Post and Courier
August 1, 2014

Charleston-area mother accused of driving into ocean faces attempted murder, abuse charges (has video)

Posted: 03/07/2014 10:18 a.m.
Updated: 03/08/2014 08:13 a.m.


By Natalie Caula Hauff

With her eyes wide open, Ebony Wilkerson shut all the windows and locked the doors to her van before telling her three children they were headed to a safer place, according to investigators.

The 32-year-old North Charleston woman, who is nearly seven months pregnant, then drove them into the Atlantic Ocean's crashing waves, which quickly swamped the van, Florida authorities said. Water splashed on the children's faces as they shouted for help in terror, authorities said.

"She definitely tried to kill her children," Volusia County (Fla.) Sheriff Ben Johnson said.

The Sheriff's Office on Friday charged Wilkerson with three counts of first-degree attempted murder and three counts of child abuse.

Authorities accuse Wilkerson of intentionally driving into the ocean Tuesday at Daytona Beach with her three children - ages 3, 9 and 10.

Wilkerson had been undergoing a mental evaluation since the incident, according to sheriff's officials. Upon her release Friday, authorities charged Wilkerson and detained her at a Volusia County jail, according to jail records.

Her first court appearance was scheduled for Saturday morning.

Wilkerson has denied trying to harm her children, according to Johnson.

"She said she was trying to drive out of the water," he said.

But statements made to investigators by witnesses indicate Wilkerson drove into the ocean with purpose and tried to ward off the individuals trying to rescue the children, according to an incident report.

Drive into ocean

Affidavits released by the Sheriff's Office on Friday shed more light on the moments before and after the van submerged in the ocean. According to the documents, the scene played out this way:

As Wilkerson drove into the water, she told her children to close their eyes and go to sleep.

Her 10-year-old daughter, however, grabbed onto the steering wheel and turned it toward the shore.

"Mom drove us in the ocean for no reason and was going to kill us," the child later told investigators.

One of the children pushed a button to crack open the window and they yelled for help.

Stacy Robinson, 21, of Ocoee, Fla., was on the beach when she heard the cries. Robinson and another bystander, Tim Tesseneer, 38, of Rutherfordton, N.C., ran up to the van as it headed farther into the water.

As they approached the van, Robinson heard Wilkerson say, "I got to do this." Robinson reached into the van, lowered the window and pulled two of the children out.

Tesseneer saw Wilkerson climb from the driver's side window and "belly flop" into the water. But one of the children was still inside the van strapped to her booster seat.

A beach patrol officer rushed over and tried opening the van's driver's side door, but Wilkerson grabbed him. The officer pushed Wilkerson away so he could rescue the baby.

The children, who did not suffer any serious injuries, were hospitalized following the incident. The children were released into the state's protective custody Thursday, according to Florida's Department of Children and Families officials.

While she was being evaluated at the Halifax hospital, Wilkerson told an investigator she had endured 14 years of agony with her husband, the affidavits stated.

Accusations of abuse

Two days before arriving at the beach, Wilkerson told North Charleston police that her husband had attacked her while they were staying at a hotel in Myrtle Beach on March 1, according to authorities.

Her husband, 31-year-old Lutful Ronjon, has not been charged in that incident. Ronjon could not be reached for comment this week.

Wilkerson first reported the alleged assault to Myrtle Beach police. She accused her husband of holding her down against her will. In the 911 call to police in Myrtle Beach, Wilkerson told the operator her husband was asleep and she was scared.

After returning from Myrtle Beach to their North Charleston apartment in Dorchester County, Wilkerson packed up and decided to travel to Florida with her children, the report stated. She told North Charleston police Ronjon saw her leave with the children and that she believed a man she didn't know had followed her to the police department, according to the report.

By Sunday, Wilkerson had made it to Daytona Beach, where her sister, Jessica Harrell, lives, according to authorities.

Harrell checked her sister into a hospital Monday, but Wilkerson checked herself out the next day, according to a 911 recording.

Worried about her sister's well-being and state of mind, Harrell called police Tuesday when Wilkerson tried leaving her house with the children after speaking about demons being in the house, according to the 911 recording.

Daytona Beach police stopped Wilkerson but let her go. Police later said she did not meet the criteria that would give authorities the power to take Wilkerson into custody for mental health reasons.

About two hours later, Wilkerson drove the van carrying her kids into the Atlantic Ocean, authorities said.

History with husband

Sheriff Johnson said Ronjon told investigators he would travel to Volusia County on Thursday, but he had not yet shown up to speak to investigators by Friday afternoon.

In a previous incident, Ronjon was arrested on May 11, 2005, in Palm Beach County and charged with domestic battery, according to court records.

Ronjon struck his wife during an argument about receipts, leaving her with a bruise on her cheek, according to the report.

He went through a domestic violence pretrial service program and the charge was later dismissed, according to court records.

Reach Natalie Caula Hauff at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.