When Linda Buff found her granddaughter dead Sept. 17, investigators told her she had died from a drug overdose.
But days later, another granddaughter, 23-year-old Hannah Renee Waldron, was charged with murder in the shooting death of her sister, Cara Fantasia Lane.
Deputies with the Burke County Sheriff’s Office first were called to 6125 Gold Mine Road around 11 p.m. Sept. 17 for a death investigation, according to information previously released by the Burke County Sheriff’s Office.
The Burke County Emergency Communications Center asked the person who called 911 if the victim had overdosed, but the caller said they weren’t sure, said Sheriff Steve Whisenant.
When deputies arrived at the scene, they saw drug paraphernalia such as a partial credit card with powder residue, an ink pen tube, needles, baggies, a crack pipe and a spoon that looked to have burn marks on it surrounding the victim, Whisenant said.
A detective with the Burke County Sheriff’s Office was called to the scene at that point, he said. Photos were taken of the scene and the body was sent to the medical examiner’s office for an autopsy.
Buff spoke to The News Herald on Monday after Waldron’s court appearance and said she and her family had been asked to wait outside while deputies were at the scene. After a couple of hours, she said a detective came outside and spoke to her, telling her that Lane, 27, had died from a drug overdose.
It was their fifth overdose that day, Buff said the detective told her. She said he attributed the overdoses to a deadly cocktail of methamphetamine laced with fentanyl.
Buff said the detective told her to be careful cleaning up some vomit and blood in the room. She said the detective told her the blood on the floor, underneath where Lane was laying, came from her bleeding from the nose when she overdosed.
She said there was no blood spatter in the room, and apart from the blood on the floor, there was no evidence that she could see that someone had been shot.
The next day, though, Buff said she couldn’t wrap her mind around the idea of Lane dying from an overdose. She thought her granddaughter had to have fallen and hit her head on the edge of the bed or dresser.
She told The News Herald that she called the detective and asked if he was sure there were no signs of trauma on Lane’s body. He told her he would call and verify with the medical examiner’s office, and when he called her back, she said he told her that the medical examiner’s office said they had cleaned Lane’s body head to toe and found no evidence of trauma.
But on Tuesday, Sept. 21, BCSO received preliminary autopsy results that found Lane had died from a gunshot wound, Whisenant said.
A homicide investigation was opened, which saw detectives conducting a search, seizing evidence and interviewing people, the sheriff said.
Buff recalled a deputy stopping by the house in the morning a couple days after Lane’s death, asking for the backpack Lane had been wearing when she was found dead. Buff said Lane always wore that backpack, and that it had everything Lane thought she would need if she went on a walk in the woods.
That night, Buff said more detectives came to the home to search it, seized some other items and asked her husband to get a gun out of the gun cabinet that had been put up after Lane’s death.
On Wednesday, Sept. 22, Waldron was charged with murder in Lane’s death, Whisenant said.
A little less than two weeks after Waldron was charged with murder, she was indicted on Oct. 4 by a grand jury on a charge of manslaughter.
District Attorney Scott Reilly told The News Herald his office decided “manslaughter was the more appropriate charge” after talking with investigators and reviewing evidence collected and the circumstances surrounding the case.
He declined further comment.
While murder carries a maximum punishment of death or life in prison without parole, voluntary manslaughter carries a maximum punishment of 17 years in prison, according to North Carolina structured sentencing guidelines.
Involuntary manslaughter, a class F felony, carries a maximum penalty of a little less than five years in prison, structured sentencing guidelines show.
But those maximum sentences are for someone who has multiple previous convictions marring their criminal history.
Waldron has one previous conviction — a 2016 traffic offense of providing fictitious information to an officer — meaning she’d likely face a maximum of nine years in prison if she’s convicted of voluntary manslaughter, and a maximum of a little less than three years in prison if she’s convicted of involuntary manslaughter, according to structured sentencing guidelines.
It was on the new, reduced charge of manslaughter that Waldron appeared in court by video Monday. Her defense attorney, Michelle Lippert, had made a motion for her bond to be set at $75,000. Waldron was first charged with murder she was being held under no bond.
Lippert told the court that her client had no previous criminal record, and that Waldron wasn’t familiar with the court system. She said the $75,000 bond still would be difficult for her family to make.
“She is not a danger, she is not a flight risk at this time,” Lippert said.
Assistant District Attorney Jonathan Greer pointed out to the court that the week of Lane’s death, Waldron had been charged with fleeing to elude arrest.
Sgt. J.D. Allen with the North Carolina State Highway Patrol had attempted to pull over Waldron on Sept. 12 after he clocked her going 78 mph in a 45 mph zone on Dysartsville Road, according to court documents filed at the Burke County Courthouse.
Allen said when he tried to pull Waldron over, she failed to stop for his lights and siren until she got to her home at 6125 Goldmine Road.
No probable cause was presented when the case was heard in district court, but Allen said he’s planning to take the charge before a grand jury in November for indictment.
Greer confirmed to Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Kuehnert that Lane’s death still is under investigation and upgraded charges are possible, pending the outcome of the investigation.
Greer asked Kuehnert to set bond higher than $100,000, citing concerns about Waldron staying with her grandparents if or when she posts bond. He said her grandparents are the district attorney’s points of contact for the victim’s family.
Buff addressed the court, saying that she didn’t know what happened, but she didn’t think whatever happened on Sept. 17 was intentional. She also said she didn’t think Waldron was trying to run from police earlier in September, and that she was just scared and trying to get to her home before she pulled over.
“I know we’ve lost one granddaughter and we don’t want to lose (Waldron),” Buff said.
Kuehnert ended up setting Waldron’s bond at $200,000. If she makes bond, she must contact her attorney on a weekly basis to keep the court aware of her whereabouts. She’s due back in court Jan. 10.
One death, two losses
Karen Buff, Lane and Waldron’s aunt, told The News Herald that both of her nieces have struggled with their mental health.
“They don’t need a jail, they need help,” Karen said through tears outside the courthouse Monday. “They’re sick, they’re not bad people. They’re sick … you try to get them help and they just treat them and send them home … it’s not enough.”
They’d tried involuntary commitments and other treatments with medicine that was meant to help Waldron stabilize her mood and keep her from having cravings for drugs. But when she decided she didn’t want to take it anymore, the Buffs said that treatment stopped.
Now, with Lane dead and Waldron in a jail cell, the family is left with nothing but memories and questions.
“Cara was a very loving person,” Linda Buff said. “She had a very big heart for everything … she wouldn’t hurt a bug, she wouldn’t hurt a spider … she didn’t want to kill nothing, she didn’t want to hurt nothing. She said everything had a right to live.”
She was active in sports growing up, she loved kids and her dogs, her grandmother and aunt recalled. She’d make hammocks to sleep out in the yard.
“If you told her goodbye or you loved her, she’d say ‘I love you too,’ she’d say, ‘I L-O-V-E love you true,’” Karen said.
The bond set for Waldron will be difficult for the family to post, Linda Buff said, but she said she was glad to hear that a health team is working with Waldron while she’s in custody.
“I know that Hannah needs time to heal,” she said. “She’s always got a home there anytime that she wants it or needs it, and she’s always got us anytime she needs us. But I don’t know how she would handle, or if she could handle, going back right now.”
The Buffs don’t understand what happened between Waldron and Lane, but they know Waldron isn’t a bad person, Karen Buff said.
“I know them girls. I know the love they had for each other,” she said. “I know they were inseparable.”