Driving her minivan with her three children into turbulent surf at Daytona Beach, FL, 32-year-old Ebony Wilkerson created quite a scene, with bystanders rushing to save her and her children. Calling off rescuers, Wilkerson reportedly said, “everything is OK,” attempting to minimize her suicide-homicide episode that nearly cost her and her children their lives. Charged with three counts of attempted murder, Wilkerson denied to Volusia County Court Judge Shirley Green that she tried to harm herself or her children but got accidentally sucked to the waves driving too close. Setting bail at 1.2 million, Judge Green recognized that not only was Wilkerson mentally ill in the conventional sense but also a dangerous con artist. Admitting she drove too close to the water “and the waves pulled her in,” doesn’t match with eyewitnesses or her children that said “Mom is crazy” and “Mom tried to kill us.”
When your own three, nine and ten year-old children admit their mother was trying to kill them that defines tragedy, with all three now in protective custody. Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson confirmed that Wilkerson is hospitalized undergoing psychiatric evaluation. When the assessment team gets her firsthand, it won’t be difficult to diagnose major mental illness, like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or even major depression. What becomes more difficult is identifying the dangerous personality disorder that often accompanies major mental illness. Her explanations to the judge about “and the waves pulled her in,” attempt to excuse her actions, offering a plausible explanation to a deliberate get herself off the hook. Her clever excuses suggest something more dangerous. Serious forms of mental illness sap an individual’s capacity to make plausible excuses.
Her three children told detectives her mother fled South Carolina from her husband of 14 years due to domestic abuse to visit her sister Jessica Harrell, a resident of Daytona Beach. Her children told detective their mother was “acting crazy and speaking to Jesus,” something taken seriously by evangelicals but more often indicates a mental breakdown. When driving into the ocean, she told her children, “I am keeping us all safe.” Police reports indicate her oldest child tried to wrestle the wheel from her before she headed into the water. “She told them to close their eyes and go to sleep. She was trying to take them to a better place,” said the police report, showing the kind of dangerous paranoia that results in homicide-suicide episodes. When you combine that with Wilkerson’s clever ways of covering up her mental illness, it’s a dangerous formula for lethal incidents.
When rescued by first responder Tim Tesseneer, he observed she looked “possessed,” attesting to the serious mental illness driving her erratic behavior.
When her plot was foiled, she could only make excuses trying to save her backside from prosecution from child endangerment and attempted murder. “I’ve got to do this,” Wilkerson told Stacy Robinson who attempted to rescue her and the kids. Wilkerson told North Charleston police two days before the incident that she was abused by her husband. Where authorities and press get things wrong is using external excuses to explain motives for destructive behavior. Police reports indicate that Wilkerson’s sister took her to a hospital the day before the incident, only to see her check out, attesting, if nothing else, to gaping hole in the mental health system. Without binding involuntary holds, mental patients check themselves out and often commit egregious acts.
Giving a clear picture as to Wilkerson’s diagnosis, Harrell told the police that her sister was “talking Jesus and how there are demons in my house and how I’m trying to control her but I’m trying to keep them safe,” Harrell admitted in frustration. If psychiatric facilities release dangerous patients on the streets, it’s a failure of today’s health care system. It’s entirely possible Wilkerson’s insurance, if she has any, doesn’t include mental health coverage, leaving hospitals no choice to release her back on streets. Without third-party payments, hospitals can’t guarantee reimbursement, making involuntary confinements a financial loss. If there’s any consensus on Capitol Hill, they’d amend Obamacare to include payments to hospitals for either the uninsured or insured without mental health benefits. Today’s system routinely releases mentally ill patients whether or not they’re a danger to themselves or others.
Wilkerson’s case shows gaping holes in today’s mental health system.
Released from a hospital dangerous to herself and others, the March 6 Daytona Beach incident ended well, sparing Wilkerson of her children any injuries or loss of life. When she faces the Florida courts, it’s possible Wilkerson can eventually find her way into a maximum security hospital for the criminally insane. Only there can they begin to deal with her mental illness, but, more importantly, her cunning side that already fooled one hospital into turning her back on the streets. What makes Wilkerson and others like her so dangerous is that ordinary folks get conned by their unctuous presentation when they’re in fact highly dangerous. What’s noteworthy about this story is that Wilkerson’s children knew more about her sickness than licensed hospital personnel, attesting to urgent changes needed to the system.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.