Hannah and Andrew

In October 2006 a four-year-old from Corpus Christi named Andrew Burd died mysteriously of salt poisoning. His foster mother, Hannah Overton, was charged with capital murder, vilified from all quarters, and sent to prison for life. But was this churchgoing young woman a vicious child killer? Or had the tragedy claimed its second victim?
Photographs by Dan Winters

What little is known about Andrew Burd’s early life is contained in a slim Child Protective Services case file that chronicles the boy’s descent into the child welfare system. His mother was just sixteen, the file shows, when she gave birth to him in Corpus Christi on July 28, 2002. She would later admit, according to one report, “to using alcohol, methamphetamines, cocaine and crack cocaine, LSD, marijuana, cigarettes, and taking prescription Xanax.” His father was seventeen and worked for a traveling carnival. CPS launched its initial investigation into Andrew’s well-being shortly after his first birthday, when his mother took him to a local hospital with a broken arm. Four subsequent investigations were triggered by reports of abuse or neglect, including one allegation that both his mother and maternal grandmother were incapable of properly caring for him because they used methamphetamines. When Andrew was two-and-a-half years old, CPS determined that he was in “immediate danger,” according to an affidavit, and he was put in foster care. His mother’s and father’s parental rights were terminated soon after he turned three.

If not for a Corpus Christi couple named Larry and Hannah Overton, Andrew might have lingered in state custody, shuffled from one foster home to another. The Overtons already had four children, and Larry’s income—he installed landscape lighting—was barely enough to make ends meet. But as devoted Christians, their desire to adopt a foster child was rooted in faith more than in practicality. Both Larry and Hannah had done missionary work, and as a teenager, Hannah had spent holidays volunteering at an orphanage across the border, in Reynosa, where she had fed, bathed, and ministered to kids who had been living on the streets. The experience had affected her deeply, and she told Larry that she was willing to adopt a child with disabilities or an older child who had been unable to find a permanent home. As a former private-duty nurse, Hannah felt equipped to handle the challenges of a foster child; she had spent several years caring for special-needs children, some of whom were profoundly disabled. In 2005 the Overtons began to pursue the idea seriously. They considered adopting a nine-year-old girl who was deaf, but when, after much prayer and deliberation, they decided to move forward with the adoption, they learned that the girl had been placed with another family.

Not long afterward, Larry and Hannah heard about Andrew at their church, Calvary Chapel of the Coastlands, which Andrew’s foster mother also attended. The nondenominational church, on the south side of Corpus Christi, drew many young evangelicals with its emphasis on a verse-by-verse understanding of the Bible, and Larry and Hannah were well-regarded members. Larry taught Sunday school, Hannah led a Bible study, and their children, whom Hannah homeschooled, attended youth group and socialized with other members’ kids. Andrew accompanied his foster mother to services every Sunday, and with his thatch of blond hair and beaming grin, he was hard to miss. He had a speech delay and spoke haltingly, sometimes with a stutter, but every week, when his Sunday school classmates went around in a circle to say their prayer requests, he made the same wish aloud: that he would be adopted. The Overtons’ daughters, four-year-old Isabel and three-year-old Ally, reported back to their parents that the new boy in their class needed a family. “Can Andrew be our brother?” the girls pleaded.

A church elder, who was himself an adoptive parent, invited the Overtons to dinner one night and encouraged them to consider bringing Andrew into their home. Andrew’s foster mother, who had provided refuge to roughly three hundred children over three decades, was also supportive. But others at Calvary Chapel expressed their concern. The church’s pastor, Rod Carver, and his wife, Noreen, had initially considered taking in Andrew but ultimately decided he was more than they could handle. More outspoken was Andrew’s Sunday school teacher, who sat Hannah and Larry down and told them that he was a troubled kid. He hoarded food and sometimes ate from the trash, she warned, and he threw intense temper tantrums, which could be tamed only by holding and rocking him. On several occasions his fits had grown so extreme that she had resorted to asking a male parishioner to physically remove him from the classroom until he could regain self-control. “Think of your other children,” she urged the couple.

Yet if anyone was up to the task, most everyone agreed, it was the Overtons, and Hannah in particular. She was unflappable and unfailingly patient with children. Hannah shrugged off the teacher’s warnings, certain that Andrew would improve once he had the stability of a permanent home. “All he needs is lots of love and attention,” 
she told Larry.

The Overtons moved forward with the adoption process, and in the spring of 2006, they received word that Andrew would be coming to live with them for a six-month trial period before the adoption was finalized. In anticipation of his arrival, Larry built a three-tiered bunk bed for Andrew and the two Overton boys: Isaac, who was seven years old, and Sebastian, who was two. Larry and Hannah knew that Andrew loved Spider-Man, so they made sure to have all manner of Spider-Man-themed necessities for him: sheets, pajamas, a toothbrush, a towel, a swimsuit, and even a plate embossed with the superhero’s image.

Andrew spent his first night at the Overtons’ modest ranch-style house on Mother’s Day, when he was two months shy of his fourth birthday, and he seemed to quickly grow attached to his new family. He called Hannah and Larry “Mommy” and “Daddy,” and he followed Larry everywhere he went, often stepping on Larry’s heels as he trailed after him. At Sunday school, he became more expressive, stringing words into sentences and holding hands with his new sister Ally. “The Overtons are nurturing, loving, patient, and very family-oriented,” an adoption supervisor noted in her paperwork. “Andrew seems very happy in this home.”

Four months later, on October

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