ELKHART — Taylor Leah Hartung-Mann died more than a year ago but she is still close in the minds of her family.
Kris Jiskra, Taylor’s maternal grandmother, has a white wooden rocking chair in the corner of the living room of her Elkhart home stacked with stuffed toys and a board covered in pictures of Taylor.
“That’s her chair. Nobody sits there,” Jiskra said.
In the center of the pile is Taylor’s favorite bear, a massive tan Teddy bear bigger than the 15-month-old toddler.
“I gave that to her for Christmas (2011),” Jiskra said. “It was her baby. She would carry it around everywhere.”
Now the bear carries Taylor’s ashes.
Taylor died on Dec. 31, 2011, while in the care of her mother’s boyfriend and a roommate.
The cause of death on Taylor’s death certificate was “undetermined” and the family is still searching for answers.
The Elkhart Police Department in late January 2013 sent the case to the Elkhart County Prosecutor’s office for possible charges, but the case was sent back for further investigation. Prosecutors determined there was not enough evidence to charge anyone with Taylor’s death.
The Elkhart Police Department did not return calls for comment.
On Dec. 31, 2011, Rachel and her daughter, Brandi Lord, Taylor’s mother, had made plans to celebrate New Year’s Eve after Lord finished her shift at Cracker Barrel.
Lord went in to work at 4 p.m. and left Taylor and her other daughter, Callie, then 4 years old, in the care of her roommate and her then-boyfriend.
Three other adults joined the two at the apartment for a New Year’s Eve party.
This is all Taylor’s family knows for certain.
Later, Lord received a text at work that something was wrong and Taylor wasn’t breathing, Jiskra said. Taylor was later pronounced death at the hospital.
Only one person at the apartment that night, the roommate, has agreed to speak with police and undergo a polygraph test. The others have refused polygraph tests and invoked their right to remain silent.
Taylor’s father, Allen Hartung-Mann, was in prison when Taylor died. He is expected to be released in January 2015.
“He’s handling it OK,” said his father, Craig Hartung.
“If he wouldn’t have gone (to jail) this wouldn’t have happened,” Mann said.
Jiskra said seven months passed before the family got Taylor’s death certificate.
“They won’t tell us anything,” Mann said. “I want to see the autopsy report.”
Mann said the report they were given indicated Taylor had suffered injuries but did not specify what those injuries were.
“We need to know something,” she said.
Jiskra said she heard a rumor that Lord’s roommate told people in Walmart that she had given Taylor and Callie Nyquil to put them to sleep so she and the other adults at the house could party.
The roommate denied giving the children medication.
“Even if (Taylor’s death) was an accident, they covered it up,” Mann said. “I’m praying it was an accident and she didn’t suffer.”
“There were five adults in a two-bedroom apartment,” Jiskra said. “How do you not know that something’s wrong?”
“It was obviously a felony,” Mann said. “She died under unnatural circumstances in the presence of five adults. I don’t understand why they haven’t been charged.”
Other relatives have been pushing for answers.
Nelly Conant, Taylor’s maternal great-grandmother, on Wednesday, Feb. 13 issued a plea on YouTube for those responsible for her death to be brought to justice.
Family friend Erica Stabler has created a Facebook page called “Justice for Taylor Leah Hartung-Mann” to draw attention to the case.
On Friday, Feb. 15, the family announced that it is offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.
Turning to the television, Jiskra turned on a DVD Lord gave her for Mother’s Day with a slideshow and videos of Taylor and Callie.
The first picture showed Lord holding Taylor and smiling.
“Look at her smile,” Mann said. “I haven’t seen her smile like that in a long time.”
The family is trying to move on and cope with Taylor’s loss, but they still make her a part of family events.
They added an Easter Bunny and Santa Claus to the pile on her chair for the holidays.
On her birthday, Sept. 24, they held a balloon launch at Willowdale Park and added a balloon to the chair to mark the event.
This weekend the family will return to Willowdale Park to celebrate Taylor’s life and attempt to draw attention to her case through a candlelight vigil.
The vigil will begin at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 16.
“All that matters is that we get the word out,” Mann said. “People need to hear her story.”
Before her death Taylor had just learned to walk and was starting to learn a few words.
“She had ‘ma-ma’ and ‘da-da’ and ‘no,’” Jiskra said.
While they experienced these milestones, there are others they will never see.
“We’ll never see her go to school her first day or see her in a prom dress or any of those things little girls do,” Mann said. “The whole family was robbed of her future at such a young age.”
Watching her Mother’s Day DVD, Jiskra pointed at the television.
“This is the last video we have of her,” she said.
On the screen, Taylor, with fluffy blonde curls and wearing a red dress, is standing on a wooden table.
“She was just learning to walk and she wanted to get up and dance for us,” Jiskra said.
Music plays in the background of the video and Taylor looks around, a little unsure of herself. Then, as the people seated around the table start to clap in time to the music, she begins to wiggle back and forth. Then she bends her knees and bounces up and down.
Mann and Jiskra smiled through their tears.
“I feel like she’s been forgotten by the police and the community but not by her family,” Mann said.