Lindsay Groce Gardner was creative and compassionate, yet stood firm in her beliefs.
A teacher at Travis Avenue Baptist Church’s Christian Early Learning Center, Gardner nurtured her class of 1-year-olds.
“She was the kind that if someone was upset, she would stop whatever she was doing and just sit down and hold that child because that’s what needed to happen right then,” said Amy Howell, director of learning center. “I know she had a hard time laying them down at nap time if they were upset. She’d just as soon hold them and put them to sleep that way than have them cry it out in their crib. Just a real gentle person.”
But the 27-year-old Fort Worth woman could also be bold and outspoken when discussing her faith in God, or the choices she made in raising her 13-month-old daughter, Hailey Rain Gardner.
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“She was very protective of her,” Howell said. “She had some pretty firm convictions about what she felt like was best for Hailey. ... As a mom, it’s really easy to feel lots of judgment coming in those choices that you make.
“She was real firm to say, ‘That’s OK but I feel this is best for my daughter. This is what we’re doing.’ I thought that was real commendable.”
Like police investigators, friends and colleagues are grappling to understand how the young woman and her baby ended up dead, found in a field Tuesday morning in southwest Fort Worth, unclothed and about 200 yards from their wrecked car.
Homicide Sgt. Joe Loughman said Thursday that there were no indications of foul play on the bodies and that autopsies did not reveal a possible cause of death for either mother or child.
The Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office is now awaiting results of toxicology tests, which could take several weeks.
Grew up in the church
Howell said she wasn’t immediately concerned Tuesday when Gardner didn’t show up to work on time with Hailey, assuming that Gardner’s husband was just running late.
“They shared a car, so there were some times she would be late because of him getting home from work and then bringing them,” Howell said.
But after awhile, when Gardner did not show up, or text or call to let Howell know she was running late, employees began to worry.
Howell said she tried to text the phone that the Gardner shared with her husband.
“I got in touch with Anthony and he said that she wasn’t there. And she wasn’t at her mom’s,” Howell said. “Then we started realizing, ‘They don’t know where she is either.’”
The mother and daughters’ bodies were found about 11 a.m. Tuesday — the mother covering her child — after a man went to the property southwest of Dirks Road and the Bryant Irvin intersection to repair a fence. Fort Worth officers had earlier responded to the field after a woman alerted police about 8:20 a.m. about a wrecked Toyota against a tree but did not see the bodies then.
Celeste Albaugh, minister of preschool at Travis Avenue, said Gardner and her three sisters had grown up in the church.
Later, Gardner began working as a teacher in the preschool’s ministry, teaching on Sundays and Wednesday nights and at vacation Bible school.
A gifted artist, Gardner had painted a mural of a “New Arrivals” train on a hallway wall in the center about five years ago, featuring the images of her nieces and nephews.
To California and back
In 2012, Gardner moved to California, where she would meet her husband, Anthony Gardner.
“I think she was just trying to take her art to another level, and she thought California would be the place to explore that a little bit more,” Albaugh said. “I remember many times she would tell me about art showings that she had here locally. She was really excited about being able to share her work with others.”
But after struggling to find jobs to support them, Gardner, then pregnant, and her new husband returned to Fort Worth in the summer of 2013. The church helped throw them a combined wedding and baby shower.
“We helped them set up their new apartment and get some things for when Hailey would arrive,” Albaugh said.
Albaugh said Gardner took naturally to motherhood.
“I was in the hospital just a few hours after Hailey was born,” Albaugh recalled. “I was so surprised. She had her there and was very successful already in feeding her.”
Albaugh recalled how Anthony Gardner was on cloud nine.
“I’ve never seen a dad so giddy about being a dad,” Albaugh said. “He was on the phone talking to someone and he was just going on and on about how perfect she was and how beautiful she was. He just lit up when she came.”
Though she had extended family all around to offer her support, Albaught said Gardner was very independent.
“Most young girls, first baby, they rely a lot on parents,” Albaugh said. “From my perspective and observation, I didn’t see that. I saw her taking responsibility in taking care of Hailey. It was great the family was close by but she tried to figure some things out first. That was admirable I thought.”
‘A really sweet spirit’
Jenny Spencer, co-founder of DFW Crunchy Mom, met Gardner and her daughter at the group’s annual picnic last spring. The group, she said, is like a sisterhood of mothers who strive to raise their children through a more natural way of living.
“I absolutely just clicked with her,” Spencer said. “When I first saw her, I thought, ‘I want to be her friend.’ They’ve just got that light in their eye You can just tell they’ve got a really sweet spirit. ... Just a genuine person all around.”
Spencer said Lindsay frequently posted insightful and positive comments on the group’s page and was well-liked by the women.
“The community came together for her during the summer. She was going through a rough time. We all just embraced and helped her,” Spencer said. “It’s hitting our women so hard.”
Spencer said Crunchy Moms members are finding comfort in all the postings that Gardner had posted on the group’s page.
“Her faith always got her through, no matter what,” Spencer said. “Her conviction, her faith, her willpower was always there. It was always an inspiration to a lot of people in the group.”
Albaugh said she believes the mural at the church will now serve as a beautiful reminder of Gardner.
“I think that’s going to be helpful to her parents and her family, knowing that when they walk by there they can see her still being a part of our ministry,” she said.
Deanna Boyd, 817-390-7655