ORLANDO, Fla. — After she drove her minivan into the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean, authorities say a pregnant South Carolina woman tried to call off bystanders hustling to rescue her three screaming children from the water that was rushing in through the windows.
Ebony Wilkerson, who was charged with attempted murder Friday, said: “Everyone was OK” and left the van with her children inside, an affidavit said. The bystanders and beach-safety officers, ignoring her, pulled the two girls and a boy, ages 3, 9 and 10, through the windows 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.
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“Mom tried to kill us,” they told detectives, according to the document. “Mom is crazy.”
Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson said Wilkerson, 32, of North Charleston, was charged with three counts each of first-degree attempted murder and child abuse. She was in the custody of the Sheriff’s Office after being hospitalized for a mental evaluation since steering the van into the surf.
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 Friday, but earlier she expressed her concerns about Wilkerson’s mental health to a 911 dispatcher hours before the minivan ended up in the ocean.
The children said that while driving south on the beach, their mother pointed at the ocean, locked the doors, rolled up the electric windows and then jerked the steering wheel, sending the minivan into the waves.
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.
One child lowered the windows and the siblings yelled for help, attracting bystanders.
“I’ve got to do this,” Wilkerson told one of them, Stacy Robinson, as he attempted to intervene, according to the affidavit.
One of the rescuers, Tim Tesseneer, said Wilkerson’s eyes were wide 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.
Harrell, Wilkerson’s sister, told the 911 dispatcher that she had tried taking her sister to a hospital the day before the minivan went into the surf, but Wilkerson 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.
Two days before what happened on the beach, Wilkerson told North Charleston police that she was in a violent altercation 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.
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.
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.