On the night she'd been invited to celebrate a fellow mom's 45th birthday with a girls-only sleepover, where the plan was for several women to bond like teens, 40-year-old Tamla Horsford was late to the party because she was baking a breakfast casserole for her husband and their five young boys.
"She had such a big heart," her adult daughter, Akieshma Horsford, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "She would not allow you to be in a bad mood."
Tamla and the night's host, Jeanne Meyers, had sons who played youth football together. And while Tamla, the only Black guest among the women, wasn't well-known to all of the others, she made friends easily. "She's always been the life of the party," Meyers said later.
The discovery the next morning of Tamla's body face-down in the backyard, in her paw-print pajamas, has left her family grasping for answers — and believing their questions remain unresolved, in part, because of Tamla's race.
"The fact that she was a Black woman, sadly, in a sea of people that weren't, might have something to do with why it wasn't more investigated," says Tamla's sister-in-law, Teri Blanco.
Based on police observations that morning of Nov. 4, 2018, Tamla's husband, Leander, says he was told that authorities suspected she tripped over some garden edging — a hazard that Meyers' aunt said she also had stumbled over in the past — and suffered a fatal injury.
But as the extent of her injuries became known, authorities later theorized that Tamla had died after a fall from a second-floor deck. She had blunt force trauma to her head, neck and extremities, including a broken neck and dislocated wrist, that were inconsistent with a slight fall, and alcohol in her system at nearly three times the legal driving limit, according to an autopsy
The Forsyth County Sheriff's Office closed the case on Feb. 20, 2019, calling it an accidental death. "It was a party," Major Joe Perkins said at the time. "They were drinking."
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But in the interim, local media found records that revealed Meyers' then-boyfriend Jose Barerra — one of two men who were also at the home that night — had used his role as a Forsyth County pretrial services officer to access records in the case. Barerra was fired from his job. According to a police-interview transcript obtained by PEOPLE, when he was asked if he'd thrown Tamla over the deck, he replied, "No, I did not."
On Feb. 21, 2019, attorneys representing Barerra, Meyers and other party guests explained Barerra's actions as merely "curiosity [that] got the better of him." They further stated: "Our clients are completely innocent. This was not murder. This was not anything other than a tragic accident."
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Skeptics of the investigation noted the county's turbulent racial past and its 85 percent white population. And as the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville propelled a national movement for racial justice, the hashtag #JusticeForTamla was picked up by Black Lives Matter protesters.
In June, citing "recent calls to re-examine the death of Tamla Horsford," the sheriff's office stood by its work but also asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to take a second look.
Says Tamla's husband: "I do not believe that the truth has been told about that night."
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