A woman accused of drowning her 5-month-old daughter in a flooded Socastee creek in 2015 pleaded guilty to homicide by child abuse inside an Horry County courtroom Wednesday afternoon.
Judge Steven John sentenced 34-year-old Sarah Lane Toney to 27 years in prison with credit for time served.
Toney gasped and cried as the sentence was handed down. “Oh God,” she wailed exiting the courtroom.
Toney left her home on Simms Drive in Socastee and went into the creek that borders it with her 5-month-old daughter, Grace Carlson Santa Cruz, in her arms on Nov. 3, 2015. Toney emerged drenched and alone on the porch of a residence on Shem Creek Circle saying she put her baby in the creek, police said.
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Horry County police began searching for the missing baby at 10:30 a.m. after officers were called by a resident of Shem Creek Circle, who said Toney showed up at the resident’s home.
Following a nearly three-day search , the infant, who came to be known by the community as “Baby Grace,” was found submerged in the creek by rescue divers about 50 yards from where her mother entered the water in Socastee.
Toney was charged with homicide by child abuse days later, but it wasn’t the first time the endangerment of her children came to the attention of local or state officials .
Toney was about six months pregnant with “Baby Grace” when she appeared in an Horry County courtroom in March 2015 to plead guilty to drug charges. A police report says the drug was a 100 milligram fentanyl patch, and according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, long-term use can cause life-threatening withdrawal symptoms for newborn babies.
Toney was sentenced to two years in jail for the drug charge, but the term was suspended. Instead, she was placed on probation for one year and was ordered to undergo random drug testing and substance abuse counseling.
During a Nov. 5, 2015 bond hearing, Toney calmly told an Horry County Magistrate court judge she couldn’t hold on to her child in the rushing water . Her bond on the homicide charge was denied, and Toney has remained in custody at the J. Reuben Long Detention Center since her arrest.
Toney initially told police she took Grace into the creek because the baby was crying, then said she was in the water looking for God, according to the police report.
“(The officer) observed (Toney) to be in emotional distress and exhibited behavior normally associated with the use of methamphetamine (twitching, scratching of skin),” said the incident report filed the day Grace was reported missing. Toney was tested for drugs.
A toxicology screen showed Toney was under the influence of methamphetamine and opioids when she walked into the flooded creek with her daughter, according to testimony from Dr. Emily Gottfried, a forensic psychologist.
Gottfried found Toney competent to stand trial and “criminally responsible” for her daughter’s death, she told the court.
Baby Grace was laid to rest at Hillcrest Cemetery in Conway. Her grave is marked by a headstone with a child-like angel petting a sheep enclosed in a border of hearts, which was paid for through donations from the community. The Horry County Coroner's Office remembers Baby Grace annually in a memorial service that also recognizes Baby Boy Horry, an abandoned infant who died in 2008 and who is buried near her.