A 24-year-old mother who investigators say had killed her two toddlers earlier in the day begged East Hampton Town Police officers to shoot her as they approached her car in Montauk last Thursday afternoon, June 27.
The woman, Tenia Campbell of Medford, had told her mother over the phone that afternoon that her two “babies,” twin 2-year-old girls Jasmine and Jaida, were dead, and that she was driving to a beach, where she planned to kill herself — sparking a countywide search for the minivan she was driving.
Instead, she ended up just off Montauk Highway, near Third House, in Montauk County Park, pleading with officers to shoot her.
The first officers to arrive on the scene — directed by Suffolk County dispatchers, who were tracking her cellphone location — found the hysterical mother at the entrance to the park on Montauk Highway and took her into custody, then made the tragic discovery.
The two toddlers were strapped into their car seats in the back of the Chrysler minivan, which Ms. Campbell had parked and already exited when officers arrived. The children were both unconscious, not breathing and in cardiac arrest.
Emergency medical responders from the Montauk Fire Department nonetheless desperately tried to revive the young girls as they were loaded into two separate ambulances and taken to Stony Brook Southampton Hospital with a police escort and officers from other departments blocking intersections as the small motorcade raced west on the highway.
The little girls were pronounced dead at the hospital at about 4 p.m. Police have not identified their cause of death but said their bodies showed no apparent signs of trauma.
Ms. Campbell reportedly had told her own mother in a phone call that she had killed them with her “bare hands.”
Ms. Campbell has a third child, a 4-year-old boy, now in the custody of his father, whom police have not identified.
She was arraigned on Friday morning before East Hampton Town Justice Steven Tekulsky on two counts of murder in the second degree.
She covered her face as she was led into the Pantigo Road courthouse, shielding herself from a throng of photographers jostling and clicking camera shutters as she passed, an East Hampton Town Police officer holding each arm.
During the brief proceeding in the courtroom, Ms. Campbell, dressed in a black dress, did not speak but stood weeping as the charges were read.
Judge Tekulsky entered a “general denial” of the charges on her behalf and ordered her held without bail at the Suffolk County Jail in Riverside in a special suicide prevention ward.
The case was to be officially moved in town court to the Suffolk County Criminal Court system on Wednesday, July 3. Ms. Campbell was not expected to be present for the hearing in town court.
Assistant District Attorney Kerriann Kelly, the head of the DA’s Homicide Bureau, said that a grand jury will consider the charges against Ms. Campbell and rule on an indictment on felony charges. In the meantime, she said, the DA’s office is working with homicide investigators to determine the reasons for Thursday’s event.
Ms. Campbell faces 25 years to life in prison for each of the felony charges.
Last week’s tragedy concluded in Montauk but had begun to unfold sometime after 1 p.m. on Thursday far to the west.
Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart explained at a press conference on Friday that Ms. Campbell’s mother, Vanessa McQueen, had called 911 at about 2:30 p.m. on Thursday. She told public safety dispatchers that her daughter, who was still on another phone line at the time, was hysterical and threatening to kill herself and her children.
In fact, Ms. McQueen would later tell police, Ms. Campbell had told her mother that the twin girls were already dead and that she was on the way to a beach to kill herself.
“Tenia was hysterical crying, she kept saying she was sorry but she didn’t want to live anymore,” Ms. McQueen said in a written statement to Suffolk County Police Department homicide detectives on Thursday evening. “I was trying to calm her down, but she was yelling and crying and saying she couldn’t live anymore and that she was going to kill herself and her babies.
“She said they are already dead, I killed them with my bare hands,” Ms. McQueen recalled in her statement.
Police have not said officially when or where the children are actually believed to have died.
Ms. McQueen gave dispatchers her daughter’s phone number and, during what Ms. Hart described as “a chaotic time,” they were able to initiate a three-way conversation between Ms. Campbell, Ms. McQueen and emergency personnel.
They were also able to use the number to get a fix on the location of Ms. Campbell’s phone through her cellular service provider, Ms. Hart explained at Thursday’s press conference at Suffolk County Police Department headquarters in Yaphank.
More than an hour into the phone conversation, Ms. McQueen recalled, her daughter grew quiet and scared. Ms. Campbell and her children had visited her at her Mastic Beach home nearly daily, she told police.
“She started asking me if I was coming to get her,” Ms. McQueen said. Ms. Campbell told her she was in Montauk but didn’t know exactly where.
By that point, East Hampton Town Police officers were approaching on Montauk Highway.
When police pulled up to the park entrance, they found Ms. Campbell in the street between them and the minivan, screaming at them to shoot her. Commissioner Hart said that the officer “safely” took her into custody.
East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo said he was proud of how his officers handled the disturbing scene.
“This is a horrible tragedy, and our officers handled themselves extremely professionally in the face of the most difficult of circumstances,” he said on Monday.
“This is a tough day,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said at Friday’s press conference in Yaphank. “What happened yesterday is incomprehensible to us. As a father of three young kids, it’s unimaginable and beyond tragic.”
Ms. McQueen told police that her daughter had been acting increasingly irrational and angry in the days leading up to Thursday’s tragic events and had an especially “difficult” week. She is facing eviction by her landlord, according to court records, and was due in court on July 10 for a hearing on the matter.
Police have said that the father of the deceased twins was estranged from the family and had “no relationship” with the mother.
Ms. McQueen said that Ms. Campbell had a long history of mental illness, had suffered from depression and anxiety her whole life, and had been diagnosed as bipolar when she was a teenager.
Ms. Hart said that police were not aware, as of Friday morning, of any clinical history of mental illness.
“I tried hard to help my daughter Tenia,” Ms. McQueen told police. “I love her so much, but she has a mental disorder and there was just no talking to her today.”
The Suffolk County Division of Emergency Medical Services provided counseling to first responders traumatized by the recent incidents in Montauk through its Critical Incident Stress Management program.
Town officials nodded to the emotional and psychological toll that such events can take on first responders and offered thanks and heartfelt empathy to those members of the community who had been called to the scenes.
“I want to express our gratitude to the men and women of the East Hampton Town Police Department and emergency services and fire department,” Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez said, choking back tears. “They have faced two horrendous tragedies in Montauk and it’s got to be quite jarring to show up at these sites. A lot of our police officers are fathers and mothers and, having known someone who showed up there, it’s rough.”
“We do owe them a great debt of gratitude and we feel for them when they have to respond to events like that,” echoed Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc.
Staff writers Elizabeth Vespe and Greg Wehner contributed to this story.