A Florida judge on Saturday set bail at $1.2 million for the pregnant woman accused of trying to kill her three children this week by locking them in a minivan that she drove into Daytona Beach's 4-foot-high surf.
Ebony Wilkerson, 32, remained in custody as of Saturday afternoon, according to Volusia County jail records. The mother from South Carolina was charged Friday with three counts of attempted first-degree murder and three counts of child abuse causing great bodily harm.
Investigators allege that on Tuesday afternoon Wilkerson locked the doors of a black Honda Odyssey, rolled up the windows and told her three children to close their eyes as she took them to a "safer place" far away from her allegedly violent husband. She fought attempts of the oldest child and a rescuer to save the siblings, Volusia County sheriff's investigators said.
However, a beach safety officer saw her car driving erratically on the edge of the waterline before turning east fully into the surf. Beachgoers and safety officers rescued a boy and two girls from the minivan as it was lashed by waves.
"It was something I had to do," Wilkerson allegedly told the people at the scene.
The disoriented mother got out of the minivan on her own, leaving the children behind, and tried to stop one of the rescuers from saving them, witnesses told investigators.
The children - a 3-year-old girl, 9-year-old boy and 10-year-old girl - were in the custody of the Florida Department of Children and Families. None of the children suffered serious injuries, the sheriff's department said.
The two older children feared for their lives, the department said. The 10-year-old grabbed the steering wheel, but struggled with Wilkerson to keep the vehicle out of the water, authorities said.
One of the children was able to lower a window, allowing them to scream for help and successfully get the attention of beachgoers, according to the sheriff's department account.
The sheriff's department and the Daytona Beach Police Department came under scrutiny after the incident because Wilkerson's sister had called police earlier Tuesday saying that her sister needed to be examined because she had been talking about "demons," according to a 911 recording.
Police talked to Wilkerson, but officials said she appeared to be fine and they could not find a reason to take her into custody. They said the sister had not been clear that she wanted Wilkerson to be detained regardless of how she appeared. The sister had taken Wilkerson to a hospital Monday, but Wilkerson checked herself out Tuesday morning.
Wilkerson was hospitalized again after the beach incident, and authorities evaluated her mental state before charging her.
In a statement Thursday, Wilkerson's family said the mother was fleeing a "domestic violence situation" that had been reported to two law enforcement agencies. Wilkerson had told those authorities that her 31-year-old husband held her down against her will, according to media reports.
This week, she told investigators at the hospital that she had "endured 14 years of agony with her husband" and didn't want her children to be near him, according to court documents.
She apparently denied trying to kill the children, saying the waves pulled the car in when she drove too close to the water. Wilkerson was described as "confused" by the investigator because she kept bouncing between "religious" topics, the court files say. The family reported that Wilkerson has no history of mental illness.
The children confirmed the physically abusive relationship between their parents but had been admonished by their parents not to talk to police about it in the past, investigators said.