Community prays for slain woman's children

Monday, September 25, 2006

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. -- A woman accused of killing a pregnant woman and her fetus told police she drowned the woman's three children before stuffing them into a washer and dryer where they were found, an investigator said Sunday.

Preliminary findings of autopsies done Sunday on the dead children, who were discovered Saturday night inside their family's apartment in the John DeShields public housing complex, appear to show the children were drowned, Ace Hart, a deputy St. Clair County coroner, said.

As of Sunday, Hall was not charged in the children's deaths. Prosecutors on Saturday, just hours before the three siblings were found dead, accused 24-year-old Hall of killing Jimella Tunstall, 23, and her unborn baby girl, who authorities say was cut from Tunstall's womb, perhaps with scissors.

Authorities suspect Tunstall was slain on or about Sept. 15, three days before Hart says Hall claimed she killed the children.

The killings surfaced on Thursday, police said, when Hall confided with her boyfriend during the baby's funeral that he was not the baby's father and that she had killed a pregnant woman and taken the baby. The boyfriend told police, and Tunstall's body was found and Hall arrested later that day.

Sunday's autopsies showed no signs of physical abuse or trauma on the children, and toxicology tests were pending "to see if they were poisoned or possibly drugged," Hart said.

"They were not drowned there in the wash machine," Hart stressed.

Messages were left Sunday with St. Clair County State's Attorney Robert Haida, seeking comment on the prospect of additional charges being filed against Hall in the children's deaths.

On Sunday, many in this community turned to prayer in trying to understand the slayings.

"This is an opportunity for people to turn to God," Debra Kenton, a member of the New Life Community Church that relatives of Jimella Tunstall have attended, said after a special prayer service for the victims' family. "Who else can explain things like this?"

"People look at this like, 'This could be my kids, this could be my family,"' said Kendell Granger, New Life's pastor.

Authorities had visited Tunstall's apartment Friday but noticed nothing amiss while looking for photographs of the children for media outlets to publicize as a furious search for the children pressed on, Hart said.

But on Saturday, Hall "'fessed up where the kids were. She didn't say she killed them," Hart said Sunday, saying he understood why investigators may have overlooked the children during their previous trip to the apartment. "Who would be looking in the washer and dryer?"

But by Saturday night, Hart said, "you could find them by the smell."

Two of the children were found nude, the third wearing only underpants, Hart said. The oldest, 7-year-old DeMond Tunstall, was found in the dryer, the younger two children -- 2-year-old Ivan Tunstall-Collins and 1-year-old Jinela Tunstall -- in the washer.

Hall remained jailed Sunday on $5 million bond as memorials including stuffed animals continued to mount outside Tunstall's apartment, its door crisscrossed with white evidence tape and affixed with a white teddy bear. A stuffed race car with DeMond's name was on the pile.

An autopsy showed Jimella Tunstall bled to death after sustaining an abdominal wound, Hart has said. Authorities believe her womb was cut open after she was knocked unconscious.

Relatives say Tunstall grew up with Hall and had let her baby-sit her children.

According to Haida, was slain on or about Sept. 15. The same day, Hall summoned police to a park, saying she had given birth to a stillborn child, Hart said.

Hall and the dead baby were taken to a hospital, where she would not let doctors 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 showed no signs of trauma, and an autopsy the next day failed to reveal what caused the death, Hart said.

Hall has two children of her own; an investigator Saturday called them "safe and sound."

Hall likely will be arraigned today in the deaths of Tunstall and the fetus. Each charge carry a 20 to 60 years or life in prison penalty, Haida said. The murder count could be punishable by death.

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

Associated Press reporter Christopher Leonard contributed to this report.

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