Incident where mother who drove minivan full of kids into ocean could have been avoided



DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Police in Daytona said key information could have stopped a mother who drove into the ocean with a van full of children on Tuesday.

Ebony Wilkerson's sister, Jessica Harrell, called 911 and told dispatchers Wilkerson, 32, was seeing demons and seemed a bit off that day.

"She's trying to drive, and I'm trying to stop her," Harrell told dispatchers. "She's talking about Jesus and that there's demons in my house. She's leaving, and I don't want to chase after this car."

Daytona Beach Police Chief Michael Chitwood's officers stopped and spoke with Wilkerson just hours before she drove her minivan into the surf with her three young children-- ages 3, 9 and 10 -- inside.

Chitwood supported the officers' decision not to take Wilkerson into custody, even though she seemed a bit off.

"There's a law that we have to follow and we can't just say, 'Hey, you know what, that little off, she's a little bit off, probably a little bit of mental illness. That's enough to Baker Act her.' Well, it's not," said Chitwood.

Chitwood said the sister didn't give officers any indication Wilkerson would harm herself or her kids.

"Then the sister, when asked pointed questions, tells the officers, 'She's not suicidal. She's not going to harm her children. She's just a little bit off,'" said Chitwood.

Police stopped Wilkerson on the side of the road about 3:15 p.m. near the intersection of Jimmy Ann Drive and Clyde Morris Boulevard.

Less than two hours later and about 6 miles away, she drove her minivan into the water.

Chitwood said his department learned Wilkerson's family tried to get her to voluntarily admit herself into a hospital the day before.   He said if his officers had known about the attempt to Baker Act her  it would have been enough for them to take her into custody.

During a news conference Wednesday, authorities said Wilkerson, who is pregnant, was already out of the van when lifeguards got to her and that she did not tell them there were children inside the car.

Ocoee resident Stacy Robinson said he heard the children screaming as the car went into the water.

"They were just screaming to the top of their lungs, 'Help, help, help,'" said Robinson.

Robinson was one of the first to reach the van with Wilkerson's to help rescue the children.

"I saw a little boy out the window, maybe to his waist, flagging, screaming that they needed help," said Robinson.

Video of the rescue shows Robinson walking with two of the children in his arms.

"I reached in, snatched the son out first and grabbed the daughter," said Robinson.

Lifeguards jumped in and got the third child out.

"It's still unbelievable. I'm still trying to process it," Robinson said.

Investigators said they don't know why Wilkerson drove the car into the water. They said they believe she might have come to Florida from South Carolina to get away from an abusive relationship.

No one was injured in the incident.

The Volusia County Sheriff's Office said the children were turned over to the care of the Florida Department of Children and Families.           

The Sheriff's Office said it has not yet decided whether charges would be filed.