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Cops: Grandmother, stepmom charged with murder after girl is forced to run for 3 hours

The stepmother and grandmother of a 9-year-old Alabama girl, who died after she was forced to run for 3 hours as punishment, face murder charges. WVTM-TV reports.

ATTALLA, Ala. -- Roger Simpson said he looked down the road and saw a little girl running outside her home but didn't give it another thought. Police, however, said the man witnessed a murder in progress.

Authorities say 9-year-old Savannah Hardin died after being forced to run for three hours as punishment for having lied to her grandmother about eating candy bars.

Severely dehydrated, the girl had a seizure and died days later. Now, her grandmother and stepmother, who police say meted out the punishment, were taken to jail Wednesday and face murder charges.

Witnesses told deputies 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 Savannah was having a seizure and was unresponsive.

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."

'Ran her until she dropped'
Natalie Barton, Etowah County, Alabama Public Information Officer, told Reuters that a call placed to a 911 emergency operator reported an unresponsive child having seizures.

"It appears they ran her until she dropped," Barton added.

However, authorities were still trying to determine whether Savannah was forced to run by physical coercion or by verbal commands. Deputies were told the girl was made 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 died Monday at Children's Hospital in Birmingham, according to a news release from the sheriff's office. The sheriff's release said an 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 witnessed the girl running. An official with the local volunteer fire department also said rescuers thought something seemed odd when they responded to a call about the child.

"One of the ones who were down there said he didn't feel like everything was right," said Ruby Ward, vice president of the Mountainboro Volunteer Fire Department.


Joyce Hardin Garrard, 46, left, and Jessica Mae Hardin, 27, have been charged with murder.

Garrard and Jessica Mae Hardin were being held in the Etowah County Detention Center, each on a $500,000 cash bond.

Savannah 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."

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The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.