party. She also tested positive for THC, and was found with a baggie of marijuana in her purse. Witnesses confirmed seeing Horsford take shots and smoke marijuana the night of the party. But Horsford also tested positive for alprazolam, a medication more commonly known as Xanax. It was a small amount, less than the lowest measurement of 25 micrograms per liter. But it showed that Horsford had taken Xanax sometime before she died. Alcohol and Xanax are both depressants, and mixing the two can result in over-sedation and the slowing of heart rate, breathing, motor skills, speech, and reflexes. This can lead to cardiac arrest, respiratory depression, and death.
Unlike the alcohol and marijuana, the crime scene offered no obvious explanation for this positive result; it’s not clear where or when she took the Xanax, or how she got it. Party attendees have unanimously denied any knowledge of Horsford taking or being given Xanax.
Yet there was one person there with a Xanax prescription, according to the report. During the GBI’s initial interview with that woman, who Rolling Stone has chosen not to name, she denied having shared Xanax with anyone. Yet the GBI investigation turned up text messages that suggested this was not true, and that she had in fact shared Xanax with a women from the party. In a message sent November 4th, the morning after Horsford’s death, another friend from the party texted her, “I hate to ask but can I please get more meds? It really helped me.” The woman with the prescription responded in the affirmative, and they coordinated where to meet up to do the exchange. When confronted with this evidence, the woman confirmed that she’d given her friend a small amount of Xanax the morning after Horsford’s death. She has maintained that she only gave this women Xanax because she knew her well. She and other witnesses insisted that she did not give Horsford Xanax that night; she wouldn’t have, since she wasn’t close with Horsford and was aware she’d been drinking.
The GBI report doesn’t appear to reach a conclusion on this, or many other points of the Horsford case. Instead, the GBI focused much of their investigation on Leander Horsford, Tamla’s husband and the mother of her children. Search warrants for Leander’s phone and social media records didn’t turn up any relevant evidence. Additional testing done on paint and Horsford’s pajamas also came up empty.
In the end, the GBI largely sided with the original findings of Forsyth County: this was simply a tragic accident, the result of a mom’s night out gone wrong. By not filing charges, DA Penn seemed to agree with the findings of both Forsyth County and the GBI. But will it be enough to satisfy friends and family of Horsford? Will the public and BLM activists accept the lack of answers about the Xanax? And if so, what does that say about the way the police in a primarily white area treat cases with a Black woman at the center?
Fernandez, the Horsford family’s lawyer, has some of the same questions. “This is an ever-expanding event,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I am dealing with a really unusual situation, that has been complicated further by official intermeddling, by an absence of cooperation from law enforcement, and by distraction within what I consider to be the primary investigation.” Fernandez is currently working on a comprehensive, in-depth report, his own Warren Commission. “I don’t think it’s only fair to the project, or to Tamla, just to say, here’s what law enforcement should’ve done,” Fernandez explained. “I think what we need to do is also investigate, from our perspective, how and why this became so difficult, and so challenging, and so adversary.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more details of the party.