Bond set at $1.2 million for SC mom charged with driving van into ocean

Published: Mar. 8, 2014 at 5:02 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 8, 2014 at 5:57 PM EST
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Booking photo of Ebony Wilkerson. (Source: WKMG)
Booking photo of Ebony Wilkerson. (Source: WKMG)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (WCSC/WKMG) - Bond has been set at $1.2 million for a Berkeley County woman who was arrested on Friday in Florida after authorities say she intentionally tried to kill her three children by driving a van into the ocean at Daytona Beach.

A Volusia County judge set the bond for 32-year-old Ebony Wilkerson of Cross on Saturday. Wilkerson is being held on a $300,000 bond for each count of attempted first-degree murder and $100,000 for each count of child abuse.

Law enforcement in Florida announced on Friday that Wilkerson had been arrested after she drove her van with three of her kids onboard into the ocean off Daytona Beach earlier this week.

Officials with the Volusia County Sheriff's Office say Wilkerson was charged with three counts of first-degree attempted murder and three counts of child abuse.

According to Sheriff Ben Johnson, Wilkerson tried to intentionally kill her three kids. Johnson said during a Friday afternoon press conference that Wilkerson's children told authorities their mother was trying to kill them.

"You're supposed to protect your children at all costs," Johnson said."You're not supposed to be trying to kill your children. That disappoints me greatly and it's not only here, it's everywhere."

Johnson said one of the children said they were told by their mother to close their eyes and that they were "going to a better place."

VCSO officers say they responded to the incident Tuesday afternoon and teamed up with several beachgoers to rescue the children inside the van consisting of a 3-year-old girl, 9-year-old boy and 10-year-old girl.

A press release by VCSO states as Wilkerson was driving into the ocean, she locked the doors, put up the windows of her van, and told her three "frightened" children to "close their eyes and go to sleep."

Investigators say Wilkerson ignored the children's pleas for help, insisting that she was taking them to a "safer place." According to authorities, the oldest child grabbed the steering wheel and unsuccessfully tried to steer the vehicle away from the water.

During an interview with a sheriff's investigator, a witness who helped with the rescue reported seeing a child on Wilkerson's lap. According to investigators, Wilkerson and the child were fighting for control of the steering wheel.

Authorities say one of the children pushed the power button to lower the windows and the children started screaming for help. A press release states that the children's yelling attracted bystanders, but when the bystanders approached the vehicle, Wilkerson told them everyone was O.K.

During this time, the sheriff's office says the children were screaming that their mother was trying to kill them.

Investigators say by the time the van stopped, the ocean water was rushing into the minivan and the vehicle was quickly filling up. A report by the sheriff's office states Wilkerson then exited the minivan and left her children inside the vehicle.

"She was able to get out of the vehicle," Johnson said."She tried to stop somebody from going into the vehicle and that's one of the reasons why you have the premeditated first-degree attempted murder charges. She definitely tried to kill her children from everything we have seen."

The two older children were pulled to safety first and then, after they reported that their younger sister was still in the vehicle,  the toddler was extracted through the minivan's rear hatch.

According to a witness, during the rescue one of the beach safety officers had to fend off Wilkerson, who was grabbing at the officer and trying to stop him from entering the vehicle.

Sheriff's investigators also interviewed a family member, who said that Wilkerson was in an abusive relationship and that she had come to Florida with her children to get away from her husband.  The relative also said that she had no history of mental illness.

"Ebony Wilkerson acted with premeditated design to kill her three children," investigators concluded in the charging affidavit.

After consulting with the State Attorney's Office, sheriff's investigators presented the results of their investigation to County Judge Shirley Green, who signed the warrant late Thursday night for Wilkerson's arrest.

Wilkerson was arrested at 11:05 a.m. Friday after being released from Halifax Health Medical Center in Daytona Beach where she had been taken on Tuesday for a mental health evaluation.

"It's my understanding during the interview, that [Wilkerson is] basically saying that she was not trying to do anything," Johnson said."She's denying she was even attempting, at this time, to her children. She claims she was driving out of the water."

An incident report by North Charleston police also released on Friday states Wilkerson stopped in North Charleston last week to notify police she was being followed, according to an incident report.

North Charleston police say Wilkerson decided she was going to leave her residence in North Charleston and go to Florida to be with her family on March 2, after allegedly being sexually assaulted by her husband the day before.

Wilkerson told police that while at a store on Dorchester Road, she noticed a male who was staring at her. She then left the store and drove towards North Charleston City Hall, but noticed the suspicious male was following her.

An incident report states Wilkerson could not provide any additional information about the subject, but was very scared that he would continue to follow her.

Wilkerson told North Charleston police that on March 1 while in Myrtle Beach on vacation, she was sexually assaulted by her husband of 14 years in their hotel room. She reported the incident to Myrtle Beach police, but her husband was not arrested.

Her husband, who has not been identified, said that Wilkerson assaulted him, police told news station WKMG in Orlando on Thursday.

The NCPD incident report states Wilkerson requested an escort to the city limits to make sure no one was following her. An officer then escorted her to the College Park Road exit.

Police in Florida say they interviewed Wilkerson, who is from Cross in Berkeley County, two hours before Tuesday's incident at Daytona Beach, but the woman was released because she showed no signs of being suicidal.

According to police, Wilkerson's sister called police just hours before the mother drove her vehicle into the ocean. In the 911 call she told them her sister was being abused by her husband.

"She came to me for protection, and I'm trying to keep them safe because she's not well enough to drive."

Investigators did say the woman told them she was going to an abuse shelter before she drove the mini van into the ocean.

The Volusia County Sheriff's Office says all four were rescued and no one suffered serious injuries.

The mother is undergoing a mental health evaluation and the three children have been turned over to the Florida Department of Children and Families, according to the Volusia County Sheriff's Office.

Copyright 2014 WCSC. All rights reserved. WKMG contributed to this report.