"You're supposed to protect your children at all costs," Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson says

By Associated Press and Michelle Boudin
Updated March 07, 2014 08:05 PM
Simon Besner/AP

A pregnant South Carolina woman who drove a minivan carrying her three young children into the ocean surf off Florida was charged Friday with attempted first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse, authorities said.

Bystanders and officers helped pull 32-year-old Ebony Wilkerson and her children, ages 3, 9 and 10, from their minivan as it was almost submerged on Tuesday on Daytona Beach.

Later, Wilkerson denied trying to hurt her children, telling investigators she was driving too close to the water, “and the waves pulled her in,” according to the charging affidavit.

Her children told investigators another story.

“Mom tried to kill us,” they told detectives, according to the document. “Mom is crazy.”

The windows were rolled up and the doors were locked, and one of the children tried to wrestle the steering wheel away from Wilkerson, Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson said .

“She told them to close their eyes and go to sleep. She was trying to take them to a better place,” Johnson said.

Stacy Robinson-Orlando, 21, and Tim Tesseneer, 38, were two bystanders who helped rescue Wilkerson and her children.

“I’m just glad we were there. It’s obvious now she was deliberately fixing to driver kids into the ocean,” Tesseneer told PEOPLE. “I don’t think I’ll ever get rid of that sound or the visual of once I got to the van. It’s something I have to take to the grave with me.”

Tesseneer said he remembers the harrowing look on Wilkerson’s face when he rescued them.

“That look on her face said a lot. When she said, ‘We’re okay. We’re gonna be fine,’ it was like she had her mind made up. She was fixing to go down with the kids. She was taking them with her,” he said.

Wilkerson was in custody of the sheriff’s office after she was taken to a hospital for mental evaluation. Her children were with the Department of Children and Families. Wilkerson faces three counts each of attempted first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse, Johnson said.

“You’re supposed to protect your children at all costs,” Johnson said at a news conference. “You’re not supposed to try to kill your children.”