For a person given over to metaphor, Wilbern Road near Sweet Home makes a good stand-in for the life of Hannah Grace Dowdie: a short, dead-end roller coaster of pavement, pressed on both sides by dark and murky woods. The road is behind a locked gate now. A sign on the chain link advises people to call for more information.

It was here, 13 days before Christmas, that workers at nearby Granite Mountain Quarries saw smoke and then later found the bodies of Hannah and her father Michael Palmer in Palmer's burning GMC truck, which was buried to the hubs in a muddy ditch. Michael was in the truck's bed. Hannah, less than a month shy of her second birthday and only awarded to her father by the courts the day before after spending most of her life in foster care, was in the cab. Both were burned to the point they were unrecognizable. Beyond that, officials have not specified how they died.

 Though two men have been arrested and the Pulaski County Sheriff's Office says everyone directly responsible for the murders has been charged, no one in law enforcement the Times spoke to would talk abut the details of the crime for the record.

For now, all that's guaranteed is that there are questions. Many of those are being asked by Hannah's former foster parents, Holly and Kevin Carr. The Carrs were well on their way to adopting the little girl they still call their daughter before, they say, a caseworker with the Arkansas Department of Human Services stepped in and helped make sure she was awarded to Palmer ? a man they claim was unable to care for the girl and who put her in a situation that got her killed. The benefit of terrible hindsight aside, DHS counters: Would anyone want to live in a world where children can be taken away solely because their parents are unprepared to care for them? And if you answer yes to that, another question: Who gets to decide the definition of unprepared?

Questions. Questions on top of questions. None of them easy.

The photos of Hannah Grace  Dowdie on file at the Saline County Prosecuting Attorney's Office are striking: a moon-faced 3-month-old, staring serenely into the camera and wearing only a diaper, with the red bulls-eye of a cigarette burn on her arm.

By then, Hannah's name had already been on television more than once. Born to Kayla Dowdie at UAMS soon after midnight on Jan. 1, 2008, Hannah was touted in news reports as the first child born in Arkansas that year. The state got involved in her life soon after that.

Records on file with the Saline County Prosecutor's Office show that on April 3, 2008, social workers with the Division of Child and Family Services of DHS wrote that Kayla had schizo-affective disorder ? a mental problem that can lead to everything from mood swings to visual and auditory hallucinations ? but refused to take medicine to control it because she thought cigarettes would help her. How wrong she was became clear near dusk on April 25, 2008, when Kayla called the Saline County Sheriff's Office to report that an unknown person had come into her home on Honeysuckle Lane in the East End community and assaulted her daughter.

When deputies arrived, Kayla proceeded to tell them that an angry, unknown woman with brown hair had barged into the house and said “You stole my dog and I want it back!” before hitting Hannah in the back and shoulder. The woman, Kayla told them, then left in a red car.



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