A pregnant mother who drove her minivan filled with her three children into the Atlantic Ocean was charged with attempted murder today after the children told police, "Mom tried to kill us."
Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson said today that Ebony Wilkerson, 32, got out of the car after driving it into the ocean on Tuesday and left her kids inside. Police said a beach safety officer had to fend her off as he was trying to rescue the children.
"She tried to stop someone from going into the vehicle. That's one of the reasons you have a premeditated first degree murder," Johnson said at a news conference today.
Authorities also determined that Wilkerson did not suffer from mental illness or was under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time she drove her children into the sea.
Wilkerson is charged with three counts of attempted murder, one for each child, as well as child abuse charges. She is being held in Volusia County jail pending a court appearance.
The mom of three children -- ages 3, 9, and 10 -- is 27-and-a-half weeks pregnant, Johnson said.
After being taken to the hospital, the children told police, "Mom tried to kill us," according to police. The oldest told officers that her mother brought them to the beach "so we could die" and that she was taking them to a "safer place." The oldest child tried to steer the car out of the surf, but his mother drove into the water.
"Ebony Wilkerson acted with premeditated design to kill her three children," investigators concluded in the charging affidavit.
Family members of Wilkerson, who is from Cross, S.C., had called police earlier in the day out of concern for the woman, but she told police she was going to a domestic abuse center with the children, police said earlier in the week.
Instead, she drove her Honda Odyssey minivan to Daytona Beach, where she rolled up the windows, told her children to go to sleep, and headed for the ocean, according to police. Bystanders who witnessed her gunning for the surf ran toward the minivan and tried to stop the woman.
"[My girlfriend] said what I thought was a joke and [I] was like, 'No, this is real', because after that her son came out the window, probably about waist high, screaming for help," Stacy Robinson, one of the men who rushed up to the van, told ABC News.
Robinson, 21, said he jumped out of his car and ran over to the minivan and started walking beside the vehicle, talking to the mother.
"The son was snatching at the wheel, trying to get her to come back toward the shore and I was asking, I was like, 'What is going on, why are you driving on the water?' I said, 'you're going to get in trouble... you're not supposed to be doing this,'" Robinson said.
"All she repeated is 'OK, we are OK, we are OK,'" Robinson said. "I was like, 'you've got to get out of the water. You're going to get in trouble. You got kids. You're scaring them. They're crying.' And she said, she was like, 'OK' as through she was coming back out the water and took off. She sped off."
Robinson said he then ran into the pounding waves after the minivan, which started to sink. The mother, he said, had rolled up the car windows and locked the doors as the vehicle was rocked by waves and pulled deeper into the water.
The three kids were screaming for help at the time, witnesses recalled.
Robinson said one of the back windows was still cracked open and he was able to reach in and open the door.
"That's when I snatched out the boy first and the little girl," he said. "Then I noticed the baby in the car seat... she was in the back behind the passenger seat."
"Once I grabbed the little girl out, I saw [the mother], she began to climb out her window," Robinson continued.
At this point, Robinson said other bystanders and lifeguards had arrived and helped rescue the 3-year-old and the mother from the sinking car, as he carried the two older children to safety.
ABC News' Steve Osunsami and Lauren Effron contributed to this report.