Driver of minivan in surf spoke of demons, police say

Woman was headed to abuse shelter before incident, Daytona Beach police say

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Volusia County authorities said the pregnant mother who drove a van with her three children into the ocean off Daytona Beach spoke of "demons" before the incident.

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Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson said Thursday that the woman, identified as 32-year-old Ebony Wilkerson, of South Carolina, was still in the hospital undergoing a mental evaluation and had not yet been questioned by police.

Wilkerson was being evaluated under the Baker Act, a law that allows authorities to involuntarily take people into custody if they seem to be a threat to themselves.

On Wednesday, Johnson said Daytona Beach police spoke to Wilkerson hours before the incident after a family member contacted them out of concern that Wilkerson was talking about "demons."

"I tried to take her to the hospital yesterday and she signed herself out today," Willkerson's sister said in the 911 call. "She is doing a little bit better, but she is still not all here. But she is trying to drive and I'm trying to stop her and she has her kids and I took her keys."

According to a police report, Wilkerson said she was going to an abuse shelter and feared her ex-husband would find them in Florida and harm them. She also told police she was going to her "safe place."

The Berkeley County Sheriff's Office in South Carolina, however, said it has no reports of domestic violence calls in connection with Wilkerson or any calls for service at Wilkerson's address in Cross, S.C.

Deputies in South Carolina also said there was no history or reports of abuse or neglect against her children.

Daytona Beach police said although it appeared Wilkerson was suffering from some form of mental illness before she drove into the ocean, they had no reason to take her into custody. The report was taken at 3:14 p.m. on Tuesday.

"She said she was heading to an abuse shelter and at that time they could not do anything with her," Johnson said. "But then two hours later it had escalated to this."

Volusia County Beach Patrol said one of the lifeguards witnessed the van driving outside of the traffic lane near the Silver Beach approach at around 5 p.m. Tuesday, causing concern. When Beach Patrol arrived, two bystanders were already in the water trying to get the family out of the vehicle, officials said.

One of the bystanders, Stacy Robinson, was on the beach with his girlfriend.

"First, we thought it was a joke, until we saw a little boy hanging out of the window, and he was trying to flag someone down for help," Robinson told Local 6.

Robinson said before he rescued the children he talked to Wilkerson through the van window. She told him she was fine, but then he said she accelerated into the ocean. He said he reached in the window for the children.

"I'm hitting buttons, then finally the back window came down," Robinson said. "That's when I reached in and grabbed the son first and the daughter second."

"When we entered the water to rescue her she was out of the van already and she was acting inappropriate," said Mark Swanson with Volusia County Beach Patrol. "She wasn't answering questions appropriately."

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Officials said Wilkerson paid the toll to park and drive on the beach.

The three children -- ages 3, 9 and 10 -- were rescued by onlookers from the minivan, which was being buffeted by waves as it drifted deeper into the surf Tuesday.

A child protection team interviewed the children, all of whom were placed in the custody of the Department of Children and Families.

Johnson said it's not yet been determined if Wilkerson will be charged.

The South Carolina family of four was initially taken to Halifax Hospital for evaluation.  No one was seriously injured.

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