GOOSE CREEK, S.C. – On Thursday afternoon, Louis Williams II, a 26-year-old Air Force reservist, had to pick up his 1-year-old niece.
It had been barely a month since he returned to this small town outside of Charleston from deployment following the death of his own baby daughter and just three days after his ex-girlfriend was booked on a charge of second-degree murder in Georgia, accused of letting her die in a sweltering car.
Williams – tall, bearded and looking trim in Air Force camouflage – stood outside the day care and imagined Skylar coming to the window. She was seven days younger than his niece. The girls were inseparable, tumbling on the carpet in Williams’ house.
Now, Williams could picture Skylar staring out at him. She’d be smiling, probably blushing like always.
“I should be picking up my daughter,” the father said later.
He’s struggling to understand why she’s gone. The question also dogs other family, friends and even DeKalb County police. How could a mother who appeared responsible and in love with her baby do this?
Police allege Dijanelle Fowler, 25, left Skylar Fowler in her Hyundai Sonata outside a Lavista Road salon while getting her hair done for almost six hours on June 15. Detectives don't believe Fowler meant to hurt the child, as evidenced by her decision to leave the air conditioning running. But the car shut off at some point, allowing the summer heat to come for Skylar.
Williams said he never saw Fowler, who is in jail without bond, do wrong by the child or be negligent.
“She definitely loved our daughter,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an exclusive interview Thursday.
He stared down at the carpet in the living room. He stopped himself from saying more.
Skylar ‘was just bright’
During the pregnancy, Fowler and Williams tracked the baby’s progress on a cell phone app. They reveled in her “magical” birth on May 24, 2016.
The father said he prefers to not discuss the relationship with Fowler, including how it began and how it ended in the months after Skylar was born.
Fowler became the guardian after the parents split, but they shared the load.
Williams would come home after work at the base in Charleston and lie with the newborn on his chest. He took her to The Battery downtown for walks along the shore after Skylar woke him at 4:30 or 5 in the morning.
“She was just bright. Always smiling…” he said, grinning as he corrected himself: “Well, I wouldn’t say always. There’d be times when she’d just give you this cold John Gotti-type of mug.”
Fowler lived in a nondescript but nice apartment complex in North Charleston, not far from Charleston Southern University, where she was captain of the basketball team and earned a biology degree in 2015.
She and Skylar played on the living room floor beneath a decorative sign on the wall, which spoke of the importance of family.
Kierra Golden, a 17-year-old relative of Fowler’s roommate, said standing in the doorway Thursday that she remembered Fowler loving on Skylar.
Coach Fred Applin, who described the mother as a dedicated athlete and “helper” to teammates, said Fowler cheered on younger players all this season. She brought Skylar and dreamed aloud that one day the girl might be a basketball player too.
“She was very proud of her daughter,” Applin said at the school Thursday.
Even Capt. Jerry A. Lewis of DeKalb police's major crime unit described Fowler as a seemingly "good kid" with no criminal record, who made a "horrible, horrible mistake."
The mother, who works in medical billing and coding, was apparently in Atlanta for a job interview, according to Williams. She was staying with family, who couldn’t be reached for comment by the AJC.
Lewis said, as he understands it, Fowler brought Skylar to the salon for the 10 a.m. appointment at least partly because she was afraid to let others babysit.
It isn’t clear why she didn’t bring the baby inside Mahogany's Hair Studio, where children are welcomed and employees had no idea Skylar was in the car.
To hear the captain talk, it seems possible Fowler’s motivations will never really make sense.
If the question could be answered, he said, Skylar might be alive.
Since Williams was 16 – maybe younger – he intended to be a father.
He wanted about eight of his own and to adopt a few more. He thought of sitting at the dinner table with them through the years until their own children crowded in to join.
He planned to provide by starting a marketing company, but he was a procrastinator.
When Skylar arrived, he felt something in him snap into place. He read books about how to be a good father and how to raise a good daughter. He worked relentlessly.
There are 168 hours in a week.
He rationed them once he deployed to near The Persian Gulf in March:
60 hours: The day job as a civil engineer.
42 hours: Sleep.
42 hours: Building Top of the Mind Awareness Enterprises.
24 hours: Showers, meals, everything else.
On the day Skylar died, Williams got a call from Fowler’s mother.
He could hardly see through his tears as he packed to come home.
The day earlier, a friend had called to tell him about “Collateral Beauty,” a movie whose message centers on what positivity can come from negative experience.
Williams watched it twice on the flight.
Visions of Skylar
After Skylar's death, the mother got the car jumped and drove to Emory University Hospital, where she "passed out" in a parking deck, police said.
Fowler then called 911. The emergency workers who found the Hyundai could tell Skylar was gone; the mother was admitted to the hospital.
Before her release, Williams went to see her, but he declined to say what she said.
Police said the mother gave an inaccurate timeline for her day. She mentioned that she'd gone to the salon, but didn't reveal that she went in at 10 a.m. and didn't check the car until shortly before 4 p.m.
Workers at the salon have said nothing seemed strange with Fowler.
Williams said he can’t grasp how six hours passed. Visions of Skylar in the heat often invade his thoughts.
He tells himself she died in her sleep; he wants to believe this, though he knows it might not be true.
As angry and hurt as he is, he said he’s forgiven Fowler.
“I understand that God has forgiven her,” he said. “Who am I not to?”
He works at the Air Force base now and stays close to family. He reads and takes walks.
He wonders if he’ll ever have eight kids, or even another.
Until Thursday, he was afraid to watch his niece alone and see her play without Skylar.
On Thursday afternoon, as the Lowcountry humidity flooded and mosquitoes hunted outside, his niece Miasia tried to walk through the living room.
She held a sippy cup and fell often, quickly climbing to her feet and rushing to the next fall.
At one point, she approached a large picture frame holding photos of Skylar.
Miasia pressed her lips to the glass.
“Every day,” Williams said, “she’ll go to it and kiss it.”
He smiled. He was glad he picked her up.
He’s been thinking about “Collateral Beauty,” the concept more than the movie, and wondering what good could come from all this.
“I might not find a reason,” he said.
But he’s going to search.