Investigators didn't buy it when a woman said her two young sons drowned after her car plunged into a river. She ultimately confessed to killing the toddlers, they say — not by dumping them in the water but by suffocating them earlier with her own hands.
Broke, jobless and berated by her mother for her failings, Shaquan Duley killed the boys, ages 2 years and 18 months, then strapped their bodies into their car seats before rolling the vehicle into the North Edisto River in a desperate cover-up attempt, authorities said Tuesday.
"She truly felt, 'If I don't have these toddlers, I can be free,'" Orangeburg County Sheriff Larry Williams said at a news conference. "I think she was fed up with her mother telling her she couldn't take care of the children, or she wasn't taking care of the children and just wanted to be free."
Coroner Samuetta Marshall said Tuesday the older boy had bruises that suggested he had been in a struggle.
Monday's tragic scene of a car being pulled out of the water with children's bodies inside was eerily reminiscent of the 1994 case of another South Carolina mother, Susan Smith, who is serving life in prison for killing her young sons by rolling her car into a lake in the northwest part of the state.
Duley, 29, was charged with murder Tuesday and was to be arraigned Wednesday. Authorities were not sure if she had an attorney.
She lived with her sons, a 5-year-old daughter and her mother in a rented home along a street filled with boarded-up, abandoned houses in Orangeburg, about 35 miles south of Columbia, South Carolina's capital. Out of work and estranged from the children's father, Duley relied on her mother to support her and her children, Williams said.
The sheriff said Duley told investigators her mother constantly harangued her about her failures as a mother and inability to provide for her family financially.
Leaving her daughter at the house after a night of arguing with her mother Sunday, Duley strapped 2-year-old Devean C. Duley and 18-month-old Ja'van T. Duley into their car seats and drove the boys to an Orangeburg motel several miles from where she lived.
It was there, in a corner room tucked at the back of the rundown, one-story motel complex, that Duley suffocated the boys with her hands late that night, Williams said. On Tuesday, red evidence tape still sealed the door to that room shut.
Distraught and not knowing what to do, Duley strapped the boys into their car seats and drove to a boat ramp some 10 miles away, investigators said. They said Duley rolled her car into the water, watching as it sank into the slow-moving current, then took off on foot.
Without a cell phone, Duley walked some distance down a country road, flagging down a passing motorist to call the Highway Patrol at around 6:15 a.m. Monday. Later that morning, authorities pulled the car from the water with Ja'van and Devean still strapped into their car seats.
Duley was initially charged only with leaving the scene of an accident, but Williams said deputies knew there was more to the story than she was telling. There were no skid marks on the roads leading to the water, and no obvious signs of a crash.
"We felt that the story she was telling us wasn't factual," Williams said.
Williams said Duley eventually admitted to a female deputy after hours of questioning that she killed the boys, citing the pressures of being a parent and the pressure she felt from her own mother. He said Duley expressed little remorse about the deaths.
"I think that the opportunity presented itself and she reacted to whatever condition presented itself for her to get rid of the children," Williams said.
Duley's mother declined to speak with reporters camped outside her home Tuesday. A woman who would not identify herself came outside and asked reporters to leave, saying, "We are grieving right now. We need our privacy."
No one answered the door at the family's home late Tuesday afternoon. A bouquet of white flowers and ribbons was tied to a railing near the front door.
The state agency responsible for child welfare in South Carolina said it has had no involvement with Duley. Williams said the 5-year-old girl is now staying with Duley's mother.
The boys' deaths stunned another young single mother who lived near the struggling family.
"I can never imagine it getting that bad to where you just feel that that's the end of it," said Shannon Stamos, 22, who has two children about the same ages as Duley's sons. "There are so many other families that are willing to take on kids nowadays ... for somebody that feels they need freedom, or whatever the case may be."
In the 1994 case, Smith left her 3-year-old and 14-month-old sons strapped in their car seats as she rolled her car into a lake in Union County. Smith, who is white, initially claimed a black man had carjacked her and drove off with the children.
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