Stephanie acted like a distraught mother (Image: Limestone County Sheriff’s Department)
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Losing a child is an unthinkable nightmare for most parents, and it caused an outpouring of sympathy from the followers of US blog Living Without Z: A Journey Through Grief . It was written by Stephanie Smith and described the tragic death of her beautiful four-year-old daughter, Zadie Wren Cooper.
“My beautiful girl… I miss you terribly,” Stephanie wrote in one post. “Every time it ebbs and allows me a breath, I think, ‘Maybe this is it. Maybe this is when I feel better.’ But then the wave engulfs me again and I’m back in that bedroom pounding on your chest, willing you to live.”
Stephanie expressed her suffocating heartache through updates on her blog and, more regularly, her Instagram page, and her followers truly believed the young mum was suffering. “My heart is so broken for you,” one supporter wrote.
In 2016, Stephanie, 28, was living in Athens, Alabama, with her daughter Zadie. She had separated from her husband and was now a single mum. Zadie loved to sing and dress up, and in photos she was always beaming for the camera. The bright little girl radiated happiness and everyone around her could feel it.
Stephanie would proudly post selfies of the two of them together, affectionately calling her daughter “Zazu” and her “little sugar bear”. Then tragedy struck.
On 4 July 2016, Stephanie frantically called 911 from her home and said that her daughter was unresponsive and not breathing. The mum said that she had been sleeping in the next room when she’d heard a noise on the baby monitor. When she’d gone to check on Zadie, she’d found her trapped between her bed and the bedroom wall – which suggested she had been unable to breathe and was starved of oxygen.
Little Zadie was just four when she died
(Image: Copyright unknown)
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When first responders arrived, they found Stephanie desperately giving Zadie CPR. A silent Zadie was rushed to Huntsville Hospital where she was hooked up to life-support machines while medical staff fought to save her. But after three days, doctors said they couldn’t find any brain activity and determined that Zadie was brain dead.
Tragically, on 7 July, her life support was withdrawn and the young girl died with her family around her. Stephanie was visibly devastated. As with any unexplained death, there was an autopsy, but the medical examiner was unable to confirm Zadie’s cause of death. Her family requested a second private autopsy and waited for the results.
Grieving Stephanie found solace with her blog, Living Without Z , as she struggled through the next few months. She wrote heart-wrenching insights into life without her “sweet angel”. The mum said that every day when she woke up, she remembered Zadie was gone and the pain started all over again.
“Her smile could light the world. Her laugh made me feel whole. Without her, I am merely the shell of a broken mother with eternally aching arms,” Stephanie penned.
Her Instagram was full of photos of Zadie with her huge smile. It was clear the world had lost a very special little girl. Stephanie also openly shared her struggles with mental health, something she revealed she had taken medication for. In her captions, she said she wished her daughter had taken her with her, which made friends worry about her fragility.
In October 2016, Stephanie wrote a post titled “Shame” and addressed how ashamed she felt that she hadn’t been able to keep Zadie safe.
“My daughter died in my care,” she wrote. “She died not more than 20ft from me in the next room… I fear I’m wearing a shirt that says, ‘I failed as a mother!’ It’s like everyone who passes me instantly knows.”
The rest of the year continued to bring so many “painful firsts” for Stephanie, such as the heartache of Halloween, and the agony of spending the first Christmas without Zadie.
By 2017, Stephanie’s updates had become increasingly worrying. She’d admitted that she’d attempted to take her own life, but she wrote that she’d realised that wasn’t what Zadie would have wanted. It was seemingly a raw account of a mother in extreme pain, but Stephanie was facing some scrutiny.
Stephanie’s last post in April 2017 revealed that rumours were circulating about Zadie’s death. Some people believed Stephanie was actually responsible – not through neglect, but through deliberate actions.
“What happened to Z was a freak occurrence,” she wrote defensively. “So freaky, people actually accused ME of killing her… Her death remains a mystery. And I couldn’t have predicted it or prevented it, just like I couldn’t save her.”
Little Zadie was suffocated with a pillow
(Image: Getty Images)
There was talk in Athens that maybe Stephanie hadn’t been telling the truth about Zadie’s death. But with an inconclusive autopsy, and the second results not in, police were struggling with their investigation.
Then, on 13 April, nine months after Zadie’s death, Stephanie walked into a police station and said she wanted to speak to a detective.
When questioned, Stephanie shockingly confessed that she’d killed Zadie. It was a bombshell revelation. Stephanie told police that she’d walked into her daughter’s bedroom while she was sleeping on her back. She admitted picking up a pillow and placing it over Zadie’s face, holding it down and smothering her. When she realised that Zadie had stopped moving and wasn’t breathing, she called 911 and tried to resuscitate her.
When Stephanie was asked why she’d done it, she said that she’d been off the medication she took for her psychiatric condition during the days leading up to the event and insisted that when she did that, she usually “sees red” and has a blackout. When she’d “come to” she’d realised what she’d done. When Stephanie was asked why she had lied during the initial investigation, she said that she had been scared of the consequences.
The police held a press conference and announced the new development in Zadie’s case. An officer revealed that before arriving at the police station, Stephanie had sent five friends a text message admitting that she’d killed her daughter. Only one of those friends shared that information with police.
“They may not have believed her, I don’t know, it just bothers me that you have several people out there who didn’t say anything,” the officer said. Zadie had been let down repeatedly.
While Stephanie continued to blame her actions on a blackout, officers noted that she was completely lucid when she made her confession. “She knew exactly what she was doing,” they said. “She wanted to get that out, that she had caused this.”
But the community who had been following Stephanie’s journey of grief were dumbstruck at the news. For months, Stephanie had been writing posts that encouraged sympathy – while knowing she’d killed Zadie. Why write a blog and openly lie if you are genuinely remorseful over what you’ve done?
Comments on her posts suddenly became full of angry disbelief. Even if Stephanie had killed Zadie during a blackout, she’d spent almost a year using it as a way to gain sympathy and attention.
Stephanie was taken into custody and charged with capital murder, which was a charge that came with a possible death sentence. Eventually, she pleaded guilty to felony murder to avoid death row. After repeated delays to legal proceedings because of Covid-19, Stephanie was finally sentenced in August of this year.
She was given life in prison and told she would be eligible for parole, but the length of the time before that would be possible wasn’t revealed.
Stephanie had claimed to be worried about the consequences of what she’d done and yet she spent nine months publicly courting sympathy as a mourning mother.
The cruel truth about Zadie’s death was finally revealed and Stephanie’s blog remains a damning account of her lies.