A year will have gone by this Thursday since searchers scoured the murky, brush-clotted waters of a Socastee creek to find “Baby Grace” who was lost in the rushing waters.
“Baby Grace,” who was recovered days after she went into the water, has been remembered by the community as the year has gone by.
Grace Carlson Santa Cruz, who was just 5 months old at the time of her drowning death, was laid to rest at Hillcrest Cemetery in Conway in mid November after she was discovered Nov. 5 by searchers in the rushing waters of a creek.
The headstone that marks her grave, which is decorated with a child-like angel petting a sheep inside a border of hearts, was paid for through funds given by multiple donors and area businesses.
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Throughout the year, flowers, toys, and tickets have been left at her grave, reflecting that the infant has a fairly regular stream of visitors, according to Stephanie Smith, administrative assistant at Hillcrest Cemetery.
“The community still remembers her,” said Smith.
Daved Kinard, florist and store manager at The Daisy Fair Flowers in Conway, puts floral arrangements at her grave each season and placed a fresh display on Wednesday afternoon to remember her as the anniversary of her death neared.
Kinard also places flowers at the graveside of “Baby Grace’s” neighbor at Hillcrest, Baby Boy Horry – a newborn who was found abandoned inside a bag in a wooded area off Meadowbrook Drive near Conway in Dec. 2008.
“It’s just so sad,” he said of the tragic, untimely deaths.
“We always make sure there’s something special there for Baby Horry and now for Baby Grace too,” he said.
The babies will both be remembered in a special memorial ceremony held by the Horry County Coroner’s Office in early December.
On Nov. 3, 2015, the day of “Baby Grace’s” death, her mother, Sarah Lane Toney, 34, of Conway initially told Horry County police she entered the dark Socastee creek behind her Sims Drive home with Grace Carlson Santa Cruz that rainy morning because the baby was crying, then told them she was trying to find God, according to an incident report.
Toney appeared to be under the influence of methamphetamine as indicated by her twitching and scratching at her skin after she emerged from the creek, soaking wet on the back porch of a nearby Shem Creek Circle residence, saying she lost her baby in the swift-moving water, the police report states.
She is charged with homicide by child abuse and unlawful neglect of a child and remains jailed at the J. Reuben Long Detention Center.
Toney is facing a minimum of 20 years and maximum life sentence for the homicide by child abuse charge. If convicted, Toney would have to serve at least 85 percent of her sentence.
In the spring, Toney underwent court-ordered evaluations to determine if she was competent to stand trial, according to records available on the Horry County Public Index.
Those evaluations have been completed, and a trial date is projected for late winter or early spring of next year, according to Chief Deputy Solicitor Scott Hixson, who is prosecuting the case.
Hixson declined to discuss the details and evidence involved, stating that he could not comment on a pending case.
Toney’s attorney did not return calls for comment.
The discovery of the infant’s lifeless body climaxed a nearly three-day long search through a bloated 6-to-8-foot deep creek and thick brush under overcast skies and periodic heavy downpours.
Sgt. Rhett Bickley with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources Aquatic Investigation and Recovery team found “Baby Grace” that day as hope was beginning to dwindle.
Bickley, who has been diving on search and rescue missions for more than 10 years, said the discovery of “Baby Grace” that day was not one he could put into words. He said he was just “happy to get her out of there,” and said while divers compartmentalize when they search, the process is harder when children are involved.
Bickley stressed that her recovery was very much a team effort by all there, and said everyone pulled together during the search for “Baby Grace,” giving 110 percent as they combed the creek’s bottom and banks.
“There wasn’t a person out there who wasn’t tied to that little girl,” he said. “Everybody did everything they could to find her.”
Community members who mourned “Baby Grace” after her passing said the loss highlights the need to spread awareness about options that exists for parents in distress.
Daniel’s Law in South Carolina allows for unharmed newborns up to 60 days old to be left with a staff or employee of a safe haven, which is defined as any hospital or hospital outpatient facility, law enforcement agencies, fire stations, emergency medial services (EMS) stations or a house of worship during the time the church or synagogue is staff.