A woman accused of drowning her three children in a lake cried and wiped her eyes Thursday as a judge read the murder charges against her and told her she could be eligible for the death penalty.
Amanda L. Hamm, 27, did not enter a plea. Neither did her boyfriend, Maurice Lagrone Jr., 28, also charged with first-degree murder in the children’s deaths.
Hamm had called 911 from Clinton Lake on Sept. 2, saying a car had rolled into the water and her children were still inside. When officials arrived five minutes later, the rear end of the car was in 4½ feet of water. Both Lagrone and Hamm were on the lakeshore when rescuers arrived. Hamm cried hysterically as rescuers tried to free the children.
Rescuers pulled 6-year-old Christopher Hamm, 3-year-old Austin Brown and 23-month-old Kyleigh Hamm from the vehicle, but all three children died.
Authorities have said Hamm and Lagrone were not launching or removing a boat at the time, and it was not clear if they were in the car when it went in the water. The couple never spoke to reporters or returned messages for comment.
Both are charged with nine counts of first-degree murder, charges that carry aggravating factors that could make them eligible for the death penalty if convicted.
The judge scheduled preliminary hearings in the case for Jan. 7 and kept their bond at $5 million Thursday. Hamm asked for a court-appointed attorney. Lagrone told the judge he planned to hire his own lawyer. Both remained in custody.
DeWitt County Sheriff Roger W. Massey said Wednesday that the case has “some similarities” to the 1994 case of Susan Smith, who was convicted of drowning her two young sons by rolling her car into a South Carolina lake with the boys strapped into their car seats, but he would not elaborate.
He said he had ruled out life-insurance money as a motive, but he said more answers would have to wait for trial.
“We do have a motive, and I think that the jury will take a quick look at it and will agree with us,” Massey said Thursday on NBC’s “Today” show.
A check of court records indicated Lagrone was convicted in McLean County for misdemeanor domestic battery and possession of drug paraphernalia in 1995, and he was issued a citation in DeWitt County in July for failing to wear a seat belt. A check on Hamm found no previous record.
Hamm’s mother, who works for the local prosecutor, said Thursday that the evidence appeared to support the allegations. “I love my daughter, but I have to put that barrier around me because she took my three grandkids away from me,” Ann Denison said on “Today.”
She said her daughter “had a lot of problems in her life,” including low self-esteem. But she also said Hamm was a good mother who was with her children all the time, and she said Lagrone seemed attached to the children as well.
“I would never have dreamed in a million years that she would do something like this,” Denison said. “She knows I would have taken the kids.”
The DeWitt County state’s attorney recused himself from the case because Denison works for his office. The appointed special prosecutor, Roger Simpson, is a private attorney.
Lagrone was arrested Tuesday in a motel near the St. Louis airport, Massey said. Hamm was arrested in Bloomington. Lagrone initially was charged with driving under the influence. That charge was dropped last month, and Massey said Wednesday that investigators did not believe drugs or alcohol were a factor.
Massey at first said the deaths were being investigated as an accident. Within two weeks, he started calling them "the incident."
Clinton, a town of 7,500, is about 140 miles southwest of Chicago in central Illinois.