ORANGEBURG, S.C. – A woman who watched divers pull the limp bodies of two toddlers out of a car that had floated downriver near her home says she can't understand why the boys' mother, who was arrested, didn't bang on her door for help.
Ramona Milhouse, whose side porch door is steps from South Carolina's North Edisto River, said at first Monday she thought the boys were unconscious, until she realized their bodies were being taken to the ambulance with no attempt to revive them.
Two-year-old Devean C. Duley and 18-month-old Ja'van T. Duley were dead by the time divers got to the car near a rural boat landing, Orangeburg County Sheriff Larry Williams said. County Coroner Samuetta Marshall would not speculate on a cause of death until autopsies were completed Tuesday, and police were trying to determine whether their deaths were accidental.
The boys' mother, 29-year-old Shaquan Duley, was charged with leaving the scene of an accident and it was unclear if she had a lawyer. Williams planned a news conference for 10 a.m. Tuesday to discuss more details of the case. Sheriff's spokeswoman Keisa Peterson said early Tuesday she was unaware of additional charges.
"It sounds fishy to me," the 81-year-old Milhouse said. "If that was an accident, that woman would've been over here screamin' and hollerin' and really raising the devil."
Williams said that early in the investigation, state patrol officers felt the facts didn't support that there was accident.
"We are looking into all possibilities as to what happened," he said.
Highway Patrol was notified about 6:15 a.m. that a woman needed help getting her children out of a car. Shaquan Duley, who did not have a cell phone, had walked some distance down the country road by the boat landing and flagged down a passing motorist to call the Highway Patrol.
"Why would she walk all that distance?" Milhouse said. "It's just awful."
The children were still strapped in their child seats when divers found them and recovered their bodies about 45 minutes after being called to the scene.
The story is reminiscent of an infamous South Carolina case in 1994. Susan Smith left her 3-year-old and 14-month-old sons strapped in their car seats as she rolled her car into a lake in Union County in the northwest part of the state. She was convicted in their deaths and is serving a life prison term.
Milhouse said when she and her husband woke up and looked outside, rescue workers were already at the car, and she could see the head of one boy above the water. The car had to come from the boat landing, on the other side of a concrete bridge adjoining her property, and down the slow-moving river, said Milhouse, who's lived full-time at the riverside home for about 35 years.
"It's real low," she said, so it could have taken awhile.
The car windows were up, and she heard rescuers say the ignition was on. She watched as the car was pulled down the middle of the river and hauled onto the bridge with a crane.
The sheriff said investigators were considering how a traffic accident could have happened at the boat ramp, about 20 yards upstream from a main road that crosses the river in Orangeburg, some 35 miles south of Columbia, the state capital.
"She showed some emotion, but I can't say she was overly distraught," Williams said of Shaquan Duley. "Through her statements, there are some things we think are not believable."
Williams said authorities were attempting to contact the children's father, who did not live with the family.
Besides the Milhouses, a mobile home and a mechanic's shop are also nearby. Milhouse said it's not the first time a submerged car has been pulled from the water near her home, but others had gotten out. She recalled one wintry night when a scantily clad boy and girl showed up on her doorstep shivering, after they parked at the landing and their car wound up in the water.
Local residents said they, too, were suspicious.
Shakeyia Baxter said the main road was heavily traveled in the mornings and would have been especially busy on Monday — the first day of school. Baxter stopped by the boat ramp, which is littered with empty beer cases and discarded soda bottles, on her way home from work to tuck silk flowers into a sign that warns of high levels of mercury in the fish. Lily pads dotted the dingy water by the ramp, and mosquitoes swarmed.
"My heart goes out to them," said Baxter, a 30-year-old mother of two. "I would have been doing everything I could to get those kids out of that car seat."
Associated Press Writer Bruce Smith in Charleston contributed to this story.