Tamla Horsford Died at a Slumber Party in 2018. Her Family Still Wants Answers.
Georgia police said the mother of five was killed in an accidental fall, but her loved ones don’t buy it. Now cops are taking a second look.
By all accounts, there was no reason anyone would want to kill Tamla Horsford.
A strikingly beautiful mother of five, Horsford was the type of person who volunteered in all of her children’s classrooms but snuck miniature bottles of wine into the sidelines of their football games. Friends and family in Forsyth County, Georgia, described the 40-year-old as “open,” “giving,” “the life of the party.” As one friend told police: “You couldn’t not like this girl.” The night she died, at an overnight birthday party for one of her friends, she spent hours preparing a breakfast casserole for her family, so they would have something to eat while she was gone. “She had the biggest heart on this planet,” Leander Horsford, her husband of 16 years, later told police.
That’s why it was so shocking when Horsford’s body was discovered face-down in the birthday girl’s backyard in early November 2018. To this day—despite 300 hours of investigation and dozens of interviews—no one seems certain how she ended up there, still clad in her paw-print pajamas.
The sheriff’s office closed the investigation more than a year ago, ruling Horsford’s death an accident. But the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has brought renewed interest to the case—not as an example of police brutality, but of a divided justice system: one for white Americans, and one for Black. What happens, activists want to know, when a Black woman is found dead at a party with all white women, in a nearly all-white town?
Forsyth is Georgia’s richest and fastest-growing county, with a median income nearly $40,000 more than the state average. It is also the state’s most conservative. A 2010 ranking from Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller ruled Forsyth the second most “conservative-friendly” county in the nation—a title that seemed to stick in 2016, when Donald Trump took roughly 72 percent of the county vote, compared to 51 percent of Georgia as a whole. (That same year, the Forsyth County GOP changed its logo so that the “F” sported a Trump-style toupee.) The county is also remarkable for its lack of diversity—just 4 percent of the population is Black, compared to 32 percent of the rest of the state.
In photos from the night in question, Horsford is a symbol of that homogeneity: the only Black woman in a sea of blondes. The occasion was a birthday party for Jeanne Meyers, whose son played football with Horsford’s, and most of the women there were also moms, connected through a web of school classrooms and kid’s sports teams. Some of the women Horsford knew well, others she’d met only once or not at all. But the plan for the night seemed simple enough: Everyone would arrive at seven o’clock, watch the LSU v. Alabama football game, have gumbo and cocktails, and spend the night so that they wouldn’t have to drive home. “We thought it was safe,” Meyers’ friend Stacy Smith later told police.
According to police interviews with attendees obtained by The Daily Beast, Horsford arrived at the party late, around 8:30 p.m. From the minute she entered the door, attendees said, she lit up the room—hopping around on one foot to take her shoes off and changing almost immediately into her PJs. At one point, she plopped directly into the lap of Meyers’ friend, Bridget Fuller, as she tried to do work on the couch. Photos show Fuller passing her beer bottle to Meyers’ boyfriend, Jose Barrera, so it wouldn’t spill, a look of restrained bemusement on her face. (Barrera was originally supposed to clear out for girls night, but told police he stayed back with a friend because he didn’t feel well.)
The mood at the party was light, despite LSU’s disappointing loss, and videos show guests laughing, drinking, dancing, and losing focus halfway through a game of Cards Against Humanity. Throughout the party, guests circulated between the kitchen and back deck—at one point trying and failing to light an outdoor firepit. Multiple attendees recalled Horsford smoking marijuana on the deck, though only one admitted in police interviews to taking a single hit of her joint. (This, despite Detective Mike Christian’s insistence that he was “not the dope police.”) Party-goers also recalled Horsford smoking cigarettes on the deck, though they didn’t recall anyone else joining her.
Guests said Horsford was also the only one to brave the tequila she brought that night—a pricey bottle from Mexico that she brought as a present for Meyers, but the smell of which the birthday girl told police made her “[throw] up in my mouth.” When police arrived the next morning, they found just an eighth of the tequila bottle left. But not a single party-goer told police they remembered Horsford being overly intoxicated. In fact, multiple people commented on how composed she seemed, especially compared to Meyers’ friend Jennifer Morrell, who several people recalled getting embarrassingly drunk.
Around 1 a.m, attendees told police, Meyers started signaling that it was time for bed. A few guests who didn’t plan to stay the night had already left, and someone had helped Morell into an upstairs bedroom. Meyers told police that Horsford begged her to stay up a while longer, savoring the female company as a respite from her five boys at home. But Meyers demurred, saying she had to wake up early the next morning. She and Barrera retired to an upstairs bedroom, the Smith couple to another. Madeline Lombardi, Meyers’ aunt, was already settled in her apartment in the basement.
By 1:45 a.m., according to police interviews, Horsford and Fuller were the only ones left downstairs. Horsford made herself a bowl of gumbo and the two made small talk while Fuller waited for her husband to arrive. When he did, Fuller told police, Horsford walked her to the door and planted a kiss on her cheek. “You’re a really good person,” she says Horsford told her.
“OK, well thank you very much, I appreciate that,” Fuller says she shot back. “Now take your ass in the house and finish eating your gumbo.”
According to the party-goers, she was the last person to see Horsford alive.
If a Black person in America dies under suspicious circumstances, their death is statistically less likely to be solved than someone of any other racial group. According to a Washington Post analysis, police in 52 of the nation’s largest cities arrested someone 63 percent of the time in the killings of white victims. In the killings of Black victims, police made an arrest just 47 percent of the time. Of the 26,000 unsolved killings in these cities between 2008 and 2018, more than 18,600 of the victims were Black.
Several law enforcement officials who spoke with the Post said the problem was that many Black and Brown community members refused to cooperate with police. The resounding answer from these community members was: Why should we?
When Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man living on the opposite end of the state from Horsford, was shot and killed by two white men in February, it took nearly four months, several viral videos, and a national outcry for police to arrest the suspects. It later emerged that one of the shooters, Gregory McMichael, was formerly employed by the local police department, and that a district attorney who had worked with him had written a shocking memo arguing there was no probable cause for McMichael’s arrest.
The case has since been sent to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, but some activists are still anxious about how the state agency will handle it. Previous GBI investigations of officer-involved shootings have been tainted with bias and interference from the police departments involved, and the bureau has repeatedly cleared officers of wrongdoing in cases where the victims’ families went on to reach sizable settlements with the police departments.
In the last 10 years, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Georgia police have shot and killed at least 184 people—nearly half of whom were unarmed or shot in the back. Black men were twice as likely to be killed by police as white. Just this month, police shot and killed a Black man named Rayshard Brooks after they found him sleeping in a Wendy’s drive-thru, setting off a wave of protests in Atlanta.
“I'm scared every day,” Brooks’ widow, Tomika Miller, said in a press conference last week. “My children go out, my husband goes out, my family members go out... and this just really startled me, because I don’t even know if they’re going to come home.”
It was Madeline Lombardi, Meyer’s aunt, who found Horsford’s body the morning after the party. According to her police interviews, Lombardi woke around 8:30 a.m. and went to make coffee. She was staring out the window of her ground-level apartment when she saw Horsford’s PJs peeking through the grass.
At first, Lombardi told police, she thought the houseguest was simply sleeping. But the odd position of her body—the way her face was flat on the ground, not turned to one side—made her queasy. She went into her bedroom to say a prayer, and when she returned, Horsford had not moved. That’s when she ran upstairs to get Barerra.
“I knocked on the door and Jeanne said ‘Come in,’ and [Barerra] was sitting up in bed,” Lombardi later told police. “I looked at Jeanne and I said ‘I just want to talk to Jose, I want him to come downstairs with me.’” When Meyers asked what was wrong, her aunt responded: ‘Your friend from the islands is laying in the back yard and she’s not moving.”
By the time Barrera made it outside, Meyers was already on the phone with 911. In a recording of the call, which started at 8:59 a.m., Meyers can be heard telling the dispatcher that she’d had people over the night before. “We were drinking, most of us went to bed, one of them stayed on the balcony,” Meyers says. “She was drinking. And we just went outside and she’s laying face down in the backyard.” Then she turns the phone over to Barrera, who informs the dispatcher that the body is still, and that Horsford is not breathing.
Police arrived on the scene at 9:07 a.m. and immediately recognized Horsford was dead. According to crime scene reports, they called all the guests back to Meyers’ residence for questioning, leaving a curious crowd in the front driveway—a strange sight for a Sunday morning in suburbia. Photos from the scene show Meyers’ stately brick home wrapped in crime tape; others capture the remnants of the night before: a packet of cigarettes, some cigarette butts, and two lighters on the porch table; a black bag of clothes, presumably belonging to Horsford, in the living room; the blue bottle of tequila, one eighth full, in the kitchen.
Alerts from Meyer’s alarm system gave officers further clues. At 1:47 a.m., the system registered the front door opening and closing, presumably letting Fuller out. At 1:49, the door to the back deck opened and closed—possibly, Meyers later suggested, for the cigarette break Horsford had mentioned taking. At 1:57, the back door opened again, and never closed.
Then there was the body. According to an initial crime scene report, Horsford’s body was found face-down, one arm extended by her left side, the other bent to the right at an obtuse angle. There was blood on her pajama sleeve and pant leg, and injuries traversing her body: a protrusion and a break of the skin on the right wrist; a laceration on the right shin and a contusion on the left; small abrasions on the wrists and fingers; a defect on the right temple.
A state medical examiner would later cite these injuries, as well as other internal wounds he documented, in ruling the cause of death consistent with a fall from a substantial height. A GBI toxicology screen would reveal traces of marijuana and an anti-anxiety drug in Horsford’s system, as well as a blood-alcohol level three times the legal driving limit, contributing to the narrative that this could all have been a tragic accident—a drunken fall from a 15-foot-high deck.
But Horsford’s family and friends started raising questions almost immediately. None of them knew her to get stumbling drunk or use prescription drugs. In interviews with the detectives, Horsford’s widower, Leander Horsford, and her brother-in-law were adamant: If Horsford was the only person smoking that night, why were there two lighters on the table? Why were the cigarettes not taken in as evidence? What about her shoes, which were left inside and never collected by police?
Even those at the party were mystified. In an interview four days after she discovered Horsford’s body, Lombardi told police: “I’ve been praying for God to reveal some answers in this case, because it doesn’t make sense.”
More than a century ago, another high-profile death rocked the foundations of Forsyth County. In 1912, according to historical texts, the body of a white woman named Mae Crow was found raped and beaten in the woods outside Cumming—the same town where Horsford died. A week earlier, another white woman, Ellen Grice, had accused a Black man of raping her in her home. The confluence of the two events was enough to convince the white townspeople that their Black neighbors were planning an insurrection, and mobilized a brutal campaign of vigilante justice.
Almost immediately, town members rounded up and lynched a young Black man named Rob Edwards. After a brief trial, they hung two more Black teenagers accused of Crow’s rape and murder. Then they began a campaign to drive every living Black person out of the county, lighting houses and churches on fire, kicking women and children out of their home and stealing their property. Between September and October 1912, almost all of the county’s 1,098 Black residents were forced to leave.
Patrick Phillips, a white man who grew up in Forsyth County in the 1970s and later wrote a book about its history, described the incident as a sort of lore around town; a shorthand explanation for why there were so few Black people in the area.
“I always had the feeling that the place itself was kind of haunted,” Phillips told NPR in 2016. “And I thought about these vanished Black people, this whole community of Black people and had always wondered, you know—as a child, I wondered, where did they go? How did this happen?”
In 1987, inspired by this legacy, Forsyth County residents planned a multi-racial “march for brotherhood,” according to The New York Times. But almost as soon as the march began, it was interrupted by a crowd of hecklers throwing stones and chanting about white power. A week later, a crowd of more than 12,000 civil rights marchers descended on the town in a show of support. Hundreds to thousands of white men also showed up to counter-protest, carrying Confederate flags and signs reading “Kill 'em all. Let God sort them out.”
Observing the angry mob of counter-protesters that day, a white resident told the Times he did not believe this was how most of Forsyth County viewed Black people. But he added he had to be cautious of how he spoke. “Some of these hotheads, they're likely to come burn my house up if I come out for the Blacks,” he said.
Earlier this month, as protests against police brutality spread across the country, a crowd of about 50 people gathered in downtown Cumming for a Black Lives Matter rally. A number of counter-protesters from the groups Confederate Patriot Rebels and We The People News circled the county courthouse, yelling at protesters. But a young Black woman named Olivia Keith told the Forsyth County News she was heartened that any anti-racism protesters had turned out at all.
“I'm almost brought to tears that people are even out here protesting,” she said, “because I believed that everyone is racist here.”
Like the deaths of so many Black Americans, Horsford’s might have gone largely unremarked upon, if not for the actions of Meyers’ boyfriend, Jose Barerra. In December 2018, according to the sheriff’s department, Barerra used his position as a pretrial court services employee to access the death report in Horsford’s case—a case in which he was a primary witness, and one of the only people to touch the victim’s body. Barrera was never charged with a crime, but the damage was done: He was fired from his job at the courthouse, and Horsford’s case started to gain public attention.
Around February 2019, the case started popping up on sites like the Daily Mail and Vibe.com—“Six Things To Know About The Mysterious Death Of Tamla Horsford,” one headline read. It also started circulating on social media, where, like most things that go viral, it became rife with misinformation and unsubstantiated claims. One popular post claimed Horsford was “murdered while she attended a sleepover with 7 white women,” adding, without evidence, that she was “beaten and thrown off a balcony.” A Facebook post shared more than 70,000 times claimed the party-goers had “political ties and lots of money,” and were “covering up her murder.” Other posts claimed there was a more than one-hour delay between when Horsford’s body was discovered and when Meyers called 911—an allegation the sheriff’s office says is patently false.
An attorney for seven of the party-goers, including Meyers and Barrera, claimed each of his clients had received death threats due to the social media comments. “The threats need to stop,” attorney Eric Tatum said in a statement last year. “This tragic accident is exactly that, an accident. It is unfortunate, sad, and unbelievably heartbreaking to her family and friends.”
“However, certain very vocal friends and family members of Mrs. Horsford have been describing this accident as a ‘murder,’” he added. “Nothing could be farther from the truth.”
In late November 2018, Meyers filed for a restraining order against one of Horsford’s more outspoken friends, saying the woman’s social media posts were a threat to her and her children’s safety. She claimed the woman had posted messages about her having “blood on her hands” and that others had outright accused her of murder.
“I have been dramatically affected emotionally by this tragedy occurring not only to my friend but at my home,” Meyers wrote in her petition. “I have yet to be able to truly grieve her passing as these women have tried to make me defend myself about something I didn’t do or [can’t] explain how it happened.”
Meyers ultimately lost her petition for a restraining order. But on Feb. 21, 2019, after more than three months of investigations, the Forsyth County Sheriff's Office announced it was closing the Horsford case. The State of Georgia medical examiner had ruled her death accidental, and crime scene findings showed no evidence of foul play. Barrera’s actions, Maj. Joe Perkins told reporters, “brought a cloud over this investigation,” but did not affect the final outcome.
“No evidence or injury patterns indicative of an assault or foul play were noted by the detectives or the Forsyth County Coroner's Office or the GBI Medical Examiner's report," he said.
For a time, the case seemed destined to fade once again from public view, to return to the world of suburban gossip and football-game sideline chatter. Then came the revival of the Black Lives Matter movement.
On April 26, The New York Times ran the first major story on Ahmaud Arbery’s killing. Less than a month later, a Black woman named Breonna Taylor was shot and killed during a no-knock police raid on her apartment. Weeks after that, George Floyd died after an officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. The deaths, combined with the graphic video in several cases, reignited a long-simmering discussion of how police forces work, and for whom.
Horsford’s case was not one of police brutality, like Floyd and Taylor’s. It did not have graphic video of a crime occurring, like Arbery’s. But for many Black Americans, it carried the same, overwhelming sense that justice had not been served—that it could not be served, in a system that incarcerates five times the number of Black Americans than it does whites.
As protests grew across the country, Horsford’s name started appearing on protest signs and on social media, next to popular hashtags like #JusticeForBre and #SayHerName. A website and Facebook page titled “Justice For Tam” popped up, as did the requisite GoFundMe page. Rappers T.I and 50 Cent and actress Gabrielle Union-Wade tweeted about the case.
On June 5, more than a year after the case was closed, a lawyer for the family released an explosive letter saying he believed homicide was “a strong possibility” in Horsford's case. In the letter to Horsford’s widower, attorney Ralph E. Fernandez accused the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office of improperly handling evidence, failing to preserve the scene, and ignoring conflicting witness statements. He also suggested that missing autopsy photographs could prove Horsford was in a struggle before her death.
“Here we are fighting an uphill battle because those who wear the badges and were entrusted with the investigatory task failed you,” he wrote. “But this is not over. It will never be over. Be safe. Be strong. We will get to the bottom of this.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Fernandez said he took the case at the urging of the widower’s sister, who begged him to help the family make sense of the information they were receiving from the police department. He found the case interesting, he said, and quickly started filing public records requests—a response for some of which, such as a request for the autopsy photos, he has yet to receive.
Fernandez, who has worked for more than 30 years defending Cuban defectors and dissidents, said what concerns him most is the number of things he feels the police overlooked: the cigarettes, the shoes, questions about how the body landed and why. In his review of the crime scene photographs and investigators’ notes, he said, he saw no sign of an indentation that a falling body should have made. “There’s no reference to an indentation, but worse, there’s no reference to even looking for it,” he said.
In most of his work with minority clients, he said, “the interest shown to get the bottom of some of those is not the same as if something happened in my neighborhood.”
“I am troubled by the fact that this is probably what happened with 80 percent of the people that died alone—whether at the hands of police misconduct or simply when the investigations were done poorly or not at all,” he added.
The Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office initially pushed back, saying in a statement that it had conducted a “thorough and comprehensive investigation,” and had the GBI look over its findings. (Fernandez said he has received no documentation of a formal GBI review.) “In a continued effort to remain transparent, we welcome any new information from the Attorney’s Office handling the case for the family,” the statement continued. “To date, we have received none.”
But last week, Sheriff Ron Freeman sent a letter to the GBI asking it to reopen the case, pledging to turn over all of his office’s files on the case and cooperate fully.
“In light of recent calls to reexamine the death of Tamla Horsford, the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office has made an official request to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to open an investigation and examine any new evidence which may be available,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “We recognize that transparency is vital for law enforcement agencies and we want to ensure that no stone has been left unturned in the investigation of this tragic death.”
Horsford’s family has yet to comment on the reopening of the investigation. But in an interview with police detectives shortly after his wife’s death, Leander Horsford said he was confident the truth would surface.
“If you’re truthful, in my mind, everything will make sense, everything will fit together, all of the pieces of the puzzle will be there,” he said.
He added, “My mother and grandmother always told me as a little boy, no matter what, the truth will always come to light.”