Ebony Wilkerson, 32, was taken into deputy custody Friday on three counts of attempted first-degree murder and three counts of child abuse. Sheriff Ben Johnson said she is being booked into the Volusia County Branch Jail.
The Sheriff's Office posted on Twitter that it would announce its decision Friday afternoon:
Volusia County Sheriff's Office to announce charging decision at 1 p.m. today regarding woman who drove van with children into the ocean.— VCSO PIO (@VolusiaSheriff) March 7, 2014
"Ebony Wilkerson acted with premeditated design to kill her three children," the Sheriff's Office said in the charging affidavit.
Investigators said the 32-year-old mother was 27 weeks pregnant when she drove her 2012 Honda Odyssey into the rough surf at Daytona Beach. Deputies said she locked the doors, put up the windows and told her three frightened children to close their eyes on go to sleep, ignoring their pleas for help and insisting she was taking them all to "a safer place."
Wilkerson was arrested Friday morning at Halifax Health Medical Center, where she had been taken Tuesday for a mental health evaluation. Sheriff Johnson said Wilkerson was being booked into the Volusia County Branch Jail without bond.
According to family members, Wilkerson came to Florida from South Carolina to escape an abusive husband.
In the arrest affidavit, Wilkerson's sister had taken the woman to a hospital for a mental evaluation check, but Wilkerson left the hospital despite the advice of medical staff.
Hours before Wilkerson drove into the ocean, her sister called 911 requesting a well-being check. The sister and a friend asked the dispatcher to send police to stop Wilkerson from leaving.
Caller's friend: She was just released from the hospital.
Mom's sister: And she's pregnant.
Friend: And they put her on medication to make her drowsy.
911 dispatcher: OK, has she left?
Sister: Yeah, she's gone.
Wilkerson took off when her children, a 3-year-old girl, a 9-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl, in the van.
A Daytona Beach police officer pulled her over, but ended up letting her go. The officer reported while it was clear she was suffering from some form of mental illness, the traffic stop "did not provide any signs that she met Baker Act requirements."
Under the Baker Act, the officer could have detained the woman on a psychiatric hold, but Sheriff Johnson said there were no grounds to Baker-Act Wilkerson based on the officer's report.
Moments later, a lifeguard spotted the van driving erratically on the beach before the woman turned sharply toward the ocean, plowing into the water. Deputies said Wilkerson then got out of the van, leaving her children inside.
Lifeguards and several beachgoers jumped into action, rescuing the three children as rough waves rocked and nearly submerged the minivan. The kids were carried safely to shore before being taken to Halifax Health.
In the arrest affidavit, Wilkerson told rescuers "it was something I had to do." She said she was taking her and her children "to a safer place."
While at the hospital, deputies said the children told them, "Mom tried to kill us." The 10-year-old girl told Volusia County Beach Safety officers that their mother took them to the beach "so we could die."
Deputies said at one point, the 10-year-old grabbed the steering wheel of the van in attempt to steer it away from the water, but was unsuccessful. A witness reported seeing a child on Wilkerson's lap and the two fighting for control of the steering wheel.
One of the children pushed the power button to lower the windows, and the children started screaming for help, saying their mother was trying to kill them. Their yelling got the attention of the bystanders who ran to save them.
One witness said beach safety officers had to fend off Wilkerson, who tried to stop them from entering the van.
Investigators said a family member told them that Wilkerson was in an abusive relationship, and she came to Florida with her children to escape her husband. The relative added Wilkerson had no prior history of mental illness.