Slain woman's three children found dead

Sunday, September 24, 2006

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. -- Three children missing since the body of their pregnant mother was discovered earlier this week with the fetus cut from the womb have been found dead, authorities announced late Saturday.

The bodies of the children were found hours after a woman was charged and jailed on $5 million bond in the deaths of Jimella Tunstall, 23, and the fetus authorities believe was cut from the dead woman's womb after she was knocked unconscious.

Police began a search for Tunstall's two sons, 7 and 2, and 1-year-old daughter, since they found her dead last week in a weedy East St. Louis lot.

Authorities continued a desperate search for Tunstall's children after charges against Tiffany Hall, 24, were announced Saturday. The children were last seen with Hall on Monday, three days before she was taken into custody.

Officials had been upbeat about the prospects of finding the children unharmed. After the charges against Hall were announced, Illinois State Police Capt. Craig Koehler said authorities would not end the search until the children were found.

The bodies of DeMond Tunstall, 7, Ivan Tunstall-Collins, 2, and Jinela Tunstall, 1, were found about 7 p.m. in Tunstall's apartment at the John DeShields public housing complex.

"Any time you have three deceased children, it's a very emotional time," Koehler said late Saturday as he fought back tears. "All these investigators have worked tirelessly with one outcome in mind -- to find these children alive."

St. Clair County State's Attorney Robert Haida said Hall faces one count apiece of first-degree murder and intentional homicide of an unborn child in the death of Tunstall, who relatives say grew up with Hall and has let Hall baby-sit her children.

An autopsy Friday showed Tunstall bled to death after sustaining 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.

Hall's arraignment likely will come Monday on the charges, each carrying a 20 to 60 years or life in prison. Unlike the feticide count, the murder count in Tunstall's death could be punishable by the death penalty, though Haida said he hadn't decided whether he'd pursue that.

"It's way too early to talk about that," he said. "Obviously, it's a very devastating situation for the families, but we're hopeful for a positive outcome in the return of the three children."

Hall surfaced as what investigators called "a person of interest" in Tunstall's death Thursday, when during a funeral for a baby girl she claimed was hers she told her boyfriend the baby wasn't his and that she had killed a woman and taken her baby, Police Chief James Mister said.

The boyfriend -- a sailor home on leave -- told police, who found Tunstall's body and arrested Hall late Thursday.

Tunstall's brother, Ernest Myers, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he couldn't believe Hall "could do something like this."

"This is just something out of the clear blue that I don't understand," he said.

The baby was buried Thursday as Taylor Horn after a funeral arranged by L. King Funeral Chapel, where president Levi King said the 26-year-old claiming to be the mother -- the woman authorities believe was Hall -- 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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