ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — A pregnant South Carolina woman pointed to the ocean, locked the doors and rolled up the windows, telling her three children she was “trying to take them to a better place” as she drove her minivan into the surf, authorities said.
Ebony Wilkerson even tried to call off bystanders hustling to rescue her screaming children from the water, saying “everyone was OK” as she left the van in the ocean, an affidavit said. Wilkerson, 32, is charged with three counts of attempted murder and three counts child abuse causing great bodily harm.
Volusia County Court Judge Shirley Green found probable cause for the charges during Wilkerson’s first appearance in court Saturday and set her bond at $1.2 million. A date for an arraignment was not released.
The bystanders and beach safety officers, paying no attention to the mother, pulled the two girls and a boy, ages 3, 9 and 10, through the windows to safety Tuesday on Daytona Beach.
Later, Wilkerson denied trying to hurt her children, telling investigators she was driving too close to the water, “and the waves pulled her in,” according to the charging affidavit.
Her children told investigators another story.
“Mom tried to kill us,” they told detectives, according to the document. “Mom is crazy.”
Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson said Wilkerson, of North Charleston, was in the custody of the sheriff’s office after being hospitalized for a mental evaluation.
The children told authorities they had come to Florida from South Carolina earlier in the week to escape their father. They described a history of violence between their parents, and they said their mother had been “acting crazy and speaking to Jesus” since they had come to stay with Wilkerson’s sister in Daytona Beach.
The sister, Jessica Harrell, didn’t return a phone call from The Associated Press, but she was worried about Wilkerson’s mental health and called a 911 dispatcher hours before the minivan ended up in the ocean.
When she was driving into the ocean, one of the children asked her what she was doing, and she said: “‘I am keeping us all safe,'” according to the affidavit. The boy tried to wrestle the steering wheel away from Wilkerson.
“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.
A child also lowered the windows and the siblings yelled for help, attracting the bystanders.
“I’ve got to do this,” Wilkerson told bystander Stacy Robinson as he attempted to intervene, according to the affidavit.
One of the rescuers, Tim Tesseneer, said Wilkerson’s eyes were wide open and she looked “possessed.” Wilkerson tried to prevent a beach safety officer from entering the vehicle to rescue the toddler who was the last to be removed from the minivan, Tesseneer told detectives. The children are with the Department of Children and Families.
Two days before what happened on the beach, Wilkerson told North Charleston police that she was in a violent fight with her husband of 14 years at a hotel room in Myrtle Beach and had gone to a hospital for treatment, according to an incident report. She also told police that after she packed up the car and kids at their apartment, her husband made a motion as if he was going to grab her, but she got into the car before he could, the report said.
She then went to Wal-Mart to cash in some coins so she’d have money for the trip. She reported that she felt a man was staring at her and followed her at the store and to the North Charleston City Hall where police were called. Officers said they gave her a form for a protective order. She refused being taken to a shelter since she was going to Florida.
Myrtle Beach police say they are investigating what happened at the hotel but no charges were filed. Phone numbers for Wilkerson’s husband were disconnected.
Her sister told the 911 dispatcher she had tried to take Wilkerson to a hospital the day before the minivan ended up in the surf but Wilkerson had checked herself out. She said Wilkerson had been abused by her husband and that police should check on her.
“She’s getting a little bit better, but she’s still not all there,” Harrell said.
Harrell told the dispatcher that Wilkerson was “talking about Jesus and how there are demons in my house and how I’m trying to control her but I’m trying to keep them safe.”
Harrell said she had taken Wilkerson’s car keys away but her sister had found another set and driven off with the children.
After the call to dispatch, Daytona Beach 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,” the Daytona Beach police officer said in the report.
Associated Press writer Tom Foreman Jr. in Charlotte, N.C., contributed to this report.