Horry County Police have upgraded the charges for Sarah Toney, the mother of 5-month-old ‘Baby Grace,’ to homicide by child abuse, officials confirmed Monday. The body of ‘Baby Grace’ was found by rescue divers Thursday afternoon in a creek in Socastee, three days after her 33-year-old mother allegedly lost her in rushing creek water. A deputy coroner announced Friday that the manner of death was homicide.
“There’s a major difference between a child maybe just crawling around in a yard and slips in a ditch versus a mother apparently walking into the water and the child is released in the water,” Horry County Coroner Robert Edge said of the determination.
Bond was denied for Toney at a hearing Monday afternoon. The judge told Toney her bond will have to be set in circuit court.
During the bond hearing, Toney was visibly upset with the media’s presence.
She started covering her face with her hair when the media first walked into the courtroom. She then tried moving to another side of the bench she was sitting on to face the other direction. An Horry County Sheriff’s Office corrections officer asked Toney if she needed to leave, to which Toney responded yes.
The corrections officer took Toney to an adjacent waiting room. During her time in there, Toney explained why she didn’t want to go back into the room.
“There’s freakin’ media in there and they’re making me out to be this *expletive* psycho,” she said.
Toney did return to the room when the judge called her name. That’s when her bond was denied.
Toney was previously charged with unlawful conduct toward a child, but HCPD dismissed that charge.
With the announcement of the upgraded charge, HCPD also released a the incident report from when Grace first went missing.
Toney originally told officers who first responded to the scene that she took Baby Grace to the creek “because she was crying,” according to a police report released on Monday. Moments later, she told officers it was because “she was trying to find God.” Officers noted in the report that Toney was in emotional distress and exhibited behavior associated with methamphetamine use: “twitching, scratching of skin.”
Horry County Police Chief Saundra Rhodes confirmed Baby Grace was found at about 3:45 p.m. Thursday, about 50 yards from the mother’s residence in a creek. Divers with the Department of Natural Resources and Horry County Public Works located the body after agencies spent three days searching the area.
The body was found where tracking K-9s had picked up a scent during the search process, Horry County Police Lt. Raul Denis said. Divers were able to locate the body once a large tree was removed from the creek Thursday, Chief Rhodes said.
Horry County Deputy Coroner Darris Fowler confirmed Wednesday evening Grace Carlson Santa Cruz was recovered from the Socastee Creek near Simms Drive. An autopsy was performed Friday at the Medical University of South Carolina where the manner of death was ruled homicide, according to Deputy Coroner Fowler. The cause of death is still under investigation.
“We did everything we could to try to find this baby,” Chief Rhodes said at an impromptu news conference. “And although she is deceased, I believe that all of us have a sense of peace in knowing we can lay her to rest properly.” Chief Rhodes hugged rescuers after the press conference. Rescuers also consoled each other.
Toney was charged with unlawful conduct toward a child and wasdenied bond on this charge on Thursday morning. At the bond hearing, Toney told the court that she went into the creek with Baby Grace, but was unable to hold her and lost her when the water sucked her in.
On Monday, police stated the unlawful conduct toward a child charge was dropped and upgraded to homicide by child abuse, which carries a sentence of 20 years to life in prison, according to Lt. Denis. The arrest warrant states that Toney did cause the death of the child, and the death “occurs under circumstances manifesting an extreme indifference to human life.”
A neighbor on Shem Creek Circle in Socastee placed a 911 call Tuesday morning at 10:24 a.m.after Toney allegedly showed up on the neighbor’s back porch, soaking wet, saying she went into the creek with her baby, and left without her.
Shortly after that call was placed, Horry County Police detectives, Beach Patrol officers, Horry County Fire Rescue and South Carolina DNR, mobilized and searched the creeks, ponds, waterways, and woods in the area. Rescue crews discontinued the search Tuesday night as a safety precaution, but resumed the search Wednesday, aided by additional resources from Darlington County, the City of Hartsville, and Coastal Carolina University.
On Thursday morning, multiple agencies resumed the search, and expanded the search area to include ditches and other areas of the neighborhood around the creek.
Toney’s roommate, Jennifer Brunner, has known Baby Grace since she was born.
“Grace was a huge part of my world,” she said. “She was a little bundle of happiness and joy every time I walked in the room. She would brighten up and smile and giggle.”