Police: Search presses on for children of slain pregnant woman

Sunday, September 24, 2006

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. -- Law enforcers on Saturday again searched a thickly weeded lot where a woman's body was found two days earlier -- her fetus missing, cut from her womb perhaps with scissors -- in hopes of finding her three children they say were last seen with a woman now in custody.

Police Chief James Mister declined to say what, if anything, was found during the latest search of the property where 23-year-old Jimella Tunstall's body was found.

But in this crime-troubled city of crumbling buildings and potholed streets, Mister said searchers still hoped to find Tunstall's three children alive: "These children are from East St. Louis. They know how to survive."

No charges had been filed as of Saturday morning against a 26-year-old woman labeled a "person of interest" in the slaying of Tunstall, whose body was found Thursday not far from the home of the woman in custody. St. Clair County's prosecutor again said Saturday he would not rush to judgment.

Tunstall's children -- ages 7, 2 and 1 -- were last seen Monday with the woman being detained, authorities said Friday while clinging to hope that the youths still would be found alive.

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

Relatives of both women told media outlets the two knew each other, having grown up together and attended alternative schools. The woman in custody often baby-sat Tunstall's children, and Tunstall never expressed worry about leaving them in her care, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

Saturday's search came a day after a meticulous scouring of the 1,100-acre Frank Holten State Park, just blocks from where Tunstall's body was found, failed to locate Tunstall's children in woods or the park's two lakes. Investigators would not say what led them to believe the children were there.

That search came just a day after a baby's funeral during which the 26-year-old woman now in custody 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.

An autopsy Friday showed that Tunstall died of an abdominal wound caused by a sharp object, and "we're thinking it's scissors" found near the body, said Ace Hart, a deputy St. Clair County coroner.

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

DNA tests should determine definitively whether the baby was the one Tunstall was carrying, Hart said.

Hart said the woman in custody summoned police to the Frank Holten park on Sept. 15, saying she had gone into labor. The dead baby, taken to a hospital, showed no signs of trauma, and an autopsy the next day failed to pinpoint a cause of death, he said.

The woman would not let doctors at the hospital examine her and offered conflicting reasons for why she went into labor, alternately saying she had consensual sex and was raped, Hart said.

The baby was buried Thursday as Taylor Horn after a funeral arranged by L. King Funeral Chapel, where Levi King -- the home's president -- said the 26-year-old claiming to be the mother called minutes after the service was to start, asking if she could reschedule for a different day so more relatives could attend. At the time, King said, only two relatives were there.

The woman showed up two hours late, ultimately signing an affidavit for the funeral home stating that the child was hers, King said.

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

Shannon Torrez, 36, of Lonedell, Mo. -- south of St. Louis, about an hour's drive from here -- 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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