'This case is just beginning' | Tamla Horsford's family releases full independent autopsy report
Tamla Horsford’s family and friends insist the police narrative doesn’t complete the puzzle of how she died.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has interactive elements. Users can hover over images, listen to witness interviews, and scroll through the documents to learn more about Tamla Horsford's death investigation. Some material can be considered graphic; viewer and listener discretion is advised.
Tamla Horsford died more than three years ago. Despite the multiple attempts to piece together what led up to her death and investigators closing the case, her father said it's still a puzzle -- with missing pieces.
“This case is just beginning," Kurt St. Jour said. "I have to know the truth."
11Alive Investigators analyzed hours of police interviews, hundreds of documents and scene photos, as well as a newly-released independent autopsy done by Horsford's family.
It is all to better understand why Horsford's family and close friends insist, that even with all the information, the police narrative doesn’t complete the puzzle.
The pieces don’t fit.
Piecing the story together:
Two law enforcement agencies investigated how Horsford ended up dead in a friend’s backyard.
The Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office responded to the 911 call on Nov. 4, 2018. Two years later, the GBI reopened the case. Both agencies came to the same conclusion.
Horsford, of Cumming, Georgia, got drunk at the party and fell from a balcony after everyone went to sleep. According to toxicology reports, her blood-alcohol level was .238, nearly three times the legal limit. She had traces of marijuana and Alprazolam, an anxiety medication, in her system.
The theory is plausible, but her family said it only works in isolation from other facts.
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From the start, Horsford's family and friends expressed concerns about how authorities handled the investigation. Forsyth County deputies repeatedly told them it would all make sense once they had access to their reports.
Once the case was ruled an accident and closed, 11Alive Investigators were able to request those same records. Horsford's husband's attorney, Ralph Fernandez also released, for the first time, the full independent autopsy performed by medical examiner Dr. Adel Shaker.
“I know this was a homicide," Fernandez said. "The problem is I can’t pin it on anybody because I don’t have a badge."
Pieces don't fit:
Michelle Graves made plenty of enemies by picking apart her friend’s death investigation. She filed open records requests, hounded investigators with emails and questions, and challenged the credibility of those at the house the night Horsford died.
“I haven’t been able to grieve her because I’ve been trying to fight for her justice for three years,” Graves said.
She wants to know why no one tried to roll Horsford over to render CPR after discovering her outside. Not even the police, who called off EMS, according to documents provided as part of the investigation.
“There was no effort whatsoever done to try to save this woman’s life,” Graves said.
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“An ambulance didn’t come,” the homeowner recalled in a recorded interview with police. “We just saw her come out in a body bag.”
The only one that is documented in the initial investigation to have touched Horsford’s body, is the homeowner’s boyfriend. He declared her dead after touching or lifting her leg, depending on which report you read.
There are questions about the timeline, who did what, and when. But investigators said, how ever she died, it happened after 1:57 a.m. That’s when, according to the security door alerts, the back door to the upstairs porch opened and never closed until her body was found.
Witnesses said it makes sense because that’s shortly after the homeowner and remaining guests went to bed. Horsford wanted one last cigarette.
But the family has raised questions about several door alerts leading to the garage just minutes earlier. Perhaps one of the party-goers cleaning up?
According to the alerts, that door opened 17 minutes earlier, at 1:40 a.m., and was also never closed.
The person last to see Horsford alive said they walked to the front door together. That matches with the front door chime at 1:47 a.m. She told police Horsford gave her a hug and shut the door. But the woman’s husband who came to pick her up said his wife came to the door alone.
Both the GBI medical examiner's report and the independent autopsy list the cause of her death as multiple blunt force injuries.
But Dr. Shaker, the forensic pathologist that examined Horsford's body after the GBI, said the dislocated wrist in the GBI’s report is actually a compound fracture.
In the scene photos, one can see a bone sticking out near her right wrist. The injury is significant because there was very little blood found at the scene, raising questions about where the injury occurred and whether it happened before or after her death.
What little blood can be found on Horsford's sleeve, is on the opposite side of her injury.
“I think the cut in the wrist was postmortem,” said Horsford's father. “I don’t think she died with that cut. I think it was put there after the fact.”
It’s a claim Shaker supports, calling the injury in his report “postmortem” or after death.
The GBI also lists a fracture in her spine.
Shaker said it isn’t a fracture at all. But to him, what’s most important, is what the GBI medical examiner did not find.
“There is no evidence of any significant injuries to the skull and bones,” Fernandez said.
In his report, Shaker wrote that the absence of bruising to broken bones in her skull, “raises the flag to the cause of death as falling from the second story of a building.”
The GBI did see a summary of Shaker’s report but never received a full copy.
Investigators asked for the document but Fernandez said he didn’t trust their intentions to simply hand it over. He pointed out that nothing stopped the GBI from issuing a subpoena to get it.
The crime scene:
Graves said beyond what could be studied after the fact, there are red flags just looking at the crime scene.
“They showed us the mulch and the rocks in the mulch and showed where, oh, she tripped and fell over this little garden border,” Graves explained, recalling a visit to the house where Horsford died after police had cleared the scene.
The homeowner said in conversations with police she was trying to help the family by letting them see where Horsford died. She shared her own theory of what happened. Initially, the homeowner was so convinced Horsford didn’t fall from the top floor balcony that she went on social media to say so.
In documents reviewed by 11Alive, the lead detective, Michael Christian, echoed that theory, telling the medical examiner, “the position of the body does not appear that she had fallen directly from the balcony, rather…ground level.”
Even deputies at the scene seemed confused by her body position.
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“If you go to brace yourself with your left hand and there ain’t nothing to brace yourself with, you’d spin you know what I’m saying?” one deputy who responded to the scene commented. “It doesn’t make sense. It’s kind of like a nosedive."
Horsford was found lying flat, face first, almost underneath the balcony that police later ruled she fell from. And the position seemed even more odd to the homeowner and her boyfriend because they insist both hands were by her side, palms up when they called 911.
“It’s the weirdest thing. She was face down but her arms were down like she just face-planted – is the best way I can describe it,” the homeowner said.
The GBI officer asked if Horsford's arms were down by her side.
“Yeah, by her side, palms up,” the homeowner responds.
Scene photos show her left arm is actually off to the side, it is bent and her palm is facing down with fingers curled under.
Two years later, one of the deputies had a moment of clarity and a possible theory of what happened.
In his initial report he wrote, “I saw what appeared to be a deceased female so I went inside and started questioning people.” He gave no indication he touched or interacted with Horsford's body. But when the GBI kept asking questions about Horsford's arm, he stated he did take her pulse and in the process, may have moved her arm.
“You get all this information and you go: 'Wait. Nothing makes sense here,'” Fernandez said. “There’s so much here that touches or should touch everyone’s heart.”
Psychics and home detectives have offered up their own theories of what happened to the mother of five. After the initial case was closed, celebrities like Kim Kardashian, 50 Cent, and T.I. questioned the integrity of the investigation.
They believe that despite the stereotypical yellow tape put up to protect the investigation, the scene was never treated like a crime.
They point to the autopsy as one example.
The GBI only took five photos, an unusually low number for a death investigation according to the experts 11Alive consulted.
According to GBI policy, the number of photographs taken is at the discretion of the medical examiner and include the body bag, the decedent's remains, an identification photograph, and injuries.
Fernandez argued Horsford's injuries alone should have warranted more than five photos. But what the GBI actually documented remains unknown. Fernandez said he’s never seen them. The GBI told 11Alive it is not subject to open records.
“Tamla was actually the person that they were investigating and not the perpetrators,” said St. Jour, her father.
Forsyth County Sheriff's Office did call all the people who attended the party back to the house shortly after the 911 call was made. While the party was planned as a sleepover to celebrate the homeowner’s birthday, many left early.
While getting statements, police did ask for photos and videos referenced to the party that night, but they didn’t ask to take any of the devices to download the data, nor did deputies ever subpoena their phones for records. That didn’t happen until the GBI got involved. By that time, records show at least two people had new phones and detectives learned text messages and pictures on some of the other devices were gone.
Horsford's family suspects this is a new chapter in Forsyth County’s history of racial tensions. Horsford was the only Black woman at the party, and the only one who wound up dead.
In 1912, the county forced out all of its Black residents. Today, only 4 percent of the county’s population is Black, according to U.S. census data.
Her family said they believe this impacted the way deputies viewed the scene. The lead investigator on the case, Michael Christian, is accused of calling Horsford the “porch lady” and making derogatory racial remarks.
“I mean, that’s horrific,” said Fernandez. “The racist, bigoted, sarcastic, funny way of this sick son of a [explicative].”
Christian said his comments were taken out of context and other deputies involved denied and have been offended by the accusation.
Race aside, the officers who responded had connections with some of the people inside the house. The man who spoke with police on the 911 call was a former probation officer, who at the time worked in Forsyth County's court system.
On the body camera audio, one can hear one of the deputies walking another deputy through the different people at the scene. He mentions Jose Barrera.
“We’ve got some mutual friends together. I’ve known Jose for a while, we’re friends,” the deputy is heard saying on the video.
One can also hear another woman from the party express concerns about getting to her new job on time. After explaining where she works, a deputy tells her, “I’m sure you’re good because your boss is my wife!”
The GBI also caught a few of the partygoers in what appears to be a series of lies.
One woman diagnosed with severe anxiety told police that her medication made it impossible for her to lie and that she is so dependent on her anxiety medication, she wore a necklace with Xanax in it. She told investigators she understood it was a controlled substance and would never share it with anyone.
Yet, once the GBI subpoenaed the phones and started reading through the text messages, they found evidence that the woman had indeed shared some type of medication at least twice with her friends prior to the party, and with one friend, on the day of Horsford's death.
When confronted, the woman admitted it was true. But insisted she only shared her drugs because she knew the women well. She did not know Horsford.
Horsford had Xanax in her system the night she died -- no one knows why.
The next piece:
Forsyth County and the GBI closed the case.
The agencies made peace with the inconsistencies and believe each question has a logical answer, or at the very least, that the answers don’t impact the outcome, as they've explained in past.
It’s unclear what new evidence would even come out of a new investigation after so much time has passed.
But, the family believes someone has yet to come forward. Even if Horsford's death was an accident, they believe there’s more to this story. They pray those who know, have the courage to speak and finally give the family peace.
Fernandez said he intends to write up his own report about all of the inconsistencies in the evidence, essentially litigating the case on paper. He hopes it will lead to new leads and reform within the police system.
The lead investigator, Michael Christian, lost his certification to work as a police officer. The high-profile nature of Horsford's death led several women to come forward, accusing Christian of sharing scene photos and confidential information about this and other cases with them.
The homeowner’s boyfriend also lost his job at the courthouse after he was accused of inappropriately accessing the case file relating to Horsford’s death and Graves’ personal information.
An internal investigation ruled the first claim unfounded, but he was still fired from his job at the courthouse. The court administrator would only say she had lost confidence in his ability to perform his duties.
As far as Horsford's case -- it's closed and, three years later, there are no plans to charge anyone with her death.