A pregnant South Carolina woman who drove her three young children into the surf in a locked minivan said she wanted to take them to a better place, said authorities, who charged her Friday with three counts of attempted first-degree murder and three counts of child abuse.
Ebony Wilkerson, 32, was arrested Friday and was being held without bond in the county jail, according to the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office in Florida. She has been in the Halifax Health Medical Center undergoing a mental health evaluation for several days, officials said.
When Wilkerson drove her 2012 Honda Odyssey into the surf along Daytona Beach on Tuesday, bystanders and rescuers dashed into the water to save her and the three children. The video showing the minivan almost submerged and the rescue has gone viral.
Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson said Wilkerson has denied trying to hurt her children. But the children and witnesses paint a different picture of a woman, saying she was deliberately trying to kill her children and working at preventing any rescue.
“She told them to close their eyes and go to sleep. She was trying to take them to a better place,” Johnson said at a news conference.
“You're supposed to protect your children at all costs,” Johnson said. “You're not supposed to try to kill your children.”
According to the charging affidavit, released online, the unnamed children are two girls, 3 and 10, and a 9-year-old boy. While being interviewed at the hospital, one child said, “Mom tried to kill us.” The oldest child told beach officers that her mother took them to the beach “so we could die.”
“One of the children said that Wilkerson had locked the doors, put the windows up and then drove into the surf, saying she was doing it to ‘keep all of us safe,’” investigators stated. “The oldest child grabbed the steering wheel and unsuccessfully tried to steer the vehicle away from the water.”
One witness told authorities that a child was on Wilkerson’s lap and the two were fighting for control of the steering wheel. One of the children pushed the power button to lower the windows and the children started screaming for help. Their yelling attracted bystanders to the vehicle heading into the water.
When the witnesses approached the van they said they heard the children screaming that their mother was trying to kill them.
By the time the vehicle stopped, the water was rushing into the minivan, investigators said. Wilkerson got out of the minivan and left her children inside.
The two older children were pulled to safety, then after they said that their 3-year-old sister was still in the vehicle, “the toddler was extracted through the minivan’s rear hatch,” officials said.
According to a witness, during the rescue one of the beach safety officers had to fend off Wilkerson, who was grabbing at the officer and trying to stop him from entering the vehicle.
Sheriff’s investigators also interviewed a family member, who said that Wilkerson was in an abusive relationship and that she had come to Florida with her children to get away from her husband. The relative also said that she had no history of mental illness, officials said.