Jennifer Guinn will never forget the very last thing her daughter, Amanda Byrd, said to her.
“She said ‘Mom, tell me you love me in case I die,’” Guinn said.
Guinn laughed it off as something typical her daughter would say – though it would turn out prophetic.
“I said ‘Manda, don’t say that,’” Guinn said. “She said ‘No really, Mom, tell me you love me before I die. You never know.’
“I said ‘Well, you know I love you.’ Then, she went out the door and died.”
According to Guinn, Michigan State Police found Amanda Byrd unconscious in the early morning hours of Thanksgiving, Nov. 26, 2015, in the village of Reese – six days after she had miscarried a baby and five days after she turned 29.
Byrd’s death as a result of a heroin overdose is believed to be one of two in Tuscola County in the last three months.
Caleb Hills, 28, Vassar, has been charged in Tuscola County District Court with delivery of a controlled substance causing death, possession with intent to deliver heroin less than 50 grams – along with several other drug-related charges. He is being held on a $350,000 bond and faces up to life in prison. A probable cause hearing is set for Feb. 22.
According to the Tuscola County Prosecutor’s Office, the arrest was the result of a three-month investigation involving the Michigan State Police, Tuscola County Sheriff’s Department, and Thumb Narcotics Unit.
On Dec. 18, The Advertiser filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain police files related to the case but hasn’t received any of the documents yet.
Guinn, 49, of Unionville – and family friend Angelo Dinsmore — agreed to talk to The Advertiser Dec. 15, less than three weeks after Amanda died.
“I feel mad because this boyfriend of hers…he always got away with everything and the blame always went on my daughter,” Guinn said on Dec. 15. “They were always in on everything together but she would always take the blame for everything and that makes me mad.”
Not so fast, says Dan Hills, Caleb’s father, reached by The Advertiser Friday.
“My understanding of it is that Caleb didn’t have nothing to do with her death,” Dan Hills said.
Dan Hills points to the fact that Amanda didn’t have any needle marks in her skin and alleges she preferred snorting heroin through her nose.
“How can Caleb force her to do heroin when she snorts it?” Hills said.
Still, Guinn and Dinsmore said they not only hold Hills accountable for Amanda’s death, but can’t believe the way it was handled that night.
For example, Guinn said different stories were told as to where Amanda and Hills were, and if they were even together. Witnesses have said otherwise.
Instead of calling 911 immediately, Guinn said she learned that attempts were made to revive Amanda in a shower.
And when that didn’t work, Guinn said, Amanda apparently was put into the truck where she was eventually found by emergency responders before being pronounced dead at McLaren Bay Region in Bay City.
“When they got to the hospital, they told me she had been dead awhile,” Guinn said.
It’s that memory of Amanda in the hospital that upsets Guinn the most.
“Because of the police investigation…they let me touch her leg over the blanket and that was it,” Guinn said, tears streaming down her face before breaking out into a full sob.
“I couldn’t touch her or nothing.
“I just had to look at her laying there.”
Amanda – known as “Manda Panda” to close friends and family – was born on Nov. 21, 1986 in metro Detroit. She had three siblings: Danny Byrd, Cassandra Plowman, and Brandalyn Plowman. Amanda also had two daughters.
“Amanda was a tall, beautiful, blue-eyed lady,” Dinsmore said. “She was an avid fisherwoman…she liked boating, camping.”
At the same time, Guinn said Amanda “was a girly-girl.”
“Pink was her favorite color,” Guinn said. “She loved Marilyn Monroe and had posters of her on her wall.”
Guinn said Amanda believed in God – she had five Holy Bibles with specific parts bookmarked and underlined.
“A lot of what she highlighted had to do with forgiveness and sins,” Guinn said. “I think she had some guilt.”
Guinn said she found a journal Amanda had kept.
“She wrote ‘Dear Lord, please take away my anxiety and take me in your wings of peace in Jesus’ name I pray, amen,’” Guinn said.
Amanda also “had a good heart” and “was very forgiving.”
“People would hurt her and she would still forgive them,” Guinn said.
Dinsmore said Amanda had her eye on the future, too.
“She always told me she was an old soul for her age and told me that maybe even someday she would like to wear Carhartts and work the farms,” Dinsmore said.
Yet, Guinn said Amanda seemed lost.
In the months leading to her death, she explored various religions, seemingly searching for something she would never find.
When asked how Amanda came to be so lost, Dinsmore had a one-word answer.
Guinn said Amanda’s struggles began early, in kindergarten, when another girl began tormenting and bullying her. It would go on until 11th grade at Owen-Gage High School.
Guinn said the bullying was so bad that Amanda wanted to avoid school altogether. Things continued to worsen as Amanda aged – as did her anxiety.
She was taken to counseling, Guinn said, where “they wanted to put her on all these medicines.”
As a high school senior, Amanda finally had enough of the bullying and “beat up” the other girl.
“I was crying tears of joys I was so happy,” Guinn said.
Amanda graduated from the Owen-Gage School District. Guinn, who originally moved to the area from Detroit with Amanda’s step-father, wanted to move back to the metro Detroit area.
Guinn and Amanda moved to Dearborn for about a year before coming back to the Thumb.
“I thought leaving the city and coming back here would be safer,” Guinn said. “Boy, was I wrong.
“She never got into drugs or anything like that until we moved back here.”
It’s unclear exactly when Amanda started using, Guinn said, but the list of drugs abused by her daughter varies and and includes opiods like OxyContin and Vicodin and benzodiazapems such as Xanax.
“It started with pills,” Guinn said.
Amanda’s drug abuse grew from opiod-based painkillers to other more powerful substances.
“It went from OxyContin to I think she was messing with meth,” Guinn said.
Concurrently, Guinn said, Amanda was taking medications to deal with depression, anxiety, and attention deficit disorder.
Then, Caleb Hills entered Amanda’s life.
An explosive relationship
Dinsmore makes no bones about how he feels about Amanda’s on-again, off-again boyfriend: “Caleb ruined our lives.”
As of press time, Hills’ Facebook page remains open to the public and contains many violent images, vulgarities, and drug references. The last post was Jan. 28.
A Jan. 6 post is typical. It shows what appears to be a bloodied hand and the saying, “No Rest for the Wicked.”
A Dec. 18 Facebook post shows an image of a skeleton with red eyes holding a big weapon – the grim reaper – and reads, “Death is easy, living is the hard part!!!”
An Oct. 18 post has what appears to be yet another image of the grim reaper and reads, “Don’t piss me off, I’m running out of places to hide the bodies!!!”
Dan Hills, Caleb Hill’s father, said the imagery was part of Caleb’s life long before he and Amanda met online around 2010.
At first, Caleb and Amanda were friends, Dan Hills said, and then they began dating.
At the same time, Dan Hills said he believes it was Amanda who led Caleb astray – not the other way around.
The elder Hills describes the relationship between Amanda and Caleb in one word.
“Rocky,” he said.
Still, Amanda and Caleb Hills would have two children together.
Brandalyn Plowman, Amanda’s sister, said a noticable change took place in Amanda not too long after she gave birth to her first child in 2010.
“About six months after (her first child) was born is when I think it got worse to where we started questioning everything going on,” Plowman said.
“She was never really a social person, but as time went on you could tell she was more distant with people,” Plowman said. “She started lying a lot more and things would come up missing.”
Plowman and Guinn said Amanda tried to go through drug rehabilitation programs several times.
“Then she got pregnant and had (her second child) and we just assumed she was better,” Plowman said. “Then it turned out she wasn’t.”
The second child was born addicted to drugs, Guinn said, causing Child Protective Services to investigate. Custody was awarded to Hills.
Things continued spinning out of control.
According to Tuscola County Court records, a neglect/abuse case involving Hills began in 2014. Documents related to that specific case were not available Friday as the judge handling that ongoing case had possession of the file.
Essentially, Guinn says Amanda and Hills argued in front of the children over drugs and money after attending the Tuscola County Fair in 2014. One of the children told CPS investigators what had happened.
As a result, Amanda had to watch her children get taken away last summer.
“When they took them away, she just broke down, fell down, crying,” Guinn said.
Even then, Guinn said that couldn’t keep Amanda and Caleb apart as they continued to find ways to spend time with each other.
This past November, after the season’s first big snowstorm – and less than a week before Amanda would be dead – Guinn said she took pity on Hills when he reached out for help.
“He was sleeping in his truck and that night – the last big snowstorm we had – he texted me and said his feet are frozen and can he just come and stay and he’ll leave early morning,” Guinn said. “And my daughter said ‘Please mom, he’s freezing.’”
Guinn said she capitulated and let him come over.
“If I wouldn’t have let him stay at my house with her…she told me she will go sleep in the truck with him,” Guinn said. “And I figure if he’s there at my house with her, I could watch over her.”
Guinn said meeting all of the legal requirements to stay out of jail and regain parental rights wore Amanda down.
“She would cry to me and say ‘Mom, I’m doing really good but they keep saying I’m not doing good enough.’”
Guinn, a Unionville resident, said every day of the week she was driving Amanda somewhere relating to her legal issues and children.
Guinn said she would go so far as to take returnable bottles and cans back to the store in order to get gas money so that she could take her daughter where she needed to be.
“She was crying really hard the day before she died and said ‘Mom, I can’t take it anymore. I don’t know how much more I can take.’ “
Guinn said Amanda had been clean for 63 days the last night she went out.
Advice from a grief-stricken family
Amanda’s Facebook page is still active.
Posts after posts are from friends and family who say they miss her, can’t believe she’s gone, and comment on how beautiful she used to be.
Guinn offered advice for those who still have family or friends battling addiction.
“You can’t force someone if they don’t want to,” Guinn said.
From outward appearances, both Hills and Amanda seemed to have interest last last year in getting clean.
Hills’ Facebook page shows that he at least was talking about getting clean in October.
Amanda appeared to be making similar attempts.
The night Amanda died, in fact, she told Guinn that she and Hills were going to a meeting of Narcotics Anonymous (NA), though it’s unknown if that actually happened.
Guinn said she even remembers Amanda sitting in a chair, indicating feelings of finally overcoming her battle with drug addiction.
“She said, ‘Mom, I don’t have the urge anymore. It’s gone.’ And she took a good sigh and I believed her.”
Angelo Dinsmore said he and Guinn bought everything she said when it came to Amanda’s drug use.
“You have to understand, we’re good parents,” he said. “But that girl had us buffaloed.”
Brandalyn Plowman, who now lives near West Branch, said she attempted to get Amanda to move there, where she would be in a fresh environment and could get back on track.
“I told her over and over that she was more than welcome, that I had a spare room…I told her over and over to come to West Branch and just get away from it all,” Plowman said. “The hardest part is knowing where you can get (drugs) so easily.
“I tried so hard for the six months leading up to (Amanda’s death) to come up here with me and she’d always have an excuse why she couldn’t,” Plowman said.
Guinn recommends not giving money to addicts, though also said those efforts can be fruitless when dealing with someone in the grips of addiction.
For instance, Guinn had to sleep with her purse between her legs to keep her daughter from taking her money.
“She was a good liar,” Guinn said. “And then, you know, the whole family would yell at her and everything else and I felt bad for her so I said ‘Amanda, I believe in you. Don’t worry. I know you’re doing good.’ And I tried to help her and I tried to stand by her side the best I could.”
But, Guinn said, it all ended up being for nothing as the drugs eventually took Amanda down.
“She’s dead now, but then again, I have some relief because…I don’t have to worry where she’s at, I don’t have to worry about her being dead, because she is now.
“There is some relief there,” Guinn said.