The woman who drove her minivan into the Atlantic Ocean, endangering her three children until rescuers charged into the water to pull them out, has been charged with three counts of attempted first-degree murder, authorities in Florida said Friday.
The woman, Ebony Wilkerson, 32, was also charged with three counts of aggravated child abuse, Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson said.
As she steered into heavy surf, investigators said, she locked the doors of the minivan, rolled up the windows and told the children to close their eyes and go to sleep.
Volusia County Corrections via AP
Booking photo of Ebony Wilkerson, accused of driving a minivan carrying her three young children into the ocean surf off Florida.
“You’re supposed to protect your children at all costs,” the sheriff said. “You’re not supposed to be trying to kill your children.”
The children — a 3-year-old girl, a 9-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl — were taken to a hospital but not seriously hurt, and are in protective custody.
Investigators said that the woman had tried to stop the rescuers from helping the children. They said that one witness reported seeing one child on Wilkerson’s lap, fighting her for control of the wheel. The 10-year-old later told investigators that their mother took them to the beach “so we could die,” the sheriff’s department said.
Wilkerson, who is more than six months pregnant, was removed Friday from a hospital, where she had been undergoing mental health evaluation, and was on her way to jail, the sheriff said.
Accounts from the days before the van went into the water suggest that Wilkerson was in deep distress.
Four days before she drove into the water, she told police in Myrtle Beach, S.C., that her husband had raped her. She repeated the account to police in North Charleston the next day and said she thought she was being followed.
Her sister called 911 on Tuesday and said she believed Wilkerson was having a psychotic episode. And Daytona Beach police who stopped Wilkerson that day, two and a half hours before she drove into the water, reported that she showed signs of mental illness.
When investigators interviewed Wilkerson in the hospital and asked her what happened on the beach, she said she had endured “14 years of agony with her husband,” seemed confused and “jumped from one religious topic to another,” according to a sheriff’s department affidavit.
Johnson, the sheriff, said that investigators had not uncovered “any indication of any mental illness at any time.”
Kendall Coffey, a former federal prosecutor in Florida and an NBC News legal analyst, said that prosecutors could have charged Wilkerson only with aggravated child abuse and waited for further interviews and mental health evaluation before deciding whether to upgrade the charges.
“This clearly was a very disturbed woman,” Coffey said.
Prosecutors could also determine later that lesser charges are appropriate, he said.
But he said it’s not unusual for the police to look at “the very basic elements of the physical conduct” and conclude that “the probable result of what she had done, if people had not gotten there to rescue them, would have been death.”
In the case of Andrea Yates, the Houston woman who drowned her five children in the bathtub in 2001, prosecutors conceded that she was suffering from mental illness but charged her with murder anyway. Yates was later found not guilty by reason of insanity, a legal standard different from mental illness.
The sheriff said that Wilkerson’s husband, Lutful Ronjon, promised to talk to investigators Thursday but never showed. Ronjon is listed as a suspect in the Myrtle Beach police report. A Myrtle Beach police spokesman said Friday that the investigation is still open, but he declined to provide specifics.
Ronjon has not been charged with a crime. He could not immediately be reached for comment.
First published March 7 2014, 10:10 AM