DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — A pregnant South Carolina woman who drove a minivan carrying her three young children into the ocean surf off Florida was charged Friday with attempted murder and child abuse, with authorities saying the children were screaming to bystanders that she was trying to kill them.
Bystanders and officers helped rescue 32-year-old Ebony Wilkerson and her children, ages 3, 9 and 10, from their minivan as it was almost submerged on Tuesday on Daytona Beach.
Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson said Wilkerson has denied trying to hurt her children. However, the children told investigators otherwise and witnesses said she tried to keep them from rescuing them. The windows were rolled up and the doors were locked, and one of the children tried to wrestle the steering wheel away from her, Johnson said.
"She told them to close their eyes and go to sleep. She was trying to take them to a better place," Johnson said.
One of the children lowered the windows and the siblings yelled for help, attracting the bystanders, a sheriff's office report said. Wilkerson told them "everyone was OK" but the children screamed that their mother was trying to kill them. As water rushed into the minivan, Wilkerson left the vehicle with her children inside, the report said.
Wilkerson was placed in custody of the sheriff's office Friday after she had been hospitalized for a mental evaluation since Tuesday. Her children were with the Department of Children and Families. Wilkerson was charged with three counts each of attempted first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse, Johnson said.
"You're supposed to protect your children at all costs," Johnson said at a news conference. "You're not supposed to try to kill your children."
Hours before driving into the ocean, Wilkerson's sister worriedly called police, saying her had talked about demons when she left her sister's house in Daytona Beach, a police report said. Her sister worriedly called Daytona Beach police.
After the call to dispatch, police officers stopped Wilkerson's black Honda Odyssey and she expressed fear that her husband would be coming to Florida to harm her and her children.
The children were sitting quietly, smiling, and showed no signs of distress, the police report said.
"It was clear during my conversation that Wilkerson was suffering from some form of mental illness, but she was lucid and did not provide any signs that she met Baker Act requirements," the Daytona Beach police officer said in the report.
The Florida Mental Health Act, commonly known as the Baker Act, allows authorities to involuntarily take people into custody if they seem to be a threat to themselves.
Family members told investigators that Wilkerson was in an abusive relationship and that she had come to Florida to get away from her husband, according to the sheriff's office report.