Illinois police holding person of interest in woman's death

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Jimella Tunstall was found in a weedy lot, a fetus apparently cut from her womb.

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. -- Police on Friday desperately searched for the three young children of a woman whose body was found in a weedy lot, a fetus apparently cut from her womb, possibly with scissors an investigator says were found near the woman's body.

"Our main concern at this point is trying to find the children alive," Illinois State Police Capt. Craig Koehler said Friday.

Authorities provided few details of the investigation, and while they continued to keep a woman in custody, they stopped short of calling her a suspect in the slaying of 23-year-old Jimella Tunstall, saying only that she was a person of interest.

The missing children were last seen Monday with the woman in custody, authorities said without elaborating.

"We're not rushing to judgment," St. Clair County State's Attorney Robert Haida said. "We are taking our time and waiting on reports from investigators." Haida said he did not expect charges to be filed on Friday.

The Associated Press is not naming the woman because she has not been charged with any crime.

Friday's search came one day after a funeral for the baby during which the 26-year-old woman told her boyfriend the child was not hers and that she had killed a woman and taken her baby, East St. Louis police chief James Mister said. The boyfriend, a sailor home on leave, reported the conversation to authorities, the Belleville News-Democrat and St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

That triggered a search for the woman, who was taken into custody later that night. Also on Thursday, police found Tunstall's body in a weedy lot near a house in East St. Louis.

Meanwhile, authorities learned that Tunstall's three children were missing. On Friday the search for Demond Tunstall, 7, Ivan Tunstall Collins, 2, and Jinella Tunstall, 1, centered on Frank Holton State Park in East St. Louis. Authorities would not reveal why they were searching the densely wooded park, saying only that during investigation they received information that led them there.

Dozens in search

Dozens of police officers and firefighters took part in the search, which also included a boat searching the shoreline of a lake at the park and a cadaver dog.

Also unanswered was the relationship between the woman in custody and the dead woman. Authorities have not said whether the two women knew each other, with Mister saying only that the children were last seen on Monday in East St. Louis with the woman who was in custody.

Ace Hart, a deputy St. Clair County coroner, told the AP Friday the woman in custody first came to the attention of authorities a week earlier when she summoned police from the Frank Holton park, saying she had gone into labor for differing reasons, alternately saying she had consensual sex and was sexually attacked.

Hart said the woman was taken to a Centreville hospital with the stillborn baby, who showed no signs of trauma. An autopsy on the baby the next day failed to pinpoint what caused its death, leaving authorities awaiting toxicology tests to help determine that.

The woman wouldn't let doctors at the hospital examine her, Hart said.

An autopsy Friday on the dead woman revealed that she died of an "incise wound to the abdomen," caused by some form of "sharp object" that perhaps were scissors found near her body, Hart said.

"We're thinking it's scissors," said Hart, deputy coroner for 23 years.

The death "was very graphic and very brutal," he said.

The East St. Louis case is the second recent case in the St. Louis area involving babies.

Shannon Torrez, 36, of Lonedell, Mo., is accused of slashing a young mother's throat and kidnapping her baby on Sept. 15. The baby was returned unharmed Tuesday, the same day Torrez was arrested.

Also in Missouri, Lisa Montgomery awaits trial in the abduction of an unborn girl taken from the womb of Bobbie Jo Stinnett at her Skidmore, Mo., home in December 2004. The baby survived.

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