Post and Courier
September 19, 2014

Authorities: Berkeley County woman drives van with her children into ocean near Daytona Beach

Posted: 03/05/2014 09:17 a.m.
Updated: 03/05/2014 10:33 p.m.


By Natalie Caula Hauff

Pregnant and with three children in tow, Ebony Wilkerson left her sister's Daytona Beach home Tuesday talking about demons.

Almost three hours later, the 32-year-old Berkeley County woman drove the minivan carrying her children - ages, 3, 9 and 10 - into the churning, frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean, investigators said.

Two people on the beach rushed to help as the van partially submerged in the water. Beach patrol officers helped the bystanders and rescued all the children from the van, including one who had been strapped into a booster seat.

Wilkerson, of Cross, already was out of the van walking away as her children were being plucked from the water, and she made no attempt to help, according to police.

No one was injured and the children were taken into protective custody.

Wednesday afternoon, Wilkerson was undergoing a psychological evaluation and had not been questioned yet by authorities.

Volusia County sheriff's investigators have taken over the investigation and are trying to determine whether to file criminal charges against Wilkerson.

"We need to determine if this is a medical incident, a mental incident," Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson said at a press conference in Daytona Beach Wednesday. "We want to get to the bottom of it to determine what's appropriate."

Screaming children

Just before 5 p.m. Tuesday, a lifeguard on the beach saw Wilkerson driving along the beach, then make a hard left turn into the ocean, according to Mark Swanson, Volusia County's Beach Patrol director. Vehicles are allowed to drive on some stretches of Daytona Beach.

"If it had been minutes longer, the outcome would have been different," Swanson said.

Tim Tesseneer, of Rutherfordton, N.C., told WESH 2 TV in Orlando that he was one of two men to first approach the van in the water.

Tesseneer told the station that one of the children inside the van screamed that their mom was trying to kill them.

"(Wilkerson) had this look on her face," Tesseneer told WESH 2. "I can't describe it. It was just an awful blank look, like spaced-out look."

Pulled over

Wilkerson's sister, Jessica Harrell, 28, of Daytona Beach, called police after her sister had left her house Tuesday.

"Harrell was only concerned because her sister had been talking about demons and seemed 'off,'?" an incident report stated.

Daytona Beach police spotted Wilkerson shortly after the call and pulled her over. Wilkerson's three children were sitting quietly and smiling in the back seat of the van, according to police. Wilkerson told officers she was in fear for her and her children's lives, the police report stated.

She told officers she was afraid her ex-husband was going to find them in Florida, and she was on her way to a "safe place," but she wouldn't tell them the name of the shelter, according to police.

"At that time, there was nothing they could do," Brown said during the press conference. "Had the officers known she was suicidal or homicidal, Daytona officers would have taken her into custody."

Authorities said Wilkerson's behavior at the time did not meet the criteria that would give them the authority to take her into custody under the state's Florida Mental Health Act of 1971, commonly referred to as the Baker Act.

Similar incidents

At around 2:15 p.m., they had to let her go, police said. Authorities said they had no idea she was headed to the beach.

Following the incident later that afternoon, Wilkerson and the children were taken to Halifax Health Medical Center for observation.

The case bears eerie similarities to at least two high-profile cases in South Carolina.

In 1994, Susan Smith drove her car into a Union lake, killing her two boys, 3-year-old Michael and 14-month-old Alex.

Smith, now 42, was convicted in 1995 and sentenced to life in prison.

Shaquan Duley, now 32, killed 2-year-old Devean Duley and 18-month old Ja'van Duley in August 2010 in Orangeburg. Duley smothered her children at the Trumps Inn, then strapped them into her Chrysler sedan and submerged it in the North Edisto River.

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